Bid Farewell to a Lebanese Union Impostor

Five other unions affiliated with the National Federation are expected to quit the CGTL in turn. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohammad Zbeeb

Published Friday, December 28, 2012

The General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) has a long and ignoble history of betraying the interests of the working class it claims to represent. Its current leadership has played a deliberate role in thwarting any serious challenge to the imbalance of power between workers and employers in Lebanon.

Ever since an alliance of warlords and big money assumed control of the Lebanese state under Syrian tutelage, the CGTL has become a key tool for taming society.

Action should have been taken years ago to dispense with this body since its role has long been clear: plundering assets, furthering the redistribution of wealth in favor of the of the rich, and tightening their hold on the economy by making it increasingly rentier in nature and dependent on foreign money.

Political groups and parties, trade unions, professional associations and individuals – whether they believe in class struggle or a modicum of social rights – should have exposed and denounced that role, and worked to build an alternative national trade union center independent of the powers-that-be.

That never happened, however. Hence the frosty reception which greeted the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP)’s recent agreement to the withdrawal of the National Federation of Workers Unions – over which the LCP has significant influence – from the CGTL.

The National Federation’s move seemed somewhat belated. There were many occasions in the past when it was seriously at odds with the confederation, but the LCP leadership always avoided taking action despite numerous calls on it to act to counter the systematic emasculation of the trade unions. This indecision, not to say collusion, helped provide cover for the treacherous behavior of the CGTL leadership, and spared it from being held accountable.

Thus, over the past two decades, the system has succeeded in making Lebanese workers contemptuous of the trade unions, willing to sell their political loyalty in exchange for menial jobs and no social benefits. One need only cite a 2011 World Bank report which estimated that only 29 percent of Lebanese workers earn formal regular wages, the remainder being either informally employed, self-employed, or unemployed .

Five other unions affiliated with the National Federation are expected to quit the CGTL in turn. This figure could rise to ten or more when allied unions and others disaffected with the CGTL leadership are taken into account.

This raises the question of why they did not stage a collective walkout, which would’ve been a far more effective prelude to building an alternative national trade union association, one genuinely committed to advancing workers’ causes and willing to campaign for Lebanon’s compliance with international conventions on trade union rights.

In reality, the preservation of the unity of the trade union movement in Lebanon has been used as a pretext for thwarting hopes of its revival. As a result, only 5 percent of eligible workers belong to trade unions, a modest, but misleading figure due to the fictitious nature of many of the unions and associations that have emerged since the 1980s.

The LCP colluded in that process, believing that it would have more of a say within the CGTL. But its professed commitment to the unity of the trade union movement increasingly turned into an indictment in recent years – especially when it passed up the opportunity presented by Charbel Nahas’ appointment as labor minister. He was left to face the treachery of the CGTL leadership alone, unaided by any alternative.

Prior to his resignation, Nahas had been expecting a major split within the CGTL after its leadership colluded with employers to agree to the historic capitulation termed the “Consensual Agreement.” This was clearly aimed at thwarting Nahas’ bid to “maintain and correct salaries” by restoring transportation allowances to wages – which seriously adjusted salaries to help compensate for the freeze that had been in effect since 1996 – and raising the minimum wage to 1 million pounds, or $667, per month.

These measures were intended to affect the structure of the Lebanese economy and labor market and reduce the influx of migrant workers. More importantly, the intention was to derail Nahas’ attempt to introduce the notion of the social wage, and to secure public funding for this and other schemes by taxing profits from real estate and financial speculation.

The failure of the National Federation, the bank workers’ union, and the trade unions’ coordinating committee to take a decisive stand in support of the first labor minister in Lebanon to be committed to the rights and interests of workers and the poor added to the general sense of dejection. It also whetted the appetite of the ruling powers for more gains.

Flushed with victory, they attempted to deny public employees their right to their first pay review in 14 years and prevent the establishment of any independent trade unions, such as the one at the Spinneys grocery chain in Lebanon.

In light of all this, it’s not enough for trade unions to announce they are quitting the CGTL. They must strive to make up for its betrayal of workers by devising a plan of action that puts all the necessary pieces in place to finish off the CGTL once and for all.

The task can’t wait, even for tactical reasons; for the CGTL is wary and has started fighting back by seeking to divide and defame its critics. So low has its leadership sunk that in a statement issued on 20 December 2012, it accused anyone who wants to establish an independent trade union of seeking to “atomize, dismember, and divide the trade unions and abandon the workers in order to serve the Zionist project calling for constructive chaos.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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