Charbel Nahas to Lebanon’s Workers: Reclaim Unions

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There is no doubt that people are polarized and are tied to leaders that they follow to a certain degree. This is where unions become important. (Photo: Alia Haju)

By: Hassan Chakrani, Mouhamad Wehbe

Published Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Former Minister of Labor Charbel Nahas is optimistic despite all the obstacles facing the labor movement in Lebanon. He insists that the first step in overcoming these obstacles is the removal of the union leadership to open the way for real change in the lives of Lebanese workers.

Al-Akhbar: On 1 May 2012, what do you think are the priorities for workers in Lebanon?

Charbel Nahas (CN): The foremost priority for workers should be removing the leadership of the General Confederation of Workers in Lebanon (CGTL). This is quite possible and there are several ways to achieve it.

One, Lebanon should join UN Convention No. 87 of 1948 on freedom of association and protection of the right to organize. This will liberate union action from administrative restrictions and abolish old permits.

The convention will also allow the creation of unions in the public sector, where they can play a very influential role, similar to that of judges’ unions, which play an influential and substantial role in developed countries.

I sent a bill to ratify the convention to the president and copied it to the Cabinet where it awaits a decision to be sent to parliament for approval.

The good thing is that the text is part of an international convention. This will not leave room for the parliament to try to outsmart the text to remove something substantial such as the clause allowing public employees to unionize.

We should not forget that the latest decree to raise salaries has not been applied yet for state employees. They need to demand their rights while the experience of delays in paying the balance of wage adjustment from 1998 until 2010 is still fresh in their minds.

Therefore, one of the foremost priorities today is restarting union action through liberating the CGTL from its occupiers or creating new frameworks for unions to carry out their expected role. This can also mean the creation of a new workers' federation.

The second priority would be to adopt direct action inside some sectors where it is possible. For example, there should be strong efforts to restore collective bargaining which was eliminated in Lebanon.

The only remaining collective contract is that of bank workers who are made up of about 25,000 employees (about 75,000 people if we count families and dependents). They currently face an attempt by the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) to get rid of collective bargaining.

The ABL exploited the short period between the signing of the minimum wage decree and its publication to suspend the majority of rights set forth in the contract and connected to wage correction.

Bank employees should not lose their collective contracts like what happened with Middle East Airlines (MEA), Trans Mediterranean Airlines (TMA), and the fuel commerce sector. Looking closely into what happened to the MEA pilots, we see that they were first blackmailed, then they lost their benefits…

These unions represent influential [social] segments that can have an impact. Therefore it is possible to expect that they will defend their rights as one block. They can set the foundations for a new union movement that also involves workers in audio-visual media organizations who face numerous risks.

This was clear in the sacking of hundreds of workers from Future News and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC).

It is no joking matter. When 400 workers are fired in Lebanon, it is like firing 30,000 in the US. If such a thing happened in the West, it would have had serious repercussions and might lead to toppling governments.

Third, there is a chance to push for comprehensive health insurance for all Lebanese residents, funded by taxes on real estate and financial speculation.

We should take advantage of the situation of the health sector. The hospitals refuse to admit patients under the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). It is a tragedy and all [political] camps in the country should bear responsibility.

These are all fundamental battles and there are others on different fronts, but there is only one way to win them. The workers should head to the CGTL headquarters and occupy it, to change it back into a true representative of the weaker social segments.

The current treacherous leadership of the CGTL cannot stay. It insisted on a minimum wage less than what the council of ministers decided! It insisted that universal health coverage does not get implemented! It is part of a certain political current and does not want to touch certain interests.

In addition, this leadership provided cover for the theft of 10 million Lebanese Liras (LL) (US$6,667) per worker on average from end of service indemnity for all NSSF registered waged workers.

They ignored half of the waged workers who do not receive what they call “transportation compensation,” the biggest continuous fraud since 1995. It was recently “legalized” by parliament.

Al-Akhbar: Who provides political cover for the CGTL leadership?

CN: Clearly, the leadership expanded when its interests became wider. Four years ago, it provided cover for the May 7 actions and the bloody events in Beirut. But recently, [former PM] Fouad Siniora fell in love with the president of the CGTL [Ghassan Ghosn].

In general, those who cover the CGTL are the people with the money who actually run the country through the sectarian leaders.

Al-Akhbar: Who do you actually depend on in your call? Who is your message targeting?

CN: I address the readers of Al-Akhbar [laughing]. But in reality, there are many people struggling for their demands. I already mentioned those in the banks, the media, pilots, and others. This is in addition to those in the education sector who proved they can struggle to achieve their rights.

Then there are the waged workers in certain establishments who did not receive the latest raise. Some major supermarkets in Lebanon have refused to give their workers the raise...

I do not think that despair has reached a level where there is complete silence. There is a change of scenery today. We saw this clearly in the midst of the wage correction battle lately. It is not a small issue that the grassroots of some parties and political movements are uneasy about the way that basic issues and needs were dealt with.

Al-Akhbar: Do you think there is any political camp that can work toward removing the CGTL leadership?

CN: There could be a different solution – simply creating a new federation. The ratification of the 1948 convention makes this legal. Logic dictates that protest is a legitimate behavior.

But I actually do not think that removing the leadership of the CGTL is difficult or impossible. All big events begin with small actions. This May Day action does not lack justification and the compelling reasons are obvious. The “scarecrows” normally used against such actions can do nothing about it.

Al-Akhbar: The social base getting hurt by the current policies – including keeping the CGTL in its current form – supports certain political powers. This base is aware of the problem but their political representation in another place completely.

What is the significant action that could lead those supporters toward change? What stops it from working for change and safeguarding its social security through the state and through clans and sects as is the case now?

CN: There is no doubt that people are polarized and are tied to leaders that they follow to a certain degree. This is where unions become important.

If we look at the other side of the equation, we see that those charged with managing the whole game are also tied to something. That is why the role of the elite is so important.

The aforementioned bank employees, media workers, teachers, professors, public workers, and judges have a great responsibility today. The confrontation is not easy but I am not pessimistic.

Work should focus on the key factor that will set everything in motion. In my opinion, demolishing the wall of deadlock and insolence – illustrated most recently by the issue of wage corrections – could begin very easily and each from their current political choice.

Al-Akhbar: You announced the start of a process to form a new political body. Will its priorities include working toward the creation of an effective union movement built on influential and powerful professionals? In other words, will its priorities include moving away from mass mobilization at this stage?

CN: No. This is not the issue because any political action is also a mass action. But when talking about “union action,” we can distinguish between elitist work and mass mobilization.

The elite, due to their circumstances, are people who have the ability to spend more time to diagnose events, connect different effects to their causes, and find alternative concepts. But the elite do not invent new things, they reflect people’s feelings and hardships.

The particular circumstances that the country is passing through today are no secret. Citizens sell their loyalties daily to get their most basic rights and needs, such as hospitalization.

In fact, what we are discussing today is based on two factors that lead to action from certain parts of the elite which would reach all segments.

First, the CGTL has done unprecedented things, from collusion to distorting state regulations. This audacity is clear to everyone and calls for a mobilization to change the situation.

Second, it is not a secret either that Syria’s withdrawal from managing business in Lebanon, since 2004, created a situation where the state is incapable of doing anything.

Added to these two factors, it is clear that the neoliberal wave that started in the 1980s is receding. IMF reports show where this wave broke. The World Bank says there is a need to improve social indicators and talks about inclusive development, taxing real estate speculation, and more social services. Why can’t we use this information as a “toolkit” for change?

Based on all of this, I call on elites in different fields – journalism, unions, the legal profession, the arts – to organize in order to break the wall of silence before us.

For example, the State Council approved decrees related to transportation compensation, education grants, and wage correction through lump sum amounts. When it saw that the Cabinet was wavering on the issue, there was an opening and people started to hear that there is a thing called the State Council.

The council’s judges repealed 32 decrees issued by several governments. This means that judges can play their fundamental role when allowed to do so.

We are not talking about the program of the political framework we started with but about opportunities for action and creating space for struggling toward change. This space is not limited to union work. It includes other means that are no less important. But it is not the time to talk about them on May Day.

Al-Akhbar: After your experience in the government and while preparing to be involved in a political movement that seeks change, what is your message to workers on their day?

CN: Today’s message is not only for the workers. There are the workers who get their salaries but there are also the young unemployed who cannot find an organized framework for their rights and work in a grey area.

There are the forgotten pensioners, given that we no longer live in a society where families have as many children as there are fingers on our hands, who can support their parents. Young people are emigrating and there is an increasing number of elderly who need care...

Workers issues are not limited to the narrow framework we see at most times.

Going back to my message, it is in three parts. First, we need to dispose of the group that controls an important forum, which is the unions. Nowhere in the world has a workers’ federations demanded a raise less than what was reached in negotiations with the government.

Never in the history of the world has a workers’ federation filed a complaint against the labor minister for attempting to use tax money for the health coverage of citizens!

Second, the daily tragedies and stress, whether in health, currency exchange shops, audiovisual media, and large corporations who do not declare their workers, should be an impetus for change.

As for the elite, it has to work on regaining the workers’ trust so they can advocate and work for [needed] change. The barrier here is fear and despair, but it can be broken in localized battles in different sectors and [town] squares.

Third, there is no need to be lenient toward the deadlocked Lebanese system. Let’s take the president’s performance, for example. He irrationally refuses to sign the spending order that could halt government spending.

Such an act should not be allowed, but it is material evidence, at the same time, that the regime’s gears are rusted and nobody can oil them. This is our chance to wear it down.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


"Nowhere in the world has a workers’ federations demanded a raise less than what was reached in negotiations with the government.

Never in the history of the world has a workers’ federation filed a complaint against the labor minister for attempting to use tax money for the health coverage of citizens!"

Lebanon: Always a country of firsts!

As a worker and a trade unionist (although i worked as a trade unionist in the West, but once a unionist, always a unionist), Charbel Nahas is blowing my mind. I never expected this discourse to happen here...brilliant! The man's got my vote... shame I can't vote, but if this is the path he's chosen to walk, i'm right there with him!

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