Spinneys Workers’ Fight is Our Fight

The management has exercised various forms of pressure on members of the founding committee. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Mohammad Zbeeb

Published Monday, November 12, 2012

Many Lebanese view the Spinneys workers’ fight as a struggle to demand dignity at a time when most people are sinking into despair. The workers at this supermarket chain believe their rights have to be wrested back from the management.

Spinneys workers established a trade union to fight for these rights. At first, their demands centered on the implementation of an act passed by the cabinet last February requiring salaries to be corrected. However, many who joined the union, and particularly its leadership, paid a high price for their audacity in demanding the company comply with the law.

The leader of the union’s founding committee Milad Barakat, committee member Elie Abi Hanna, and union activist Samir Tawq, were all fired. The union secretary Mukhayber Habashi was physically assaulted. Many were subdued through direct threats that they would lose their jobs. The influence of local leadership was also employed to spread fear among the workers, with threats that these leaders would withdraw their protection and security.

Some union activists were led to their respective political party offices and informed that orders from above are for them not to get involved in the union. Current and past members of parliament called in their “flock” to reproach them for their ingratitude when they had secured them jobs.

The Spinneys management carried out retaliatory actions, transferring several people from their place of work to other branches, far away from their homes. They gave them jobs which did not allow any contact with other workers at the company. They even forced 700 workers to sign a statement to the Ministry of Labor affirming their rejection of the new union and attesting to the company’s generosity.

The management has exercised various forms of pressure on members of the founding committee. It forced several of them into resigning and dismissing their lawyers in the run up to the first union council elections on 18 November.

Terror is running through the aisles of the Spinneys supermarkets, and this has compelled the Friends of the Workers’ Committee to act. They have called for a sit-in to express solidarity with the Spinneys workers at 5 pm Monday outside the Achrafieh branch.

All this is well-known, but now the management has decided to ratchet up their offensive by pitting the workers against each other. Since Friday, they have held meetings in some branches (Dbayeh, Achrafieh, Jnah, and Hazmiyeh) to spread rumors and incite hostility against the union. Their justification is that allowing the union to be active might lead the largest shareholder (the Emirati Abraj company) to close down all the branches in Lebanon and fire everyone. Workers were then called on to carry out counter offensives against the union in order to guarantee their own job security.

The managers of these branches and some of their aides have asked all workers to gather at the Achrafieh branch this afternoon. Holidays have been suspended and work rescheduled to allow the highest number of people to attend. Some dared to object to the management’s plan, but their policy of intimidation had already succeeded; many believed that they had to attend or else face the wrath of the company.

This new menacing approach, together with the violations and attacks that preceded it, puts this confrontation outside the realm of ordinary work conflicts. They even take it beyond the Spinneys company itself. This is a public confrontation that implicates several parties. The state, including its administration, apparatuses, and constitutional agencies, has to act immediately to prevent this conflict from escalating. They have to enforce the constitution and the laws which protect the freedom to engage in union activity and prevent abuse. Civil society organizations and activists seeking social and political change have to stand up forcefully to this development because it has implications on more than one level.

There is a strong belief that change for the better in Lebanon cannot be achieved without the formation of political groups who believe in the state, democracy, and freedoms. But it is more important that they should believe in justice and human dignity. The groups most able to effect change are political parties and unions, in both the public and private sectors. They are the two main mechanisms for influencing public affairs through elections and attempting to rebalance society, which is under constant threat from an organized and powerful group working to preserve their own interests and the status quo. This includes the sectarian quotas and feudal fiefdoms that are built into the state and the economy.

Defending the attempt to set up the Spinneys Workers Union has become an urgent mission. The workers’ endeavors are under threat of failure because of the policy of “fabricating anxiety,” a genuine policy which pervades Lebanese society. The management, just like any other power, would not succeed if the workers did not feel that its power and influence are way beyond their own.

A minority still resists, but the majority are already subjugated. They take up positions as spectators or scurry to their “leaders” to pawn their loyalty in exchange for protection. This happens in Lebanon every time, and this is what prevents change through democratic means. The sit-in this afternoon is not just about solidarity with the Spinneys workers, it is a declaration to have joined the fight.

Mohammad Zbeeb is the Economy editor at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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