Lebanese Women on the Front Lines of the Trade Union Struggle

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A woman fixes a tire in car service shop in Beirut, on 8 March 2012. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Faten Elhajj

Published Thursday, March 8, 2012

Warda Boutros Ibrahim. It is difficult for students of the labor movement in Lebanon to ignore the name of this woman. Her specter is present in all union literature.

Historian of the trade union movement in Lebanon, Jacques Couland, mentions her in the course of telling the story of the “workers” bloody strike at the “Regie [tobacco] Company” in 1946.

The company management had decided to lay off 24 workers and requested the support of a police force to break up a protest that had lasted for two weeks and reached its peak on June 27.

At noon that day, female workers threw themselves on the ground, putting their bodies in front of a truck that had entered company premises in the Furn el-Shubak neighborhood of Beirut.

At this point, orders were given to fire. As a result, Ibrahim was martyred, 29 of her colleagues were injured, and the truck was able to get through.

In the details recounted by unionist and professor Mary al-Dibs, “some workers that day backed down [and] Warda yelled at them to return to their positions and stay put. Suddenly, a policeman stepped forward, drew his gun at Warda’s chest, and fired.”

And so Ibrahim fell as the first known martyr of the working class at the hands of a Lebanese policeman.

But her martyrdom did not go in vain. Following her death, workers were able to force the passage of a labor law.

Today, women’s contribution to the labor movement is progressing slowly. There hasn’t been much change in the results of a field study by al-Dibs in 2003 which detailed the conditions of working women and female employees and their role in union decision-making.

The study reveals that some unions agreed to allow women to assume leadership positions in their ranks.
Other unions put “gender” directives in their programs without allowing women to participate in decision-making.

This reality however does not obscure the rich experiences of female unionists nor the painful ones as was the experience of Siham Kaouk, a Central Bank employee.

After the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), Kaouk ran in her bank employees’ union elections, relying on her political and trade union background in working with the rank and file.

She was dreaming big after three years of preparing for the elections. Kaouk wanted to form a democratic organization to advance union activities.

She managed with three of her “activist” colleagues in an electrifying election to break through the sectarian rules of the game and reach the union council.

Kaouk, however, soon realized that her victory was limited, as she found herself all alone among 11 members when she decided to run for union president. It was not because she’s a woman, but rather because she did not use her sectarian connections to advance her position in the union.

In the garment workers union, Laila Wardani gained 20 years of experience before her boss discovered that she was a professional unionist when he fired her about a decade ago after she took a vacation.

That day Laila felt protected, strong, and a person to be reckoned with because she was a union member.

It is interesting to note what she says about the key to success in this field: “I know my rights well, I choose the right time to defend them, and I am diplomatic – I don’t incite and I don’t stand behind a barricade.”

Shahnaz al-Zein has a different story. The woman who today occupies the position of Executive Board Member of the Federation of Print and Media worked at the National Trade Unions Federation as an administrative employee for about 15 years.

She got to know some of the most important symbols of the labor movement like Elias al-Bawary, Elias al-Haber, Hasib Abdel Jawad, Adib Bou Habib, and Nicolas al-Lahham, as well as women activists like Widad Shakhtoura and Linda Mattar.

Al-Zein says she participated in all union activities to defend the rights of workers. She did not hide her frustration in the late 1990s with the decline of secular political parties at the end of the war.

During that period, she met Ghassan Salibi, an international expert in union training and the Regional Coordinator of the International Union of Public Service Workers.

“We worked together to improve the ability of our unions to achieve their goals and we put together a blueprint for the development of women’s participation by having the union require all affiliated syndicates to represent women equally with men and to form women’s committees and so on,” she says.

As for Bahia Baalbaki, her involvement in the Teachers’ Association of Public Secondary Education was a natural progression from her student activism in the College of Education and the activism of the 1970s, as she put it.

Today she serves as Secretary of Educational Affairs in an association to whose administrative body she was elected six times. She also headed the Beirut office more than once.

Baalabaki believes there is no difference between men and women when it comes to democratic representation. A union leader needs to master the skill of communicating with the base, be knowledgeable about the details of issues affecting the people they represent, and have the ability to follow-up on these issues and explain them.

She vouches that she never relied on her sect or a political party. Everything she accomplished was through her own personal effort and with the help of her husband. Union activity after all is voluntary. It is demanding, time consuming, and does take into account familial commitments, especially in terms of the timing of meetings.

She is proud that she contributed, through the association, to amending the law to improve equality between female and male employees in terms of the benefits offered to government employees.

The same leadership skills that Baalbaki talked about made Claire Zablit head a union that she joined by accident. The current president of the Order of Nurses did not go through an electoral battle. She had the consensus of all her colleagues to take up the position.

Zablit however had been elected to more than one leadership position. She was the delegate of her class in college and was appointed Dean of the College of Nursing at St. Joseph University.

She declares that she has a passion for working on legal matters and improving nurses’ working conditions. She remembers that people were up in arms when a man was elected as the first president of a union whose members are 80 percent female.

Today however she seems happy with women’s representation in the union. The president and eight out of 12 council members are women.

Zablit praises the efficacy of female union members and their commitment to attend meetings, emphasizing that she does not vote for a woman simply because she’s a woman.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


nicely written ...... love it!

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