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Social crisis and the trade unions

Wednesday 27 August 2008, by Ghassan Ghosn , Beatriz Martínez , Francesco Volpicella

On May 2008, the Lebanese General Workers Union (CGTL) called for a strike to demand better salaries from the pro-Western Siniora government. This mobilisation ultimately became a power display by the Hizballah-led government opposition, demanding the executive, which it considered to be illegitimate, to cancel two controversial decisions and start negotiate a new national pact. After a whole week of clashes, Lebanese leaders signed the Doha agreements, putting thus an end to 18 months of institutional paralysis. An interview with Ghassan Ghosn, the President of the Lebanese General Workers Union (CGTL) on the May 2008 crisis in Lebanon.

Beatriz Martínez y Francesco Volpicella : On May 7 there was a call by the Lebanese General Workers Union (CGTL) for a national strike, which was eventually cancelled that same day in the morning, after the opposition supporters started taking to the streets. Some commentators are now saying that the opposition has used the trade unions for its own political purposes. Could you comment on that?

Ghassan Ghosn: There are two important things to make clear right away. The first one is that we started negotiating with the government about the minimum wage and an increase in salaries, and about the high prices in the cost of living – especially in the context of ever rising petrol and grain prices – a long time ago. The second one is that there is no control whatsoever in the country. The prime minister, the minister of Economy and all the rest share a liberal point of view and believe in the laissez faire laissez passer dogma. This means that they let all prices be determined by competition in the market. In practice, this means that main consumer needs, from flour to medicines, depend on a handful of companies that are always growing stronger and monopolising the market through trusts. The difference in the price of all brands of milk, for example, is less than 5 per cent.

We’ve had 12 years of frozen salaries, since 1996, and social benefits are going backwards. In these circumstances, which go beyond the political situation that causes tensions within the country, the CGTL must act and respond to people’s needs. So we called on the government for a discussion on three main points: minimum salary increase, prices control and some other measures related to social and economic dimensions.

We held several meetings with the government, the minister of Labour, and the minister of Economy and Finance. The employers’ organisation also took part in these negotiations. But we didn’t reach an understanding concerning the high cost of living and the minimum wage increase, which was set at 300.000 Lebanese pounds (around 200 US dollars). We demanded the minimum salary to be raised to one million Lebanese pounds.

This demand is based on a study made by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and CGTL experts. According to the data provided by the study, the cost of living has gradually been increasing up to 60 per cent in the period 1996-2007. According to another study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the minimum wage for a family should not be less than a million Lebanese pounds.

How did the government react to those demands?

After the first round of negotiations, the government only offered to raise the guaranteed minimum interprofessional wage up to 500.000 pounds without raising the salaries. That’s when our voice grew higher, and we called for a general strike on 7 May.

We started preparing the strike throughout all sectors, private companies, and public services institutions with the help of all the CGTL members, which comprise 43 trade unions from all over the country. We organised conferences and meetings to prepare for the strike and for a march in Beirut.

So why did the government announce those two stupid decrees on the night before the strike? By declaring their intention to destitute Mr Shuqayr as head of the airport security and to dismantle Hizballah’s communication network, they just put oil on the fire, and made the country split apart, divided between the opposition and the government.

There is no doubt at all that ours was a legitimate strike. Everyone in the country, including majority member Walid Jumblatt, agreed on the fairness of our demands.

So the call for the strike was independent from the opposition?

Yes, but of course, after the government took those two decisions, everyone followed the CGTL call for the strike. It’s not true that the opposition asked the CGTL to organise the strike. It was the two government decrees that encouraged the opposition to follow us. The government could have waited for one or two days. Why on that very same day? Why do you put the country on a general strike and then on fire?

If the government hadn’t taken these two decisions, maybe the opposition would not have responded to our call. Let’s not forget that the whole story began on 8 May, when Nasrallah called for civil disobedience. He said it very clearly. He was not waiting for the CGTL to make his move. The government took an action and the opposition answered as it deemed necessary.

Let’s be frank. Nasrallah and the opposition can really make it without us. If Nasrallah called for a strike, he could mobilise a million people. If the CGTL calls for a strike, we might mobilise some thousands.

So what happened to your demands? Where are they at the moment?

We must take matters according to their priority. We were close to civil war these days. But the CGTL doesn’t have weapons; we only engage in peaceful activities and marches. This means that when the conflict between the government and the opposition became armed, we had no role to play in it. If there’s fire, you cannot fight because the bullets’ voice is higher than your demands.

Now that the Arab League has come into play and is trying to find a political solution to the conflict, the CGTL is getting ready and waiting for a new government and a new political view. Because all our governments since 1996 have adopted policies according to the neo-liberal dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

This means that we have been in conflict not only with the current but also with previous governments, especially concerning their backward steps on social issues. However, we are now hoping that the Doha meeting is going to bring a political understanding between the two conflicting parties. If everything goes right – and we cross our fingers –, our field of action will be more flexible and more fruitful, both for negotiations and to push these rights to be accomplished.

So what specific steps are you planning to take in the near future as a trade union?

Our political leaders are now in Doha and they will probably spend there some days. If there’s a new government, as soon as they declare it, our demands will be ready to be on the political discussions, especially regarding the minimum wage and a different perspective on the economic model. Otherwise, we are not going to start crying. We’ll continue our struggle for the rights of workers.

What about the opposition? Do you think they could potentially offer a more progressive paradigm?

The opposition agenda is not anti-neoliberal, but it’s definitely better than the one this government is offering, which is extremely neo-liberal. There’s a study by the UNDP under the title Poverty, Growth and Inequality in Lebanon. After it was published, the prime minister said that we should keep it in English and not distribute it too widely.

According to this study, the situation in Lebanon is appalling. Around 50 per cent of our youth is working abroad, and 28 per cent of the Lebanese population is living under the line of poverty. The number of people looking for food in the garbage is rising to 8 per cent. The bottom low-income 20 per cent of the population consumes only 7 per cent of all consumption in the country, while the richest 20 per cent consumes 43 per cent.

This is all the result of a decline in political and economic policies fostered by this group that has been in power for a long time. While the Syrians were here, there was an understanding between the late prime minister Rafik Hariri and his group to keep the economy under their influence, and leave foreign affairs and political issues to the Syrians and other groups. So Hariri was in charge of arranging the portfolio on all economic issues, while the others were in charge of the rest, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict and other regional crisis.

Meanwhile, the economy in Lebanon has been hugely neglected, especially regarding productive sectors. In most Arabic countries, you still find at least some agriculture, something completely ignored in our country. The industrial sector, especially for small and mini enterprises, should also be more dynamic. The interest so far has only been on the banking and the land trade sectors. So when there is a world crisis and you need to import everything – even what could just grow in your land, like flowers – you have a big problem.

The new government should therefore look into things from a different perspective, and learn the lessons from the past to completely re-arrange the country. In this context, the CGTL will conduct its own struggle.

Lebanon was never in the socialist club, it has always followed a liberal trend, but it historically was more moderate than the current aggressive one. The state is now completely ignoring social affairs. Once I got a visit from World Bank representatives and they told me they agreed with the CGLT point of view, but that our government held another position. Do you understand? The Lebanese government is on the right of the World Bank!

But our objective for the next few weeks is to be there ready for the moment when there’s a new government or president, and everything is re-balanced again.

Taking into account the huge debt of the country and the agenda imposed by the Paris III Conference, do you think a new government will have more space for manoeuvre than the current one?

The main issue here is that the country should try to reduce its debt without placing the biggest burden on the middle and poorest classes. The big debts should be re-arranged in such a way that everybody pays its share of it on a different scale. Not everyone can pay what the Hariris or the big banks can pay. That’s why we always advocate for fair taxes, especially regarding direct taxes, since indirect taxes affect everyone. I don’t understand why rich people don’t pay taxes in Lebanon. And those that do, keep two accounting books― one for them and one for the Ministry of Finance. We should definitely have a criminal law to apply in cases of tax evasion fraud, just like in Europe and in the United States.

So now we should concentrate on building a country, especially after the last events we have seen. This has been a step towards civil war, and politicians should open up their eyes to the reality. In this context, reducing social problems should be a priority, since they are one of the biggest threats to civilian peace.

Ghassan Ghosn, a former worker of the TransMediterranean Airlines, has been the president of the Lebanese General Workers Union since 2001.

The Lebanese General Workers Union (CGTL) was founded in 1957 and is currently made up of 43 trade unions representing all Lebanese sectors and regions. According to its own data, around two thirds of all workers in Lebanon are affiliated to the CGTL. The General Confederation is also a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), and keeps close links with other trade unions such as the Italian CGIL.

Beatriz Martínez is a translator with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. Francesco Volpicella works with Un ponte per....