Well, as expected, Unions became part of the reactionary camps of the greedy capitalist businessmen. No wonder, the last 9 weeks we kept hearing whether 14th of March or their rivals won elections in this Union or that one. Now, and again, the General Labor Union decided to adopt an aggressive policy against the government to express their resentment of the Reform Plan organized by the Seniora. Actually, the meeting started after the 14th of March syndicates withdrew from the meeting. Currently, the same "demonstrations" we see at Down Town are taking place at the Ministry of Finance, while the Minster, Azur, went to Paris today in preparation for the Conference. Ironically, all the speakers are dwelling on the issue of increase of the Value Added Taxes, rather the entry of Lebanon into the World Trade Organization.
Real Danger These Days
The problem these days is that this tiny nation is so charged towards two reactionary camps, any non-political decision to take place, one camp would take automatically the "initiative" of adopting it and that would be catastrophic.
I can give you couple of examples which day to day activism is taking place. For example, last year witnessed the revival of anti-WTO coalitions, but some participating NGOs were arguing "Let us not attack 14th of March". The problem of the matter, the entry of Lebanon to the WTO has been the core goal of Rafiq Harriri, and his financial advisor & successor Seniora. While 14th of March and 8th of March dispute on political matters, Seniora for his economical plan had to be attacked. Remember, the WTO would corner our "politicians" when privatization takes place or when nice business deals take place between the global corporations and our "elites". Hence, whenever we wanted to initiate an action, we had to make sure to express our opinion that we are neither 14th of March, nor 8th of March.
The Second point were the demands of the Teachers' Union last year. When the teachers demonstrated for their rights, 8th of March transformed this demonstration into their parade to demonstrate their muscle; henceforth, the demands of the teachers simply faded away. What is worse, Minister Neyla Mou'awad, argued that the politicians should not interfere in the demands of the Labor Unions. She didn't explain why the 14th of March totally refuted the demands of the teachers, and worse, brought a nice charter from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) explaining why Seniora should pay the teachers less and less. The IMF is btw the international institution that is responsible in shaping a nation's (such a case Lebanon) economical/social/political policies in order that candidate nation attains membership in the World Trade Organization.
Real Job of the Unions
Marx and Engels argued that the competition for wages in this free market is what divides the workers to become a unified front. On the other hand, the Trade Unions’ role is to assist the workers to overcome this competitive drive and become unified against their real oppressors: the owners of the means of the production. The unions are the first step to form a unified front against those oppressors.
It was through the Unions the first two internationals were active extensively. To be exact, the Unions played a major role in the Paris Commune of 1871, organizing the first women’s activism through the Matchbox Union in 1883 (London), and of course organizing the first global solidarity movement on May 1st 1889 whereby the Red Flag rose from China to North America (+ Australia). Actually, all feminists should thank the Marxists for creating the space for activism. In any case, Unions always were the “Step Two” after forming the clandestine backbone of a Marxist Movement.
This exactly what happened in Lebanon and Syria (since by 1910 there was no Lebanon rather a Mt. Lebanon). Not to sound nationalist, but the comrades Najm and Yazbeck toured not only in Lebanon but also Egypt and other Arab nations to organize Trade Unions. Trade Unions become the open sphere of class struggle for the Marxist Party. In Lebanon, these co-founders of the Communist Party in Lebanon and Syria (along with the merger when the comrades from Armenia escaped the terrible Ottoman genocide), through their Trade Union (the Armenians were organized in a Rosa Luxemburg manner: The Spartacus League) organized the first demonstration in the history of “Modern Lebanon” back in 1925. This demonstration gathered 7000 comrades demanding the end of French Imperialism and a unified front against the elites.
The first Union (not sure on the date though) were the Tobacco Union in Bekfaya (supposed to be between 1920-1923), which was considered the first red cell in Lebanon. The Communist Unions quickly expanded through out the 1920s despite the fact the French Mandate officials were hunting them down and the Unions were underground. The fact that this Movement was secular and literally covered all sects in Lebanon was an alarming fact to the French since they were gambling on the issue “Divide and Conquer” between the Christians (headed by the Maronites then) and the Muslims (headed then by the Sunni). Let me be clear, no secular party is welcomed. The only time a secular party is welcomed when it can no longer take the lead on a grass-root level. The problem with Lebanon is immense in that nature, sectarianism demolishes the reality of the situation: class-struggle. The leaders (aka – defenders of the Sects) dominate in that manner their sects to keep the people divided and in the leaders themselves strengthened. Mark my word, none would hesitate to ask foreign help and financing to preserve their situation.
Trade Unions of the Lebanese Communist Party and eventually the Order for Communist Work would flourish, but again not to the extent of being pioneers. The Trade Unions also suffered what most of the “Communist” Unions through out the world did: Stalinism. The degeneration of the revolutionary aspect between 1936 (ever since Arab Stalinist Khaled Bikdash returned from the USSR) – and 1960s infiltrated the Trade Unions and became a pawn to a Stalinist Lebanese Communist Party. The OCW at least got stuck within Arab Nationalism and almost in Maoism (agricultural Stalinism), but preserved the revolutionary side. Till the Civil War of 1975 and the preparation to war, the breaking chance was clear from Kamal Junblatt and his allies to impose a Secular Socialist agenda (specially gambling on the tense relations between the PLO and the “Christian Maronite Leaders”; that is a long topic on its own).
I have to mention something interesting, parallel unions were ignited by the Right-wingers to counter the radical trade unions. Their role, however, was to also divide the Proletariat in Lebanon. For example, the Engineers’ General Union evolved to become strictly for the Engineers with a massive monopoly. The engineers are forced to sign into the General Union of the Engineers, and they have to pay massive fees as well. If an engineer fails to do so, that engineer would not find work in Lebanon. The same applies to lawyers and others.
Actually prior to the current crisis of stalemate, 14th of March and 8th of March were competing on that level. The annihilation of the Unions’ real job started with the blunders of the Stalinist leadership of the Lebanese Communist Party in Post-War Lebanon. AMAL, Phalange, Lebanese Forces, Syrian Social Nationalist Party (ideologically even they imposed the role of Unions) and others took over. All parties entered the Unions, sadly none of them achieve what the unions were founded to be: Unifying the Proletariat. The problem with Stalinist Unions that they isolated the role of the Unions to simply Lebanon and disregarded the internationalist factor within revolutionary Marxist trade unions. Worse, because the USSR self-destructed, those unions were easy prey to the Syrian Baathi dominion of strategy keeping Lebanon divided. Now, the General Union/Syndicate declared a general strike (after 14th of March withdrew) to simply oppose VAT. The problem is not the VAT, but the long-run class inequality which will rise because of privatization, entrance to the WTO, and of course, unemployment increase due to Labor laws of the WTO, and plenty plenty others.
The current Syndicates are not workers’ unions, they are clubs that are immersed in safeguarding those sect-defenders’ interests and of course for them: there is no class struggle.