Strike gains momentum, Catholic schools set to close in solidarity

Teachers protest in front of the Central Bank in Beirut.

BEIRUT: An open-ended strike by civil servants and teachers picked up steam as it entered its second week Monday, with the country’s Catholic schools deciding to close Tuesday in solidarity with the protest.

The protesters gathered around the Central Bank’s headquarters in Beirut and other government departments to press the Cabinet to pass the controversial salary scale.

Demonstrators led by the Union Coordination Committee vowed to uphold the strike until the Cabinet endorses a wage hike that they insist should be paid in full as soon as Parliament ratifies it.

Riot police, who had initially prevented protesters from reaching the Central Bank, were out in force as nearly a thousand demonstrators gathered on Hamra Street.

The Internal Security Forces also deployed around the nearby ministries of interior, information and tourism, where similar rallies were held.

Full-time professors at the Lebanese University joined the strike for the first time Monday, following in the footsteps of private school teachers, who participated in Saturday’s demonstrations.

While less than a third of private schools in the capital closed their doors Monday, many in the north, east and south were shut. “You broke the fear barrier,” Nazih Jabawi, a member of the Secondary School Teachers Association told his colleagues.

Head of the Association of Private School Teachers Nehme Mahfoud had threatened that teachers would seal off the entrances to private schools starting from 6 a.m. to make sure none of them receive students. Mahfoud had also urged parents to refrain from sending their children to school.

The leadership of the Catholic schools did not explain why they decided to close, after resisting earlier pressure by the UCC to shut down all educational centers. Last week, Butros Azar, the secretary-general of Catholic schools said that educational institutions under his authority would remain open in spite of the actions by the UCC.

Private school teachers did not carry out the UCC’s threat Monday, though some blocked the entrance to only four schools north of Beirut – two in Jounieh and two in Jbeil. But Mahfoud reiterated threats to close all schools, including those that have so far failed to participate in the strike.

“The association will hold a meeting at 3 p.m. today to decide how to close the schools that did not shut today,” he said.

The Association of Private Educational Institutions, which represents school owners and administrative bodies, condemned what it described as Mahfoud’s “language of intimidation” and said it would hold classes as usual.

Unlike private schools teachers who were hesitant in their support of the UCC-led strike, public school teachers and state employees showed strong commitment, nearly paralyzing government departments across Lebanon.

While some civil servants reported for duty, they abstained from doing any work as their colleagues protested outside government departments.

“We supply the labor force to operate your factories, and we will not accept that our workshops close while your plants continue to operate,” Fadi Johnny, a member of the Vocational Education Association said in a speech addressed to the Economic Committees.

As they marched toward the Chamber of Commerce and Industry headquarters in Hamra, protesters shouted slogans accusing the Economic Committees, a body that represents the private sector, of seeking to maintain their high profit margins at the expense of the poor.

The Economic Committees had opposed the wage hike, saying it would fuel inflation and widen the budget deficit.

The group has piled pressure on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to delay the approval of the wage hike, which it says should be paid in installments once the government secures the necessary funds totaling nearly $1.2 billion annually.

Head of the Beirut and Mount Lebanon Chambers of Commerce and Industry Mohammad Choukeir urged the UCC to participate in dialogue with the Economic Committees to find a compromise solution.

“Striking while you are still receiving your salaries is better than protesting because you are not being paid,” Choukeir told protesters, warning that “paralyzing the country is better than facing bankruptcy.”

“How does the government plan to fund the wage hike?” he asked, highlighting that Lebanese banks, which hold a large fraction of Lebanon’s sovereign debt, are no longer willing to lend to the government to cover the widening budget deficit.

However, protesters insist that the government could fund the wage hike by increasing taxes on interest earned on bank deposits and profits made on real estate transactions.

“The government imposes a tax of 5 to 6 percent on real estate speculators, while teachers pay an income tax of 12 percent. Increase taxes on real estate profits and on the banking sector to a rate equal to the one imposed on productive sectors,” UCC head Hanna Gharib said at the rally in Beirut.

Demonstrations were also held outside the government serails in Zahle, east Lebanon, as well as Sidon and Tyre in the south, amid strict security measures.

Protesters gathered outside the Sidon branch of the Central Bank to form a massive sit-in in front of the Sidon Serail while a similar protest took place in front of the Tyre Serail. “We want a pay raise,” cried the crowds.

“The strike is not aimed against [government] institutions, but against the government’s starvation policy,” others shouted.

The picture was the same in Tripoli, where workers called on the government to refer the pay scale to Parliament for a swift approval.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 26, 2013, on page 1.




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