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Gharib exhausted but ready to soldier on to victory over wage scale

Gharib: “Union work is patriotic.”

BEIRUT: Wednesday was yet another hectic day for Hanna Gharib, the head of the Union Coordination Committee. After leading a protest at the car registration department in Dikwaneh, he moved to the headquarters of the Secondary Teachers Association where he prepared for a planned news conference later in the day.

Addressing his colleagues at the news conference, Gharib urged them to participate in a protest the group was planning to stage Thursday near the presidential palace in Baabda where the Cabinet will convene.

Then came side chats and meetings that usually drag on until late-night hours to discuss the logistical preparations for the demonstration.

Gharib’s days have been busy since the UCC began an open-ended strike on Feb. 19 to pressure the government into referring to Parliament a long-awaited wage raise for the public sector.

Almost every day, teachers and public sector employees stage demonstrations near government buildings across Lebanon. The government argues that it is studying means to finance the salary raise before referring it to the legislature.

“Every day in the morning, we start by staging protests, then we meet to put the schedule for the next day, write down statements and contact all groups in the UCC,” Gharib tells The Daily Star at the headquarters of the Secondary Teachers Association.

“It is exhausting to work for 18 hours. ... We are making sacrifices. But you forget all these sacrifices when you plant happiness and hope in the souls of people, when you win the battle, you feel extreme happiness,” adds Gharib in a hoarse voice.

The UCC’s strike has featured a series of one-day strikes and protests since the start of the academic year.

Gharib is a chemistry teacher at both a public and private school in Beirut. But he argues that teaching is much easier than leading what is becoming the most prominent labor movement in the country.

“I teach my students without being worried because I am confident of the result,” Gharib says. “But you are always worried when you serve people in this standoff [with the government]. Since the outcome is unknown, you are afraid that you will lose, you are responsible for the dignity of people,” Gharib adds. “We are confronting the authority now, we will either emerge as winners or losers.”

Hailing from the Akkar village of Rahbeh, Gharib received his education at public schools in his village and in Halba, also a town in Akkar. He then joined the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Education in Beirut to earn a degree in chemistry. “I am proud that I studied at a public school. ... I moved to Beirut in 1974 when the labor movement was at its peak.”

But Gharib laments that he had to send his son and daughter to private schools, as he argues that the standard of education at public schools has dropped sharply over the past years, putting blame on the government.

“I received my education at a public school when public schools provided a quality of education better than private schools,” he says. “When I went to public school, the budget of the Education Ministry comprised 22 percent of the government’s budget. Now it does not exceed 7 percent, although the number of teachers and students has increased.”

A member of the Lebanese Communist Party, Gharib participated in student movements in secondary school and at university.

“Union work is patriotic par excellence, you are defending your profession and its quality, you are providing a good quality of education ... for public schools,” says the 59-year-old.

“The Lebanese Communist Party is the father of labor movements in the country and I am one of the many union officials that emerged from this party,” he adds.

Touching on the preparations for the daily protests, Gharib notes the UCC does not notify the Interior Ministry about the location of the protests.

“We never contact the Interior Ministry, but we announce the locations of protests and the Internal Security Forces preserve security,” he says.

Gharib adds that teachers and public sector employees have enough awareness to prevent any security incident during protests.

“Everybody participating in these protests is eager to make them successful, peaceful and civilized,” he says.

Unlike many unions in Lebanon who are affiliated with political groups, the UCC has been taking action independently.

“We are independent because we have a base that holds us accountable, while there are unions that are comprised only of members of their executive councils,” Gharib explains.

“Most unions in the country are void, that’s why it is not surprising that they announce a strike and then cancel it shortly after. ... They do not have a base that holds them accountable.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 21, 2013, on page 5.

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