BEIRUT: The Union Coordination Committee, representing teachers and public sector workers, has eclipsed the General Labor Confederation as the best-organized and most dynamic labor group in Lebanon, but the coming week will pose a critical test in its battle with the government over endorsing a new salary scale.The UCC declared an “open strike” last Tuesday to pressure the government to refer to Parliament a civil servant salary hike, also covering teachers in both public and private schools.
The group has held a series of high-profile protests at government ministries since then, but its clout isn’t uniform throughout the public sector.
Employees have been reporting to their jobs at the National Social Security Fund, Interior Ministry, Transport Ministry, Justice Ministry, Electricite du Liban and Vehicle Registration Department.
Mahmoud Haidar, the head of UCC’s League of Public Sector Employees, said he was satisfied by the response to the strike call.
“Employees are on strike in major ministries such as finance, energy, labor, economy, education and health,” he said. “We are surprised by this level of participation.”
The UCC also sought to rally both public and private sector teachers behind its “open strike,” but received scattered support at private schools.
Teachers at Saint Joseph School in Metn stayed away on the first day of the strike in show of “solidarity,” but then resumed work.
At International College in Beirut, teachers have been observing the work stoppage by not holding classes during third period every day.
The response at private schools comes in contrast to a series of much more successful one-day strikes in the run up to this month’s open-ended work stoppage, which were observed uniformly by private and public school teachers.
In a bid to boost participation in the strike, the UCC said it would block entrances to private schools Monday to prevent teachers from entering.
A union official who requested not to be identified, and is not part of the UCC, said the group’s decision to go on an open strike was hasty and was not aiming at the right target.
He argued that the fact that teachers at private schools have not been taking part in the strike is making it ineffective.
“A strike at private schools is painful, because it affects the children of ministers and MPs who are the decision-makers,” the source said.
The parents of students at private schools “are the kind of middle- and high-income people who can pressure [the government].”
The source explained that teachers at private schools are not participating in the strike because they are afraid of the possibility of losing their jobs.
“They are afraid of taking part in this risky move ... what is happening now is that the children of the poor who go to public schools are feeling the repercussions of the strike the most, and this is only adding to their woes,” he said.
The source said the UCC should change its tactics and call for the toppling of the government rather than urging it to refer the pay raise to Parliament.
“They should reconsider the open strike tactic and hold for example a two-day strike every week, which would pressure middle- and high-income groups, because teachers at private schools are more likely to join this kind of protest,” he said.
While political party dominance of the mainstream labor movement, the General Labor Confederation, has limited its effectiveness in recent years, the UCC has been both hampered and helped by its independence.
Critics are unable to accuse the UCC of being beholden to either the March 8 or March 14 camps, but this has reduced its ability to put thousands of people in the streets.
But Nehmeh Mahfoud, a leading figure in the UCC, gave his private school teacher colleagues good marks, given the threat of being fired.
“If a teacher goes on strike in public schools, no one will fire him because he is protected by his party or sect,” he said. “But in private schools, the priest or the sheikh [in religious private schools] will immediately fire the teacher, although the law stipulates that a teacher should not be considered absent when he goes on strike.”
“When only some go on strike, I consider it to be good, given these difficulties,” he said.
Mahfoud denied that the UCC’s decision to begin an open strike was hasty, as it was the culmination of series of strikes and sit-ins.
“You can ask this if we had begun our protest action by launching an open strike,” he said.
“We began action over a year ago: We went on strike 16 times, held 60 sit-ins, five demonstrations and we boycotted the correction of official exams three times. This is the only move we’re left with, we have no other solution,” he said.
The labor source said that despite what he termed missteps by the UCC, “it’s now leading the labor movement – I believe in it and in its actions.”