Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign was driven by the famous advice that “it’s the economy, stupid.”
With Lebanon in the throes of recession, on the verge of launching privatization, and confronting new economic realities, government officials need reminding that “it’s policy” that matters.
This is the advice of Ghassan Ghosn, who was elected General Labor Confederation president six months ago. The 50-year old labor leader is a study in contrast to predecessor Elias Abu Rizk, the opposition politician par excellence who was finally brought down by an ill-judged, failed run for Parliament last year.
Abu Rizk’s stormy tenure, from 1993-1997 and 1999-2001, saw the GLC lead three nationwide strikes against the policies of Rafik Hariri. But intra-GLC political conflict, especially during Abu Rizk’s second term, paralyzed the labor movement, with the president unable to muster a quorum for months due to a boycott by his opponents.
Abu Rizk was finally voted out of office in March: Ghosn took over, promising an end to the politicization of the GLC.
These days, officials are hearing the phrase “social contract” and not “state repression” from Ghosn and a new GLC leadership that is trying to revive the labor body after years of internal conflict and neglecting labor issues.
A telling indication of the GLC’s new direction is its failure to issue a statement on the recent crackdown on opponents of Syria’s presence in Lebanon, since statements on all types of government actions were standard practice during Abu Rizk’s tenure.
Perhaps the change in rhetoric and leadership is best summed up by observing that Abu Rizk’s GLC criticized Hariri for his economic policies, while Ghosn’s GLC is suggesting that there might not be any to begin with.
“Officials really haven’t shown us what they’re doing. There’s a lot of talk about privatization, for example, but we haven’t seen a program or vision,” Ghosn told The Daily Star in an interview at the GLC’s offices in Corniche al-Nahr.
Ghosn’s appraisal of Lebanon’s economic situation, not surprisingly, is fairly bleak.
“The country is living on a series of ‘volcanoes,’ due to regional political pressures, while everyone is aware of the seriousness of the economic crisis we’re experiencing. I’ve said repeatedly that we need to treat this crisis through a social contract with the government, covering the entire population,” he affirmed.
Like members of the private sector, Ghosn supports the idea of an economic conclave to discuss the long-term solutions.
“We, the business community and government officials must get around the table and discuss things. Workers will bear part of the burden, business will bear a part, and so will the state.
“But if the state abandons its supervisory role, every crisis through which we pass will lead to a new one. If we treat an economic issue by defending the pound, this will lead to a poverty crisis. If the dollar is LL5,000, or LL1,000, or LL200, what does it matter to someone who doesn’t have a lira in his pocket?” he asked.
Ghosn said that government officials, including Hariri, “don’t seem to have anything against the idea of a social contract” to buttress social and economic policies, but stressed that good intentions are not sufficient.
Instead of detailing statistics on the deterioration of the country’s economy and bleak future prospects, Ghosn used common sense to support his argument.
“There’s a popular Lebanese saying that goes ‘if your neighbor is fine, then you’re fine.’” But if you’re doing okay while your neighbor isn’t, then there’s no way that you’re going to be comfortable in the end.
“When a factory closes and fires 100 people, then that’s 100 fewer people in the job market, which means that they won’t be purchasing goods as part of the business cycle. This hurts other businesses, and threatens another 100 workers with dismissal elsewhere.”
The need to address problems such as deteriorating living conditions and potential social unrest, he continued, is imperative.
“As far as attracting investment to Lebanon, what kind of investor would put his money into a country that lacks social stability? If there’s a strike or some other problem every day, then how are we going to attract investors?”
After its most recent executive council meeting, the GLC issued a statement calling on the government to let it formally participate in deciding economic policy. One gripe is that the Higher Council on Privatization has no labor input.
“We’re not seeking appointments for specific posts,” Ghosn affirmed.
Although the GLC is shut out of the formal policy-making process, it is getting its point of view across on other issues, like amending the labor law and setting up a retirement pension scheme. The hands-on approach under Ghosn stands in direct contrast to the Abu Rizk-led GLC, when the labor body usually relied on fiery statements and stand-offs over dialogue.
Although the GLC under Ghosn appears to be less able to use the strike weapon to get its demands, it has proven fairly effective in lobbying and eventually getting its way.
During the first six months of Ghosn’s tenure, the GLC has involved itself in a series of potentially tense labor disputes. The common denominator, Ghosn said, was the government’s lack of comprehensive policies to smooth over the bumps.
“Regarding Middle East Airlines, they said that we had to reduce the number of workers, in order to help find a strategic partner for the airline. Fine. But what is the overall policy for the air transport sector, particularly under the open skies policy? What’s the policy?” he asked, voicing concern for the future of the national airline.
The government’s plans to revamp MEA eventually went ahead, but not without a significant re-writing of the restructuring policy, with the GLC’s blessing and input in negotiations.
Ghosn disagreed that the government got what it wanted out of the MEA negotiations, which saw officials insist that excess employees be dismissed and those staying on with the company submit to a new set of work conditions.
“Everyone knows the unions, politicians, the media, the public, and Parliament that there was a problem at MEA. But if you want to treat the issue of surplus workers, you must do it in a civilized way. You can do it through allowing people to resign voluntarily, depending on the offer that is submitted.”
Ghosn praised the course that restructuring eventually took, saying that the number of voluntary resignations was much higher than the number of people on the original dismissal list, by about 400-500 individuals.
“The other part of the MEA issue involved the workers who would stay on,” Ghosn continued. “The company’s administration showed them a folder, announcing that ‘these are the new conditions’ that will be applied to the employees.”
“We said, ‘no, no, wait a minute.’ First of all, there’s something called acquired rights, and you have to take into consideration that there are earlier agreements and unions involved. We’re working today to improve the condition of workers and not go back to something based on the 1946 labor law, most of whose articles are obsolete.”
“All of these negotiations must be based on agreements. You can’t just come in and say to us, ‘you were working 42 hours a week and now you’re going to work 48’ we won’t accept such a thing, because this is one of our rights,” Ghosn insisted.
Much of the negotiations centered on the question of whether production involves increasing work hours or finding other ways to boost productivity.
“In France, the current 36-hour work week is headed toward becoming 32 hours, so that they intensify the hours of production, give workers more time off, in order to see them come back to work well-rested.
“The 48-hour work week certainly doesn’t give you the productivity you need,” he argued.
Another labor issue that arose since Ghosn took over involved a government decree that would have forced thousands of taxi drivers to switch their engines from diesel to gasoline, a move supported by environmental activists and others concerned about air quality.
Taxi drivers immediately balked at the sudden mid-year deadline to convert their engines, and the ban is now undergoing changes to smooth the transitional phase.
The GLC involved itself through dialogue with government officials and coordination with the two public drivers’ confederations, which took the lead on the issue.
“The question here involves our tourism policy,” Ghosn said, returning to the issue of strategic thinking and planning.
“We can’t treat something unless we know what the policy is. What about the environment? Do we want a tourist country? Then we need all the requirements of a tourist country, which means beginning with the land transport sector. This, in turn, means having the kind of cars that are suitable for tourists who will come here.”
“We need a proper transportation policy, like letting people buy these cars under favorable conditions. Jordan’s done it replacing the entire fleet of tourist cars with new ones, through exemptions on customs duties and taxes. New cars mean that we cut down on fuel consumption, repairs, and accidents, since owners of new cars are less likely to be so careless about their vehicles,” he continued.
“In any case, the solution certainly doesn’t involve suddenly stopping 30,000 cars that run on diesel.”
The lack of regulation in the sector, he said, boggles the mind.
“I’ve never seen such chaos in any country in the world when it comes to public transportation,” he complained. “We focus on the cars with diesel engines but forget about the van that goes up a mountain spewing out a cloud of diesel, and choking you.
“If the plan to implement a proper transportation policy takes two or three years to implement, fine, but we’ve got to start now.”
Another labor issue exploded among workers at Electricite du Liban and other utilities, who became enraged when they realized that the 2001 budget had deprived them of a decades-old right to subsidized electricity.
Ghosn denied that the GLC, because of its defense of disgruntled workers at EDL, was backing an unpopular cause, namely employees seen as having excessively lucrative fringe benefits.
“If, and I repeat, if, someone is misusing a benefit, you can’t say that everyone is doing something wrong. A large number of EDL employees are good people, and they use electricity based on their needs, nothing more.
“There are electricity employees who have made a lot of sacrifices, who were killed on the job, whether working on the field or being shot by snipers during the civil war,” Ghosn said.
The GLC, he indicated, would face another battle when Parliament gets around to discussing a controversial draft law on rents, submitted by the government.
“For example, we want a new rent law. But the question is what kind of housing policy we want. Do we want a country of renters? Then we need to draw up a policy for this, including things like taxing vacant apartments.
“Or perhaps we need a law that will encourage people to buy apartments personally, when it comes to the current rental law, I don’t know what officials want, namely what kind of housing policy it’s based on.”
Despite the complaints about government performance, Ghosn is well aware that the GLC is itself in need of internal reform.
“We have to make workers feel that the GLC is capable of handling their affairs, so they won’t go to political parties or various religious authorities for help. This needs time,” he said.
“We’re encouraging unions to get more serious, whether it comes to workers’ being registered with the NSSF or issues like workplace safety. A union is not something you approach only when you want a raise.”
He acknowledged that the GLC has failed to act like an institution itself.
“The GLC would allow a problem to arise suddenly, so that it could launch the slogan ‘we reject this,’” he said.
He has made it a point to visit factories and meet regularly with union officials.
“A week or so after my election, we went up to Chekka to support the workers there. We’re involved in the Barbir Hospital issue, the Bonjus strike, EDL, MEA; we’re present everywhere there’s a problem. And we’re not mediators, but are one of the sides.”
“I’ve been in the labor movement for a long time, and the last time I saw direct intervention was by (then-GLC president) George Saqr, who got involved in collective bargaining agreement negotiations between TMA and the administration in 1982. In fact, he signed the agreement in his capacity as GLC president. This is the style I like and admire; it’s successful and productive.”
When asked about the performance of his predecessor, Abu Rizk, Ghosn stressed that the new team was a serious one.
“The GLC is an institution, not just a president, and it must get involved as such. That’s why you see my colleague, the secretary for labor affairs, Butros Saade, always present at the Labor Ministry for negotiations, on the side of unions.
“The rest of my colleagues have taken responsibility for various issues, following them up day-by-day. We called in the Barbir Hospital employees to the GLC headquarters, to hammer out a strategy on how to attack the problem” of not being paid for months, Ghosn recalled.
Meanwhile, the various members of the GLC retain their political loyalties to parties like Amal, Hizbullah, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and so on.
But one sign of the change under Ghosn is the tacit agreement by all sides to keep party politics out of the GLC, after internal tension kept it effectively sidelined in recent years. As evidence, the statements issued by the GLC stick to issues that are related to labor, and all party flags are banned at labor rallies.
“The GLC has entered a new phase, although we know this is a very politicized country,” Ghosn said.
“To all political parties and their followers, I say that I support their programs and want their support, but won’t accept taking political positions, whether left or right, pro-government or opposition.”