BEIRUT: A push for an independent labor union sector has begun amid the past month’s largely decentralized mass protests.
In some sectors, workers have no existing trade syndicate. In others, syndicates exist but are widely seen as tied into the political system and therefore ineffective in representing their workers.
The new Lebanese Professionals’ Association was formed out of the protests as an umbrella group for workers from different industries, while some from specific industries have created their own subgroups.
“One of the best things about the ongoing revolution is the fact that there’s not necessarily any leadership and no one speaking on behalf of the other, but this does not negate the fact that there also need to be some sort of organizational frameworks,” said architect and urban planner Abir Saksouk-Sasso, who is part of the new professionals association.
Labor organizing, she said, is “specifically important ... given the fact that syndicates have been for the past 30 or 40 years controlled by political parties. With the lack of independent syndicates that are able to speak on behalf of the people, these professionals are organizing to provide this alternative.”
The association organized a march last Saturday and had planned to protest Wednesday in front of the Order of Engineers and Architects of Beirut to pressure the syndicate to close its doors as part of a general strike. The action was called off when the syndicate announced late Tuesday night - after widespread unrest erupted on the streets - that it would be closed Wednesday.
In the future, organizers of some of the new workers' groups said they would turn their focus to workplace organizing and some might register as official syndicates. NGO workers, for instance, have no syndicate representing them currently.
Nadim al-Kak, one of the members of a newly formed informal group for the NGO profession, said that while some members “have reservations about joining the formal union label because they think that would give the government ways to undermine them,” many have hopes of formalizing their status. “In the long run, if you’re able to have guarantees that you’re able to further the rights of the workers in those groups, then more formal unions would be the way to go,” he said.
In theory, any group of workers can form a syndicate in their profession. Licenses are approved by the Labor Ministry in consultation with the Interior Ministry.
But in practice, said Assad Sammour, head of the editorial and studies department of the Lebanese Observatory for the Rights of Workers and Employees, “The syndicates that are given registration are the syndicates that are attached to the authorities.”
A notable exception was the syndicate of Spinneys employees formed in 2012, but Sammour said that union had significant support from legal experts and civil society.
“There is no one who can form a syndicate unless he has pressure from the streets behind him or unless he has political connections,” he said.
There have also been some past attempts to reform the existing syndicates from within. In 2017, a group called Naqabati formed by architects and engineers successfully pushed for election of a syndicate head not tied to any of the established political parties. But other top positions remain controlled by the parties, Saksouk-Sasso said.
In 2015, a group of journalists sued over alleged violations in the elections for the official press syndicate. The case was thrown out in 2017 because it had supposedly been filed in the wrong court, said Jad Shahrour, communications officer at Samir Kassir Eyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom foundation.
At present, Shahrour said, “We rarely hear about [the syndicate], even when they should issue a statement about something happening with the journalists.”
Carole Kerbage, a former reporter with the now-closed As-Safir newspaper and one of the organizers of the newly formed journalists’ group, dubbed the Alternative Journalists Syndicate, said the initiative had started with a group of journalists from different outlets who were initially participating individually in the protests.
The immediate aim of the journalists’ group was to counter authorities’ rhetoric in the context of the uprising, she said, but in the longer term, its aim is to defend the rights of Lebanese journalists, many of whom are not able to join the existing official Syndicate of Journalists and have faced a range of violations, from censorship to being laid off without compensation or having their salaries reduced.
“We as journalists are asked all the time to defend people’s rights, but as media workers our rights are not protected,” Kerbage said.
Discussions are still ongoing as to whether the journalists’ group will attempt to push for reforms to the existing syndicate or to form a new one. But she said the new organization had already served a valuable purpose in bringing together journalists from outlets with different political orientations.
“Previously, we weren’t able to communicate as journalists, because most of us were part of this political polarization,” she said. “Now we have journalists from different political backgrounds - maybe we don’t agree on everything, especially on economic policies and geopolitical issues, but what is common is that we are all part of this revolution and we are all struggling for our freedom of expression and for our own rights as workers.”