The labour movement in Lebanon narrates the history of the Lebanese labour movement from the early twentieth century to today. Trade unionism has largely been a failure, because of state interference, tactical co-optation and the strategic use of sectarianism by an oligarchic elite, together with the structural weakness of a service-based laissez-faire economy. The Lebanese case study holds wider significance for the Arab world and for comparative studies of labour. Bou Khater’s conclusions are significant not only for trade unionism, but also for new forms of workers’ organisations and social movements. The failure of trade unions reveals a great deal about Lebanon’s current political moment and how it got there, but also how events are set to affect future movements. The book challenges the perceived wisdom on the rise of the labour movement in the 1950s and 1960s and its subsequent fall during the post-war period from the 1990s onwards. What is perceived as a fall after the end of the civil war was merely the intensification of liberal economic policies and escalating political intervention, which had already been in place since independence in 1943. Hiding under the guise of preserving sectarian balances, the post-war elite incorporated the labour movement into the state to guarantee their command of the hollowed-out state. Beyond controlling the labour movement to avoid a challenge to the system, the post-war period was characterised by political forces, using the General Confederation of Workers in Lebanon (GCWL) as an instrument in their disputes over power, rents and benefits.
The Beirut explosion on 4 August 2020 was a poignant manifestation of a dysfunctional political system marred by high levels of corruption, incompetence and neglect. Prior to the explosion, the system’s dysfunction and resulting social and economic grievances had already culminated in social unrest in 2019, referred to as the October Revolution. The Lebanese uprising has, however, brought to the fore the conspicuous absence of Lebanon’s labour movement in political dissent. The General Confederation of Workers in Lebanon (GCWL) did not call for any strikes or demonstrations in support of the popular protests. Why was the labour movement absent from the Lebanese uprising? What does this reveal about the economic and political systems in Lebanon? How does this absence impact the uprising? The book addresses the trajectory of the workers’ movement in Lebanon by answering two questions. What are the impediments that shaped the trajectory and scope of the labour movement? And what is the impact of the state’s co-optation of the labour movement on the political and economic system in the post-war period and today’s protests against Lebanon’s sectarian-liberal model? The argument of the book grows out of extensive fieldwork in Lebanon, beginning with a three-year period between 2013 and 2016, and supplemented by follow-up fieldwork in 2019. The research design relies on the review of Arab-language archival and secondary sources plus semi-structured interviews with pivotal actors in trade-union politics.
This first chapter documents state–labour relations throughout key periods between independence in 1943 and the end of the civil war in 1990. This chapter starts with the birth of the workers' movement and the first associations under the Ottoman Empire and reviews the restrictions under the French mandate. It examines the labour movement after independence, including the struggle for the Labour Code, the emergence of union federations and the establishment of the General Confederation of Workers in Lebanon (GWCL), and discusses its main demands before the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. The chapter also considers the mobilisation and protests of the labour movement during the civil war and its role advocating for peace.
The second chapter addresses the demands and struggle of the labour movement during the post-war period of reconstruction. The chapter examines the tools and strategies to which the state elite resorted during critical periods to capture the labour movement. This chapter considers labour relations from 1992 – the year billed as the start of the reconstruction period – until the last wage rise in 2012. This salary increase poignantly exemplifies the total co-optation and breakdown of the labour movement. The period witnessed an active movement between 1992 and 1997, followed by fragmentation and total deactivation from the early 2000s onwards. How and why did the labour movement fall apart, and what were the implications for Lebanon’s sectarian-liberal model? The labour movement’s type of demands and actions during the post-war period was largely a continuation of the existing state of affairs before and during the war. What is often perceived as a fall after the civil war was merely exacerbated state intervention and co-optation, the influence of political parties and the effects of liberal economic policies, which had already been in place since independence. The result was a divided movement, and an overall cautious and moderate attitude and action towards the Government. The times of a supposed labour movement revival, such as the 1992–97 period, were mostly fuelled by feuds among members of the elite – one section of the elite managing to manipulate the GCWL to fight one or other of Lebanon’s elite groups.
Amid the protracted paralysis of the GCWL, the labour movement in Lebanon showed signs of revival in 2011 with a ground-breaking mobilisation of public-sector employees who rallied under the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) to demand a wage adjustment. In light of the poor results of the private-sector trade unions, how can the public sector’s resilience and effective mobilisation be explained? And to what extent did sectarian affiliations impact the functioning and performance of the UCC? This chapter first examines the obstacles to public-sector mobilisation plus the UCC’s structural resilience to help better understand its actions and extensive mobilisation. The second part of the chapter focuses on the main features of the UCC’s mobilisation, notably the relationship between the UCC and the Government.
The chapter explores the implications of a muted labour movement for the present and future struggle for change. The trials and tribulations of the labour movement in Lebanon reveal how the struggle of labour against capital deepens when governed by a sectarian power-sharing system. Labour organising is perceived as a potential vehicle for rebellion against the sectarian-liberal system of rule, which put the regime at odds with any ambitious attempts of labour organising. Instead of resorting to repression and persecution, the state co-opted the labour movement and distorted the confederation of unions into a mouthpiece for the ruling elite and bargaining tool in their feuds over the sectarian allocation of privileges and resources. Retelling the story of the labour movement in Lebanon is not about the downfall and defeat of labour. On the contrary, the history of traditional unionism reveals the fear and trepidation of the sectarian liberal system. The state elite’s continuous attempts to undermine the labour movement are evidence that a resilient and vigorous labour movement constitutes an all-important threat to the political system in place. The decline of the organised labour movement does not imply that class struggle is no longer relevant. Rather, it means that, up to now, capital and the state have been winning this struggle. While the labour movement faces enormous hurdles, contemporary forms of a workers’ struggle that appeal to class solidarity and show a different kind of unionism can provide an alternative vision and counteract the Lebanese sectarian-liberal system.