“The truck won’t pass unless it’s over our bodies!” shouted the striking women blocking the road to the Régie’s tobacco storage facility in Beirut, late in June 1946. Bowing to the forces of capital, for 40 minutes the police loaded and emptied their guns, taking aim at the strikers and unlucky passersby. They injured twelve and killed strike organizer Warde Butros with a bullet to the head — but they could not erase her legacy.
Every May first, on International Workers’ Day, calendars worldwide commemorate similar sacrifices, if not massacres, toward an eight-hour workday, fair working conditions, and social security, slogans that sometimes conjoin with resistance to colonialism and imperialism. To commemorate means “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,” writes Walter Benjamin. And what world do we live in, if not a world of dangers that digs graveyards for radical histories?
This May Day, a monstrous cloud looms over Lebanon’s workers, one that has been condensing for well over half a century. This May Day, a monstrous cloud looms over Lebanon’s workers, one that has been condensing for well over half a century. Since independence, and especially after the war, the Lebanese political economy has prioritized speculative real estate, finance and tourism, rather than productive economies, undermining the role of the welfare state to an ever-receding horizon until it is decimated. As a front to this engineered catastrophe, the labor movement’s go-to tactic was the strike which made up 22 percent of all political mobilizations in the postwar decade. The fragmentation of the movement then became the object of a Haririst strategy in the mid-nineties, just as the neoliberal turn consolidated union busting elsewhere. Gradually in Lebanon, writes sociologist Rima Majed, sit-ins and marches replaced strikes.
Blow after blow, the shaky foundations of the Lebanese economy crumbled, flimsy safety nets tore to shreds, and the workers fell onto the ruins. Today’s statistics, however incomplete, are disquieting. In 2020 alone, 23 percent of full-time workers in “key sectors” were laid off. In the same year, unemployment among the Lebanese soared from 37 percent in February to 49 percent in August. And although the dearth of recent Palestinian employment data stands in the way of accuracy, as of 2015, 23.3 percent of the Palestinians from Lebanon and 52.5 percent of the Palestinians from Syria were unemployed. Many Palestinians who had employment worked in the informal sector, leaving them precarious and subject to labor exploitation.
In the face of this staggering reality, Lebanon’s co-opted labor movement, embodied by the General Confederation of Workers in Lebanon, issued vacuous calls for a general strike. The dramatic decline in union membership from 22.3 percent in 1965 to 5-7 percent in 2020 is indicative of a general sentiment of distrust toward traditional unions and syndicates and exposes the urgency for alternative worker-led organizing bodies.
The dramatic decline in union membership from 22.3 percent in 1965 to 5-7 percent in 2020 is indicative of a general sentiment of distrust toward traditional unions and syndicates and exposes the urgency for alternative worker-led organizing bodies.
On October 17, the burning fires of the uprising re-ignited the spark to organize. Workers in different professions came together to challenge the influence of establishment unions to form alternatives capable of building at the grassroots to defend their members and mobilize in their interest. The Public Source spoke to Alaa Sayegh from Li Haqqi, Gemma Justo and Mala Kandaarachchige from The Alliance for Migrant Domestic Workers, Saseen Kawzally from Workers in Arts and Culture, Samiha Chaaban from the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters, and Elsy Moufarrej from the Alternative Press Syndicate. We inquired about why they came together, their organizational structures and processes, the issues they have organized around, and their current status and level of activity — against all odds.
Some of their answers were shortened or condensed for clarity.