Lebanon: A successful 24-hour general strike against the government’s cuts

If one were to search for the simplest example of lack of coverage of an important labour movement event by the international media of the capitalists, Lebanon is the most recent case. A 24 hours general strike took place in Lebanon last week but it was hardly reported outside of Lebanon. The Daily Star reported, "Preparations for Thursday’s all-out strike were under way on Wednesday as the General Labor Confederation (GLC) urged the Labour Ministry to be alert for complaints about employers who refuse to give their staff a paid day off during the walkout. Labor unions and teachers’ leagues called for a one-day strike to protest the 2004 draft budget. Unpopular items include Article 12, which stipulates that the government should privatise public mutual funds that cover healthcare and after-service indemnities for teachers at public schools and the Lebanese University (LU) as well as civil servants."

The paper added, "Workers are set to protest what they describe as the government’s 'meager funding' of social welfare ministries like the Health and Education ministries. They also voiced opposition to tax hikes and demanded that the government adjust public sector salaries that have been frozen since 1996. Thursday’s strike is expected to cripple the economy with the suspension of work at vital facilities like Beirut’s port and airport, Electricité du Liban, LU, banks and public and private schools. Taxi drivers, employees at the National Social Security Fund and several other unions also said they would strike."

"Political parties including the Progressive Socialist Party, the Amal Movement, the Baath Party and the Syrian Social National Party, all of which are represented in Parliament and the Cabinet, also vowed to participate in the strike. The participation of pro-government groups has raised fears that the strike would be exploited for political ends. Despite statements from GLC president Ghassan Ghosn, who stressed the 'labor and non-political nature of the activity,' several unions still feared that labor opposition would be used to settle political scores between President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri," the paper concluded.

On Thursday, thousands of striking Lebanese workers finally took to the streets. "Where are our rights?" the striking workers shouted. The strike was comprehensive: it closed schools and universities and delayed flights at Beirut's international airport. "Workers, farmers and teachers say no to hunger," read one banner carried in the throng that marched down a busy Beirut thoroughfare to the government’s offices.

The Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri stated that he understands the demands for more spending on social services, but stressed that there is not enough cash in the state coffers. "There are demands by ministers... which could reach sums that increase the size of the budget deficit," said Hariri, who is carrying forward a drive to cut public debt that tops $30billion and has stifled economic growth.

The Gulf Daily News reported, "The 2004 draft budget only slightly boosts spending and adds no new revenues but some politicians have lambasted it as hurting the poor.
The unions, backed by left-leaning Lebanese parties, are demanding better pay, more social services, lower taxes and administrative reforms to end waste and cronyism.

Several flights at Beirut International Airport were rescheduled for late afternoon after some ground staff failed to show up for work, an airport official said. Some junior staff at central bank branches joined the strike, but commercial banks were open for business as usual. 'We are always the ones who pay for the government's mistakes,' said Mona, a striking schoolteacher. 'The politicians fight among themselves while ordinary people get crushed underfoot'."

The World Bank has called on Lebanon to take decisive action on economic reforms (i.e. privatisation) or face financial turbulence. The country is struggling under the burden of a US$30billion public debt. It received US$4 billion in aid pledges, which however, require progress in the handing over of the wealth of Lebanon to the foreign investors. The World Bank said Lebanon needs fiscal discipline to bring public debt down.

To understand what is going on we should keep in mind the following facts: Before the civil war of the mid 1970s, Lebanon developed as a capitalist economy with minimum government regulations. Beirut became the banking and investment centre of the Middle East. From 1975 to 1990, however, warfare severely dislocated most economic sectors and destroyed structures and infrastructures totalling an estimated $25billion to $30billion. As the war damaged Lebanon’s economy, most of the rest of the Middle East experienced an economic boom, and businesses moved from Beirut to other Middle East economic centres. However, Lebanon’s economy did not collapse completely during the war, largely because foreign aid to competing militias which fuelled the wartime economy.

Since 1991, after the massive wartime destruction, with the help of foreign aid, Lebanon’s economy has revived. Annual inflation, about 500 percent in 1987, was manageable by the mid-1990s and low by the start of the 21st century. Lebanese workers number about 1.6 million, in addition to 1 million Syrian workers who work in the country. An estimated 62 percent of employment is in services, including tourism, trade, government, and finance. Approximately 31% of the labour force works in industry, including manufacturing, construction, and mining; and 7% in agriculture. The Lebanese financial crisis is clear for all to see. Lebanon's debts grow daily while the government is blaming the conflict in the Middle East for the fact that foreign investors remain wary of investing in the country.

Public debt, which exceeds 165% of gross domestic product, is expected to exceed 178% by the end of this year. According to finance ministry figures for the first quarter of 2002, debt service comprised 86% of total revenue, and cost LL1.52 trillion to service in April alone. This year is at least the same if not worse. The depositors have been rapidly converting their accounts to dollars in reaction to a reduced capital inflow from abroad. Dollar deposits now represent 73% of total deposits, as opposed to 61% two years ago, and for the first time in many years total banking deposits are falling.

As Lebanon spends its foreign reserves to keep its currency afloat, it becomes harder for the country to pay its foreign debt to the imperialist predators that are pushing for privatisation. They want the receipts from the sale process to be used to pay off the debt. The government expects to be able to generate as much as US$7billion from the sale process.

Privatising Lebanon’s state enterprises could unbalance an elusive, delicate and intricate balance of sectarian forces in the country. In other words it could spark off a new sectarian civil war. Such a civil war would likely see Hezbollah taking control of South Lebanon and this could provoke a new Israeli invasion of South Lebanon. The only hope of avoiding such a disaster lies in the revolutionary struggle of the working class. This latest general strike shows that all the potential for working class action is there. Such action always cuts across ethnic divisions. The workers of all nationalities, religions and different ethnic groups come together in a common struggle.

The BBC reported that, "Lebanese workers thronged the streets on Thursday in response to union calls for a general strike to protest against a seven-year pay freeze. The action suspended flights out of Beirut airport for seven hours, while most public transport staff stayed home and companies and government offices were closed. 

The strikers congregated outside the cabinet offices, where the government was debating the 2004 budget…"

"The budget for next year has little room for extra social spending, and raises value added tax for the second time in three years. The unions and some political parties are calling for lower taxes and more welfare spending in the face of unemployment which tops 20%. They say more transparent accounting in government would pay for the changes. " 

Leaders of the General Labor Confederation (GLC) point out that the government owes 270bn Lebanese pounds ($180m or £105m) to the welfare system already, and warn that maternity and sickness benefit would have to stop at the end of the year unless the deficit were paid.
To prevent the danger of a sectarian civil war, with all the potential for a new occupation by Israel or of clashes between Lebanese and Syrian workers, it is necessary for the GLC to organize the working class on a fighting program leading the workers to power. The working class in Lebanon must address three questions from an internationalist perspective: the foreign debts must be cancelled; unity of the workers from Syrian and Lebanese origins must be established; and the unity of all the workers in the Middle East, including the Palestinian and the Israelis, must be fought for.

We, the Marxists in Israel, are calling on our working class: brothers and sisters, on all the workers in the region, to unite against the capitalist class whether it be the Israeli exploiters or the Arab exploiters. They are all our enemies.

The general strike in the Lebanon is against similar policies against which the Israeli workers have been striking. Everywhere the policies are the same - cuts in public spending, job losses, privatisation – and they are all directed against the workers. This shows that working class solidarity across the national borders is not a utopian concept. It can be achieved in practice. The bosses unite across borders when their vital interests are at stake. Why should the workers not be able to unite?

When recently the Israeli rulers tried to smash the Israeli workers on strike in the ports of Israel, they were calling on the help of the Egyptian and the Jordanian capitalists to use the ports in Egypt and in Jordan. When it comes to their struggle against the workers the capitalists of all countries discover their common interest. Therefore our slogan must be: "not nation against nation, but class against class". We should not allow the bosses to divide us and use us one against the other. It is the responsibility of the trade union leaders in all countries to make sure that this unity is transformed into concrete solidarity action.

The only solution to the problems of the workers of all the countries in the region is to be found in a common struggle throughout the entire region with the aim of establishing a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. This would include a socialist federated state of the Israeli and Palestinian workers in the whole of historical Palestine, within a wider socialist federation of the whole of the Middle East.

The general strike in the Lebanon, together with the recent strikes in Israel, gives us a glimpse of what would be possible in the future. In all the countries of the Middle East we will see such strikes. The task is to bring them together in one common united, international movement of the working class.
We are very aware of the fact that the imperialists have created many obstacles. They have specifically used the national question to create a minefield to working class action and solidarity. However, the crisis of the capitalist system is inexorable. It continues to grind the workers down in all countries – and it provokes the same reaction of the workers in all countries. This makes the perspective of the working class taking power at the head of all the oppressed layers a very real one. All that is lacking is a revolutionary leadership at the head of each national working class, capable of bring all the workers together in one common struggle. The day that leadership is built, all the reactionary regimes, in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Lebanon, etc., will come tumbling down.