General Labor Confederation officials held a long-awaited re-unification meeting on Friday in a bid to end months of internal division and brace for a potential clash with the government over its austerity 2002 budget.
The GLC appears to have picked a good time to get its act together, particularly following the government’s move on Thursday to increase gasoline prices by LL3,000 per 20 liters.
Government attempts to boost Treasury revenues by increasing fuel prices have been a red line for the GLC in recent years, particularly during Rafik Hariri’s previous term as prime minister.
Significantly, the GLC’s re-unification meeting took place at 10am at its headquarters in Corniche al-Nahr, several hours before a meeting with Hariri at his Koraytem residence.
But with a number of officials from pro-government political parties present in the GLC leadership, the labor body will likely find itself hard-pressed to mobilize serious street protest action against government policies.
During Friday’s reconciliation meeting, officials formed two committees that included representatives of labor confederations that had boycotted the GLC for months.
Although the GLC elected a new leadership in February, headed by Ghosn, more than one-third of the labor body’s 38 confederations boycotted the polls.
They did so for a variety of reasons, such as loyalty to former GLC president Elias Abu Rizk, opposition to the dominance of political parties in the GLC, or the inability to secure leadership posts in the negotiations prior to the elections.
In the confederal GLC, officials may continue to represent their confederations in the 76-member Executive Council although they do not attend meetings.
One of the two committees formed Friday will tackle amending the GLC’s by-laws, which would eventually require new leadership elections.
Labor sources said eventually gaining or regaining a post in the GLC leadership was enticing enough for the boycotters to attend Friday’s meeting.
The sources said a disagreement over the deadline for the committee’s work almost stalled progress, but the leadership convinced the boycotters to accept six months instead of two months as the deadline.
The other committee has a more urgent task, namely drafting a list of labor demands and a strategy to achieve them, with work beginning on Saturday so that a draft can be completed by next week.
One of the boycotters who attended was George Hajj, who heads the 7,000-strong Bank Employees Confederation.
“There’s no doubt that socio-economic conditions prompted us to join these efforts,” Hajj told The Daily Star.
“Neither the private sector economic associations nor the GLC is contributing enough to finding solutions. At the same time, the state, in the form of the Labor Ministry, is unable to perform its supervisory functions to monitor illegal dismissals.”
Hajj listed a range of grievances, such as a lack of process on issues like an old-age pension plan, amending the labor law and issuing a new rent law, which he said needed a concerted effort by a reunited GLC.
“My confederation can’t treat these issues alone,” Hajj said. “But the efforts on the by-laws and our list of demands must be serious for us to continue giving these efforts our time.”
The boycotting confederations include allies of Abu Rizk, such as the Communist Party’s four confederations and one headed by Progressive Socialist Party official Suleiman Hamdan.
Communist Party official and labor leader Abdel-Amir Najda, along with Hamdan and Hajj, made up an informal group that negotiated the reunification efforts with the GLC leadership, with Abu Rizk now out of the picture after his union at Tele-Liban was effectively dissolved as part of the station’s restructuring.
Other boycotters, like former Lebanese Forces official George Alam, and Musa Feghali, an Abu Rizk ally, also took part in the reunification meeting.
Observers and labor sources were agreed that the boycotting confederations, nearly six months after the elections, had found themselves unable to mount a serious opposition movement outside the GLC.
Their various political affiliations robbed them of any cohesion and felt they had no choice but to rejoin the GLC leadership, observers said.
This leaves George Harb, of the 1,000-strong Metal Workers and Mechanics Unions Confederation, as one of the few outside the initiative.
Harb released a statement on Thursday saying his group would not oppose any effort to truly re-unite the GLC, but would not attend Friday’s meeting.
Harb said the many “unimplemented promises in the past” about reforming the GLC left him skeptical about the latest initiative, but added that he would join up if the effort to form serious committees is successful.