Some 2,300 electricity workers in Lebanon have been on strike for the past 79 days. They are demanding permanent contracts from Électricité du Liban (EdL), the state department that manages electricity in the country.
The electricity workers are currently employed through casual or daily contracts. They do not receive any social security, pensions or benefits. They are banned from striking or forming unions. And thousands of other state workers in Lebanon are in a similar situation.
The strike has been entirely self-organised. Workers have formed committees to represent them, bypassing the structures of official politics—and bypassing the sectarian political climate that dominates in Lebanon.
One reflection of that organisation is a sit-in by striking electricity workers inside EdL’s headquarters. Shifts are organised every day with delegates reporting back to a general assembly.
These assemblies take decisions regarding the sit-in and its organisation. They also include daily reports on EdL’s accounts and losses to demonstrate the economic strength of the strike.
The state has responded to the strike with extreme hostility. Power minister Gebran Bassil refused to even shake hands with strikers’ delegates.
Bassil is affiliated to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party allied to Hizbollah. He has pressured other Lebanese political parties to take a stand against the strike. On Monday he mobilised FPM thugs to try and kick the workers out of the EdL headquarters.
The arguments used by Bassil against the strike are fundamentally sectarian in nature. He says giving the casual workers fixed contracts would destabilise the Christian-Muslim balance in state employment. The majority of the casual labourers are Muslim.
The workers’ response to Bassil’s arguments has been forthright. They insist that permanent contracts and benefits are a right and not a sectarian deal to be manipulated by politicians.
Three workers were injured on Monday when FPM thugs, including former special forces members, threw bricks at them and attacked them with knives.
The three workers’ names were Omar, Ali and Edgar—one Sunni, one Shia and one Christian, symbolising workers’ solidarity across the sectarian divide.
The strikers issued a statement after the attack that declared, “We are neither Christian nor Muslims—we are workers who have rights, and we won’t step back until we get them.”
Another attempted mob attack on the sit-in was foiled on Thursday. Socialists and activists gathered in support of the workers and stood their ground until the thugs had sloped off.
Political leaders in Lebanon fear the electricity workers could trigger a wave of strikes across the public sector. Civil service workers have already held a one day general strike. This took place on Tuesday and received strong support across the country.
Successive Lebanese governments have promoted the casualisation of labour under the guidance of the World Trade Organisation and World Bank. These attacks on workers’ rights go hand in hand with the privatisations that have been driven through over the past couple of decades.
The ruling class is also worried that the mutinous spirit could spread to the private sector. Private companies have been encouraged by the state to adopt similar employment practices, taking on workers on daily contracts with no benefits.
The EdL workers strike has radicalised a new generation of workers in Lebanon and inspired them to fight back against casualisation. And their solidarity has demonstrated the central role of the working class in overcoming sectarian politics in Lebanon.
For all of these reasons we urge trade unions and socialists across the world to send solidarity messages to the striking workers of Lebanon—and to support their battle against sectarianism, privatisation and casualisation.