Collective Action digest - 4 February 2020
Collective Actions digest
Author: Nizar Hassan
4 February 2020
Collective Actions trends (2015-2018):
- Between 2015 and 2018, 1,390 collective actions have been mapped with 324, 428, 419, and 173 collective actions mapped respectively in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. These include demonstrations, road-blockades, sit-ins, strikes, and online campaigns among other forms of protest.
- The number of mapped collective actions decreased significantly in 2018 compared to the previous years. This is most likely the result of the parliamentary elections held on May 6, 2018. According to Abou Shakra, some actors usually involved in collective actions have been running for electoral campaigns during this period. Another explanation could be attributed to a perceived vacuum at the decision-making level during the second half of 2018, due to the delays in forming a new government after the elections.
- While the data collected and analysed covers four years, this digest does not provide an exhaustive dataset nor pretends to draw general conclusions on collective actions in Lebanon it rather highlights the main trends in mobilising actors, the most recurring modes of action, and how these movements frame their mobilisations.
A shy but steady decentralisation trend of collective actions across the territory
Between 2015 and 2018, urban areas of Beirut, Saida, and Tripoli concentrated more than half of the collective actions (54%) with more than one third of them located in Beirut (36%). Beirut, the capital, is Lebanon’s largest city in terms of population with an estimated number representing one third of the total population in Lebanon, which explains the concentration of collective actions in it.
Moreover, the number of mapped collective actions located in Beirut decreased by 60% between 2015 and 2018. However, it is worthy to note that this decrease is due to an overall decrease of collective actions in the country in 2018 (see above) rather than a significant tendency of decentralisation.
Yet, data shows a slight and progressive decentralisation of the collective actions throughout the years. While in 2015, the number of mobilisations located in Beirut represented 46% of total mapped collective actions, in 2016 they only represented 35%, 32% in 2017, and 31% in 2018. These numbers may not necessarily reflect an overall decentralisation trend of collective actions, but rather the result of an exceptionally high number of mobilisations in Beirut in 2015. Indeed, 2015 witnessed the emergence of an important social movement responding to the garbage crisis, which moblised activists, collectives, and citizens, during several weeks, mainly in Beirut. Still, this social movement also paved the way to additional collective actions outside the capital as they also gained momentum in many areas that were affected or would have potentially been affected by solid waste landfills and dumps such as Tripoli in the North, Barja in Iqlim al-Kharroub and Beit Mery in Metn among others.
Policy grievances related to socio-economic rights at the forefront of collective actions
75% of collective actions mapped from 2015 to 2018, were related to government policies (or a lack thereof). Among these policy grievances, 29% were directly linked to access to socio-economic rights. These mobilisations mainly involved worker groups demanding improvement of their wages and working conditions or residents protesting cuts or shortages in public services, in addition to a few protests organised by affected groups, such as people with disabilities demanding inclusion or students and parents protesting school tuition increase.
While it is possible that political parties indirectly led or supported some demonstrations over policy grievances, the data shows that 83% of the mapped collective actions related to policy grievances were organised by non-partisans, and merely 3% directly involved Lebanese political parties.
Therefore, data shows that citizens have been resorting to street politics and protests as a main means of political participation and in order to demand policy change.
Moreover, although the number of mapped collective actions decreased in 2018 compared to the previous years (see above), it does seem that socio-economic grievances were particularly significant during this year. Indeed, the data shows that while in 2015, 2016, and 2017, collective actions linked to access to socio-economic rights represented respectively 33%, 20%, and 21% of the total mapped collective actions, in 2018, they represented almost 40%. The majority of these mobilisations were related to ongoing issues such as general amnesty for Islamic detainees, salary scale for teachers, public sector employment for EDL workers among others socio-economic grievances. This could be the result of citizens increasing pressure on policy makers to address these demands ahead of the Parliamentary elections on May 6th, 2018.
Worker groups: attempts to mobilise
Collective actions demanding access to socio-economic rights were organised by a variety of actors including affected groups (including NIMBY) (27%), informal collectives (22%), and worker groups (26%). While the workers’ movement in the country has been, since the civil war, systematically co-opted by establishment political parties, diluting workers’ rights and demands, alternative labour organising attempts have been recurring since the second decade of the century (early 2010s) notably, with the experience of public school teachers and public sector workers in the leagues forming the Union Coordination Committee. In 2018, worker groups were the main mobilising structure, being involved in 71% of the collective actions. Among the most notable collective actions by worker groups was public servants’ mobilisations, mostly involving EDL workers, teachers, public hospital employees, as well as Ogero workers. These worker groups have been repeatedly demanding an improvement of their socio-economic situation notably regarding their salaries, access to social protection, and working conditions among others. Yet, increased mobilisations have not translated into effective change over the years, with one of the reasons cited linked to political parties co-opting worker’s unions movements.
At the same time, public servants were the main mobilising actors among workers’ groups. For instance, 16% of the collective actions organised by worker groups were undertaken by workers at the national electricity company (EDL) alone. Moreover, only 7 of the 172 incidents documented in 2018 were taken by private sector workers protesting against the actions of their employers. They included a strike by teachers at the Grand Lycee school in Beirut, a protest by workers sacked from the company Oger, and nationwide strikes by UNRWA employees against cuts. On the other hand, all the collective actions by workers in the private sector, professionals, and business owners, were either not related to workers’ rights, or were directed at government agencies such as truck drivers protesting unmonitored competition, and lawyers demanding better conditions at the Justice Palace.
Many factors have contributed to the concentration of worker action in the public sector, and its rarity in the private sector, not all of which are related to a weakness of labour movements. Researchers have connected this phenomenon to the change in the structure of Lebanon’s economy especially after the civil war, and the ensuing transformation in workers’ power. Three main trends have been identified in this context: the extreme fragmentation of the economy into micro-enterprises that employ fewer than 5 workers, the informalisation of labour relations in the majority of sectors, and the transformation of the process of capital accumulation in a direction that favours rent-heavy sectors such as finance and real estate. The legal framework has also played a major role, with the country’s working class being divided into several groups that work in different and often contradicting legal frameworks, creating hierarchies and antagonisms among them.
The dynamics of power in the private sector might also play a role in the weakness of worker movements. One aspect of this could be the clientelist relation that in many cases exist between workers and their political patrons through their employment in a private company, especially when the employer and the politicians are in a business partnership. The case of the supermarket chain Spinneys is an example of this model, where the collapse of the clientelist ‘contract’ between workers and their political patrons allowed a wave of worker action in demand for higher pay and the right to form a union.
Moreover, since the 1990s, organised labour in Lebanon has been weakened by the successive governments’ policies and actions, as well as the instrumentalisation of the General Confederation of Workers in Lebanon (GCWL) by political leaders. Thus, according to Georges Saadeh, the Union Coordination Committee’s movement demanding ranks and a salary scale for teachers and public sector workers “came to fill a vacuum.” When the UCC’s demands were not accepted by the authorities, it led public sector workers into a nation-wide strike, and public school teachers boycotted the correction of official exams. While the Lebanese law forbids public sector employees from going on strike, the sense of empowerment that the UCC offered, and the solidarity from the public, helped workers challenge this law. On the other hand, no similar movement exists in the private sector to offer such empowerment or solidarity.
Fragmented protests: a challenge for social and political movements
Although socio-economic rights and policy grievances were the two most recurrent causes of collective actions mapped since 2015, most of these were mostly linked to limited reform targeting a specific policy, rather than demanding larger progressive policy change. Maher Abou Shakra argues that members of the public are unlikely to take action for fundamental and general reforms but are more likely to protest against policies that directly affect them, especially when they are mobilised around “clear and brief ideas they can defend easily against the counter attack of the regime who have extremely efficient rhetoric.” This argument is corroborated by the data which shows that most collective actions are punctual and reactive rather than part of a sustained effort. For instance, in 2018, over three quarters of the mapped collective actions were either one-off or episodic, and only one fifth were part of a series of continuous actions. This is reflected notably when we examine collective actions involving affected groups (inc. NIMBY) or by informal collectives and groups with one-off mobilisations representing respectively 77% and 75% of the total mapped collective actions involving these actors. Since most of these demands were not addressed or achieved, especially in 2018 when the country lacked any active executive authority for seven consecutive months, these numbers likely reflects on a lack of continuity in the protests.
On the other hand, although these one-off or episodic, and usually small scale mobilisations, are the most common (78% of the total mapped collective actions) as shown in our database, they seem to remain less noticeable. According to Abou Shakra, this is due to the lack of coverage by mainstream media but also by activists who usually live in “their own social bubbles”. In practice, this shows that these less visible collective actions often remain political orphans, as they are rarely pushed by wider political or social movements. This affects protestors on the one hand- who are not able to advance their demands- and political movements on the other hand which could potentially build on these street movements to advance their national political agendas. This is especially relevant as many collectives identifying as ‘civil society groups’ such as Li Baladi, or Beirut Madinati that have decided to run for parliamentary elections. If these groups’ activists are “taking the battle from the streets to the parliament'', the trajectory ought not to be seen as unidirectional and raises the issue of the linkages between political opposition groups and the wider social movements.
Indeed, our data shows that mobilising actors tend not to engage collaboratively in the organisation of joint actions, hence adding to the fragmentation of the civic space.
The Map Of Collective Actions In Lebanon, developed by Lebanon Support, tracks mobilisations across Lebanon by groups of people whose goal is to achieve a common objective.
Two interviews were conducted with:
- Maher Abou Shakra, former parliamentary candidate and co-founded the political group LiHaqqi
- Georges Saadeh, member of the Lebanese Communist Party, and one of the leaders in the Independent Unionist Movement in Lebanon