Lebanon: Bitter battle over Spinneys union
On Monday night, the Friends of the Spinneys Workers’ Committee gathered for a sit-in across from the supermarket chain’s Achrafieh branch. Close to 80 activists were penned in by security forces in anti-riot gear as the group declared their solidarity with the employees of the supermarket chain. The demonstrators shouted for the rights of Spinneys employees to unionize and receive social security.
Across from the union supporters, on the other side of the road, another crowd had assembled at the supermarket’s entrance: Spinneys employees clad in white t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Loyal Employee of Spinneys.”
Against the neon green backdrop of the supermarket, several hundred workers were addressed via loudspeaker by a man sporting a white T-shirt who declared, “We reject the union, it does not represent us. The union is made up of thieves.”
They wanted us to show our support for the company. Our attendance was not optional. We were brought here like sheep. Pop music soon replaced the union haranguing, broadcast from the loudspeakers at a volume very nearly drowning out the demands being shouted from the other side of the road. When approached, none of the “loyal employees” of Spinneys would explain how the union members are thieves, answering instead with shrugs. An unexpected explosion of glitter then rained down to festoon the crowd, an attempt to crown the event as a festivity.
The union under attack was formed by Spinneys workers in July 2012 in response to their employer’s failure to adhere to Lebanon’s wage correction law. Spinneys has gone to extreme lengths to discourage employees from union activity.
In the midst of the celebration, one “anti-union” worker agreed to talk to me on the condition of anonymity. He explained in hushed tones that the workers had been instructed to board buses from the various branches of Spinneys, some from as far as Saida, Tyre, and Tripoli, to dance in front of Spinneys Achrafieh. “Management has been telling everyone that [union leader] Milad Barakat was dismissed from his job for stealing and that he only tried to form this union to get revenge,” he said. “They wanted us to show our support for the company. Our attendance was not optional. We were brought here like sheep.”
At this point the music dimmed for another speaker. “If the union gets in the company might fall. This is about our lives, our families, our paychecks.”
A group of seven men in Spinneys security guard uniforms approached us. The man I had spoken with whispered in my ear to not tell them what he had said and disappeared into the crowd. The men asked what it was I wanted to know and then explained that they had come to show their loyalty to the company. “It’s not that we are against the idea of a union, but we don’t want to be represented by a thief.”
This venomous accusation against Barakat from the Spinneys administration is just the latest in a string of threats and intimidations since the inception of the union, which now includes over 100 members. After refusing to abandon their union activities, several members, Barakat included, lost their jobs. Union secretary Moukheiber Habshi was beaten up and threatened with more violence if he does not desist in his campaign for workers’ rights.
Here we now have workers demonstrating against their own rights.Separated by a row of army soldiers and policemen, the pro-union demonstrators continued their protest. Balancing on a friend’s shoulders, an activist spray-painted a church wall behind the demonstration with “Spinneys violates its workers’ rights” in Arabic.
Activist and member of the Friends of the Spinneys Workers’ Committee Farah Kobaissy, after leading a chant from atop an electrical box, explained that Spinneys workers, even those involved in union activity, were unable to attend the sit-in as it could very possibly cost them their jobs.
“This is a movement towards changing the political economy in this country. We are here to support the workers in their fight for a better life, for better wages and for social security,” said Kobaissy. “Employees within Spinneys told us that they would be dismissed if they did not show their support for the administration today. Here we now have workers demonstrating against their own rights. This is the level of the pressure the administration is able to push its workers with.”
For the Committee members, their most important task is to encourage more workers to join the union and to gradually break the spell of fear that Spinneys employees work under.
Lawyer Nizar Saghieh has been involved with the union ever since they came under attack by their employers. “Tomorrow [November 13] we are going to file a criminal case against Spinneys CEO Michael Wright based on article 329 of the criminal code, which calls for the punishment of anyone who prohibits citizens from enjoying their civil rights.”
Saghieh believes that the Spinneys union could be groundbreaking in pushing for workers' rights in Lebanon. If conditions for Spinneys' workers improve, it could create a ripple effect throughout the country.
Those who did not submit to the pressure included three founding members of the Spinneys-Lebanon Workers Union who have already lost their jobs because of their struggle for fairer wages.
Samir Taouk was fired for distributing a petition for a wage increase. “This has been a four month conflict,” he said. “Spinneys doesn’t want to give its workers their rights, it is against social security. The administration thought they were protected by politicians and could do whatever they want. But now we are starting to gain points. We won in the court when we were granted permission for our union, and we now have the media on our side.”