Spinneys workers elected their union’s first leaders after a long and bitter struggle with management, particularly company CEO Michael Wright, who resorted to all means of pressure to undermine the union campaign.
As Spinneys workers gathered in the quiet Badaro district of Beirut to vote for its first leadership body, Spinneys CEO Michael Wright did not miss the opportunity to unleash nearly 200 pro-company workers to protest the elections.
A Spinneys lawyer, who was present to monitor the elections, was obviously uncomfortable with the anti-union mob’s behavior, her face turning red with shame.Like all his previous attempts to stop the formation of the union, Wright’s counter-protest failed to prevent the election of Rami Taouk and nine others to head the fledgling union.
“We want Michael Wright as president [of the union],” the protesters chanted, heaping abuse on former labor minister Charbel Nahas, who has been a key supporter of the union organizing committee.
The committee formed in July 2012 after Spinneys refused to adjust workers’ salaries to comply with the national wage increase passed by the Lebanese government earlier that year. This is in addition to other labor abuses, such as not paying their baggers, thus forcing them to rely exclusively on tips.
At one point during the union elections, the counter demonstrators threatened the union’s founding committee members, promising them a “good beating.” A Spinneys lawyer, who was present to monitor the elections, was obviously uncomfortable with the anti-union mob’s behavior, her face turning red with shame.
The union had received official recognition from the the Ministry of Labor on 25 September 2012 after several members of the founding committee were fired by the company.
Samir Taouk was the first to be fired, followed by Milad Barakat and Elie Abi Hanna. As for Mukheiber Habshi, he was attacked and beaten by company goons, attempting to dissuade him from his union organizing activities.
The workers’ initial grievances centered around Wright’s refusal to implement the wage adjustment law. It was also later discovered that a significant number of Spinneys workers were not registered in the national social security rolls, not to mention that the baggers did not earn any wage at all.
Three months after the dispute broke out between the workers and management, several employees decided to launch a union to attain their legally sanctioned rights. The company responded to the union effort by putting all kinds of pressure on the founding committee and workers sympathetic to the union.
When asked who are these anti-union workers, one member of the LTUTC said, “Unfortunately, they are supporters of Amal and Hezbollah.”Management did succeed in forcing some members of the committee to resign, but was not able to convince the 71 workers who signed up with the union to change their minds.
As the date of the elections approached, Wright tried his best to pressure some founding members to drop their activist lawyer Nizar Saghieh as the union’s legal representative, but to no avail.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon, after this months-long struggle with the company, the union founding committee gathered in the Lebanese Trade Union Training Center (LTUTC) to elect their 12-member leadership body in the presence of labor ministry officials and voting monitors.
As it turned out, 71 workers were eligible to vote, but only ten candidates were nominated for election, so they all won uncontested. They immediately held their first meeting to divide up the key positions as follows: Rami Taouk, president; Milad Barakat, vice-president; and Mukheiber Habshi, membership secretary.
Throughout this process, Wright’s men continued their protest outside, insisting that the union does not represent them. They even tried to storm the building, but were prevented by security forces.
When asked who are these anti-union workers, one member of the LTUTC said, “Unfortunately, they are supporters of Amal and Hezbollah.” This is but an indication of the uphill fight that the union faces, for the battle has only just begun.