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Paralyzing Strike in Lebanese Public Education Ends

BEIRUT — A successful strike for higher salaries by professors at Lebanese University, the only public university in the country, spread to much of the Lebanese public-education system, paralyzing it. But the strike came to an end last week.

Late last year, after a 50-day strike, full-time professors at the Lebanese University, which has more than 70,000 students, won an increase in their salaries. The professors’ success encouraged secondary-school teachers and some public employees to start a similar strike with the same demand.

The strike has emptied schools and blocked much of public education in the country. Since February 19, public-school teachers, private-school teachers, the administrative staff of Lebanese University and the Ministry of Higher Education, and many other public employees have been on an open-ended strike. The strikers are demanding that the Cabinet adopt a new salary scale and send the law to parliament for final approval.

A Union Coordination Committee organised daily sit-ins and protests near government institutions. Angry protesters staged wide demonstrations across Lebanon and strike committees were organized in different workplaces to support the strikers’ demands.

“Our salaries are eroding, we have had no real increase since 1996,” said Pierre Malek, a teacher of philosophy and civilization for high school students. “There was no serious response to teachers’ legitimate demands, despite an inflation rate increase of more than 100 per cent during this period.”

Official paperwork and transactions ground to a halt due to the public employees’ strike participation. Leaflets posted at most public offices including the Higher Education Ministry and Lebanese University say: “We apologize for the service; the strike goes on.”

The employees of the Higher Education Ministry kept coming to their offices; however they did not sign any official documents. “We do not aim to harm others’ benefits; however, we will go on until our demands are met,” said an employee at the Higher Education Ministry.

Academics at Lebanese University supported the  strike.  “We understand the demands of secondary school teachers and we clearly and strongly support their rights to get higher wages,” said Charbel Kfoury, former president and currently a secretary of the Association of Full-time Professors at the Lebanese University. The university answered the Lebanese Syndicate Coordination Committee call and participated in the strike by suspending lessons for two days.

Salaries in Lebanon are generally low. The wages from both the public and private sector in Lebanon constitute no more than 25 percent of the GDP, which is one of the lowest ratios in the world, found a study last year by the Lebanese Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture.

In early September 2012, the Lebanese cabinet approved a system for new ranks and salaries for all public employees. But the government is debating how to pay for the raises, which could cost over $1.2 billion, at a time when the country’s economy is hurting. Also, the Economic Committees, a federation of private interests, lobbied against approval of the new wage scale, saying it would fuel inflation.

While all public schools shut down their doors, not all private schools in Lebanon were committed to the strike. Some of the private-school owners said raises for teachers would oblige them to increase fees.

On March 3, Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Private Teachers’ Association, announced that private schools across Lebanon will resume classes. “We will change our protesting style and adopt other methods that do not harm students,” Mahfoud said following a meeting of private-school teachers. “We can still teach the students and protest in the afternoon,” he explained.

But 40,000 public school teachers, responsible for 150,000 students, were still on strike until late last week.

On March 12, hundreds of teachers with many of students and their parents went on strike and gathered outside the Ministry of Education in Beirut’s UNESCO area in response to a call by the Union Coordination Committee. Some strikers believed that each day the strike would get bigger.  “If there is no access to a quick solution, these strikes will turn into a revolution of the hungry,” Rabea Shalhoob, a high school Instructor said sadly. Shalhoob, like many of his colleagues, believed that teachers have become the victim of political disputes in the country.

Meanwhile, education’ progress floundered. “Students will not sit for official exams unless they complete their curriculum,” said Hanna Gharib, the head of the Union Coordination Committee, adding that teachers will be willing to make up for missed school days due to the strike. But if exams are postponed, students will not be able to finish their studies in time to attend universities, in Lebanon or elsewhere.

Striking teachers said they will not feel guilty for disrupting schools. “We are giving lessons to our students,” Malek believes.  “Lessons in how to practice democracy in a peaceful and civilized manner, this is the most important lesson in life.”

On March 21, the cabinet finally referred the new wage scale to the Parliament for vote. The salary raise would be tied to an increase in the minimum working hours from 32 to 35, with a 48-hour maximum, and gradually decreasing the teaching hours of professors beginning at age 58.

For its part, the Union Coordination Committee announced it has suspended its strike. Now,the coalition is seeking a one-month delay in Lebanese official exams. “Right now we are working on postponing the official exams by around one month to allow students to complete the curriculum,” Gharib told a local television channel .

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