Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Teachers' strike closes private, public schools across Lebanon

Tens of thousands of educators converge on Beirut

Daily Star Lebanon
By Nicholas Kimbrell
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

BEIRUT: Tens of thousands of teachers in Lebanon staged a one-day strike Tuesday, closing schools throughout the country and preventing as many as 1 million students from attending their classes. The teachers were demanding higher pay, arguing that a government-decreed wage increase, in effect since September, was inadequate.

As part of the strike, thousands of public and private school educators, along with professors from the state-run Lebanese University, gathered outside of Parliament in Downtown Beirut to protest against what many have labeled an "unfair" pay and benefits package.

Historically, many union and syndicate-led protests have been negatively affected by political divisions, with sectarian allegiances influencing the level of participation.

But Tuesday's event showed few signs of politicization.

In Sidon, for example, a public intermediate school for girls, known to be close with Education Minister Bahia Hariri, observed the strike. And Hariri herself has voiced support for the teachers' demands.

Indeed, the strikers appeared to exhibit a unified front in showcasing their discontent. Organizers estimated that 100,000 teachers across the country observed the protest, and one million students were forced to stay home because of the strike.

Nehme Mahfoud, head of the Teachers Syndicate, told The Daily Star that the country-wide strike was "very successful."

"The strike was inclusive of all Lebanese areas," he said. "More than 100,000 teachers and 1 million students abided by the strike."

Mahfoud estimated that 3,000 educators attended the sit-in in front of Parliament.

He said that the syndicate had presented a petition to Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, who was out of town but had agreed to meet with the group next week. Mahfoud also said that the Teachers Syndicate had met with Minister Hariri.

"We met with Hariri and she said she was convinced by our demands, that she would conduct a financial study regarding our demands and defend our demands in the next Cabinet session," Mahfoud said.

In September Cabinet raised minimum wage from 300,000 LL ($200) a month to 500,000 LL ($333) a month. Teachers say the increase is not enough, noting that no additional allocations were made for rising transportation and health costs.

Mahfoud offered the example of partial salaries paid to retired teachers. "The government is still paying teachers 75 percent of the previous minimum wage for family indemnities," he said.

He said the syndicate would wait until next week to meet. "If positive developments come from this strike we'll be satisfied," he said. "Otherwise we will consider staging more protests."

When asked how the strike might affect students, Mahfoud said that in order for teachers to provide an adequate learning environment for students, they need to be comfortable and paid a fair wage. "If I can't feed my kids how can I teach other peoples' kids?" he asked.

During an interview with the Voice of Lebanon radio station, the education minister described Tuesday as a "sad" day "because Lebanon's students did not attend their classes."

"It's important to establish a balance between the interests of the teachers and the interests of the students," Hariri said, adding that "students should not be used to put pressure on the government even if the demands are fair."

Hariri noted that she is currently assessing the teachers' demands, but that the strike was not responsible for her decision. She added that she is launching a campaign to assess teachers' performances to ensure the best possible learning environment for Lebanon's students.

"I understand the some teachers are hard-working and worthy of a reward," Hariri said, "but, on the other hand, some are incapable of coping with the challenges of the 21st century."

But Mahfoud stressed that the teachers' strike extended beyond the demands of one profession. "The strike is meant for the whole labor force," he said.

Lebanese transport unions and syndicates have announced that they will protest outside National Social Security Fund offices across Lebanon on Wednesday and Thursday.

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