Over the last month and a half, a strike by faculty and student-led sit-ins and demonstrations against austerity measures effectively shut down Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public university.
Regular protests — drawing hundreds of students, faculty members and organizations from different schools, cities and political affiliations — took place in downtown Beirut.
On June 18, students, joined by supporters from independent clubs, demonstrated in front of the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Learning, marching from there to the headquarters of the League of Lebanese University Full Time Professors, a state-led organization in a neighborhood south of Beirut.
The demonstrations stood in support for the professors’ right to strike. Teachers and supporting students held banners with slogans such as “We oppose paying the price of Lebanese University’s corruption.”
Not backing down
A statement issued by Lebanese University president Fouad Ayoub on June 19 warned professors against continuing their strike. In addition, the statement limited professors’ travel during the school year, telling them that they need “special permission” to travel and that it will be approved only in “special cases.”
The statement said all deans and managers should “take all academic measures to facilitate the resumption of instruction” and requested that the names of professors who decide to continue protesting be recorded.
This prompted another round of student-faculty demonstrations over the course of the week in front of the university’s central administration building.
Classes resumed June 20 following a decision to end the strike — something numerous leaders from the government and university administration had been demanding — at a meeting of the League of Lebanese University Full-Time Professors.
However, two days later, professors in Lebanese University’s general assembly council voted overwhelmingly to continue their six-week strike. They were joined by scores of student supporters, cheering the results of the vote.
One professor, Bassel Saleh, who is an activist and advocate for teachers’ rights, recognized the importance of the vote in building power among staff. “We must strengthen our victories by building an independent free trade union movement within the Lebanese University,” he said.
After the mounting pressure — from the more than six-week strike, coupled with the success of the teachers’ vote to continue the strike — the Education Minister Akram Cheyhab promised to address the teachers’ demands on June 28. University administrators are currently scrambling to make concessions, however, it is still uncertain whether their demands will be met.
Tired of austerity
Professors went on strike on May 6 in opposition to the Lebanese government’s 2019 draft budget, which proposed major wage cuts to those working in the public sector. Submitted to Prime Minister Saad Hariri in April, it was finalized by the Lebanese cabinet in late May. It was an effort by the government to follow through on promises to the international community, which agreed to loan Lebanon $11 billion last year if it could fix its growing deficit and pass a budget.
However, there is widespread concern that the measures in the budget target public sector employment and services. They would threaten professor’s wages, raise the minimum years of public sector service needed for retirement from 20 to 25, impose a tax on pensions, and lower the number of full-time hires. Lebanon’s political establishment is widely regarded as highly corrupt, with public money and loan dollars systematically ending up in the pockets of the establishment.
Professors are accustomed to being among the hardest-hit victims of austerity measures. Lebanon’s public education sector is already dangerously underfunded, only receiving around two percent of GDP. The annual budget of the university, which has an estimated 80,000 students, is just $250 million.
Opposition to the draft budget’s austerity measures spans sectors, with public-sector employees all across Lebanon also striking against austerity and the threats the budget poses to their wages and benefits.
Despite the education minister’s promises, members of parliament have held off on making an agreement to exempt teachers from the requirement to serve 25 years to retire in the draft budget, and cancelling the teacher exemption on income taxes on pensions.
The strikes have impacted students, who have had to indefinitely put their studies on hold. Nevertheless, many students have stood in support of their teachers, recognizing their shared struggle.
“People in charge want to put the professors against the students to make it look like the students are their last concern,” said Zeinab, a student at Lebanese University who has participated in the demonstrations and chose to not disclose her last name. “It’s not right. When [the administration] wanted to raise the tuition the professors refused [the proposal] because students would not be able to pay the amount.”
Ultimately, students, who are affected by missed travel plans, cancelled summer opportunities and strenuous summer make-up semesters, also demanded the resumption of classes. Yet, they insist this must not come at the expense of professors.
“Every time there is a strike, of course, as students we demand that the university opens up and resumes sessions,” Zeinab said. “We do demonstrations, we set up camp in front of the university and sleep there. But of course, we and the [professors] are on the same page. They should have their rights.”
Despite voting to continue the strike, teachers have put a pause on their action, pressured by the negative effects they have on students. Lessons will continue into the summer to make up for missed coursework. As the teachers protests have scaled down, student voices remain persistent.
The Lebanese University Student Union, an independent student group formed early on in the teacher strikes, plans to continue mobilizing, by demonstrating in front of the Education Ministry and regularly posting updates on the status of the university.
A June 29 post by the student union called for protests every Monday, yet few have decided to heed this week’s call for massive demonstrations. However, student activists are continuing to push for solutions and decent conditions for students and faculty.
The group plans to join with students and faculty in negotiations over what the “post-strike phase” of their struggle will look like. While their demands have yet to be met, the strikes did demonstrate the success public sector professors have had in breaking away from sectarian party politics.
While their demands have yet to be met, their struggle is not lost. The striking professors have decisively broken away from sectarian party politics — and students and public sector workers are expected to continue confronting the effects of austerity on their professions.
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A six-week strike by teachers has bolstered a movement against proposed austerity measures targeting Lebanon’s dangerously underfunded education system.