It’s funny the reaction you get from people when you tell them you are going to Beirut. Many tried to mask their surprise, then asked, “Why would you go to Beirut?” I can’t say that I blame them. After all, when Pat Keefer from AFT’s International Affairs department asked me to go, I took a day or two to respond and did so with questions about the safety and security of my destination. In all honesty, though, I knew the moment she first extended the invitation that I would go.
For the past six years AFT has been working through a grant with Education International and the Solidarity Center on building and strengthening labor unions in the Middle East. AFT strongly believes in partnering with groups around the globe on workers’ rights and union building as a way to strengthen communities and educational opportunities. Since Ohio successfully defeated SB 5, an attempt to take away our collective bargaining rights, AFT asked that I attend a seminar in Lebanon to share lessons from that experience with the Teachers Syndicate in Lebanon.
The seminar was entitled Campaigning for Economic and Social Justice and Quality Education: Mobilizing our Members and Building Public Support. Interestingly, the TSL had just ended a successful 30-day public employee strike the day before the seminar began – a strike in which they played a very active role in campaigning for justice and mobilizing members. This, as you can imagine, led to some fascinating exchanges as they shared their experiences (in Arabic via translator) with me, and I talked about similar experiences here in Ohio.
The public employees in Lebanon had not had a raise in more than 16 years so TSL leaders were ecstatic that they were able to successfully end the lengthy pay freeze as a result of their collective action. I was impressed by the commitment and courage of the TSL leaders who do all their union work in addition to holding full-time jobs. Yes, even the president of the entire TSL teaches full time and does union work after school hours. Yet the organization and mobilization efforts were incredible. TSL is a union of private school teachers so they were very much in jeopardy of losing their jobs for participating in the strike. The law impacted them as well as the public employees, so they stood in solidarity with other unions even though they did not have the same protections from retribution.
Daily during the strike the TSL met at 6 am outside a non-striking school to distribute information and talk with teachers entering that school about the importance of them joining the strike. At 8 am, all teachers met at their respective schools for an update on the strike and to travel to a demonstration site. All teachers were told that the union expected teachers to either be at work or be at the informational meeting – no one was to use the strike as an excuse to stay home. Every day there was a demonstration to which members were provided transportation. Every afternoon, TSL leaders met again to plan the next day’s meetings and actions.
Like us here in Ohio, the TSL understood the importance of communicating with their union members as well as reaching out beyond themselves to inform and collaborate with other organizations and community members. It was important for me to learn how important the daily planning, daily actions, daily communications were to successfully rallying members around improving their own welfare. Just like here in Ohio, improving the teaching experience results in improved learning experiences for children.
Like us here in Ohio they understood the challenges still ahead. The challenge of keeping members engaged once the initial battle is over. The challenge of reaching out to members and growing membership in places that have been disconnected. The challenge of finding solutions to problems, collaborating, leading. The challenge of defining ourselves instead of being falsely defined by others.
The challenge of writing the next chapter.
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