10 August 2005

The Web

PM calls Tony Zarb’s bluff

James Debono

The government and the GWU are heading towards a show down as the GWU’s ultimatum for a meeting with the Prime Minister expires today.
In a letter addressed to the GWU last Monday, the Prime Minister made it clear that government will not engage in talks unless the union unconditionally withdrew its threat of industrial action, The Malta Financial and Business Times has learnt.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister told this newspaper that on Monday the Prime Minister had written to the GWU informing it that he will only accede to the union’s request for a meeting if the notice of sympathy industrial action is withdrawn unconditionally.
According to Gonzi’s reply, talks between the government and the GWU should be limited to the issue of ETC's support to the 13 Interprint employees to enable them to find alternative employment in the private sector.
Government’s conditions are contrary to the demands made by Tony Zarb in a fiery speech on 28 July when the union chief said his union was ready to order widespread industrial action in the private and public sectors.
On that occasion, Tony Zarb warned that in order to avoid industrial action, the government had to call a meeting with the union by 10 August to discuss alternative employment for workers at Interprint, a government company which has closed down.
Contacted yesterday Tony Zarb said he would only comment after the expiry of the deadline, today.

In a dramatic show of militancy full of rhetoric on working class solidarity, Tony Zarb warned that workers will take to the streets if the government persists in what he described as the “guillotine policy.”
Cheered by the GWU militants, Tony Zarb warned that if the government does not accede to the GWU demands “if need be we will hold a demonstration every day.”
But Tony Zarb’s show of militancy has not moved the government one inch from its initial position.
In its letter presented to the Prime Minister on 29 July the GWU had insisted that Interprint employees should be offered alternative employment in the public sector.
It also made this a condition for withdrawing its notice of industrial action in the public and private sector.
According to Gonzi’s spokesperson the government is honouring its commitments which are spelled out in a collective agreement “negotiated, signed and endorsed by the GWU.”
“This agreement states very clearly what are government's obligations in the case of redundancy. Once all other avenues to save the company have failed, there is no other solution accept to proceed in accordance with what the GWU itself had negotiated on behalf of all the employees.”
The only concession made by the government is offering ETC help to enable Interprint workers to find employment in the private sector.
The government has in fact instructed the Employment and Training Corporation to give its full support to the Interprint employees seeking alternative employment.
But these workers will not be favoured over other workers who have been made redundant.
They will be treated “in the same manner as workers in the private sector hit by these same unfortunate circumstances.”
According to the government one of the reasons why the privatisation of Interprint failed to materialise, was related directly to the generous clauses for redundancy payments included in the collective agreement.
In its letter the GWU also asked the Government to ensure that anything that may effect public sector employees should first be discussed with the Union.
According to the government spokesperson the Government has always discussed openly and consistently with the union on all its restructuring initiatives, in Interprint as in anywhere else.
The Government insisted it is committed to continue holding these discussions.
In its letter the GWU also asked the Government to discuss more job creation in the private sector.
But according to the government the very threat of industrial action in the private sector threatens employment in this sector.
“It is unfortunate that the GWU chooses to threaten sympathy industrial action which undermines this very objective,” the spokesperson said.
Doubts have also been shed on the legality of industrial actions threatened by the GWU.
“Sympathy actions presume that there is an ongoing industrial dispute. Government fails to understand how there could be an industrial dispute, if all terms and conditions of the collective agreement are being honoured in full,” the OPM spokesperson said.
But according to the government apart from the “legal niceties” the real issue is “the implied threat to economic growth and industrial stability of our country which is surely not in the interest of workers themselves.”

August showdown
Tony Zarb’s tough stand on this issue will go down well with the grass roots who will be voting on whether to confirm him in his position as GWU general secretary in October.
But the government could score political points from an uncalled for head on collision brought about by the union itself.
The union’s ability to gather the support of private sector employees in its bid to force the government to find alternative employment for 13 Interprint workers could also backfire.
Interprint workers have been offered termination benefits, which will cost the taxpayer Lm0.5 million.
Instead of generating solidarity between workers, the union’s campaign could serve to deepen the already increasing rift between cushioned public sector workers and other workers who are fully exposed to the guillotine of market forces.
The plight of 13 employees who were offered generous termination benefits could not be enough to rally these workers to the streets in the hot August days.



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