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NEWS | Wednesday, 06 August 2008

Dockyard blues: spotting the bully

The sullen looks on dockyard workers’ faces during last Monday’s rally in Ghajn Dwieli in the scorching August sun, could not represent a sharper contrast with the times when dockyard workers ruled the streets, inspiring shock and awe in the rest of the country.

What was once the “aristocracy of the working class” is today being bullied by the government into accepting termination benefits without even having a clue on who will be buying the once glorious dockyards.
Here, like at Sea Malta, the stronghold of the General Workers Union membership is under the Damocles’ sword of privatisation. At Sea Malta, the GWU suffered a major debacle after the government successfully split the office workers from the sailors, after offering them a government job. And now, the same prospect hangs over dockyard workers’ heads.
On that occasion the government not only succeeded in liquidating the company, depriving workers of any financial compensation, but also dealt a fatal blow to the GWU’s morale. Unsurprisingly, last Sunday finance minister Tonio Fenech himself reminded workers of the fate met by the Sea Malta workers.
Today GWU secretary-general Tony Zarb has a difficult task in convincing workers to united under the GWU’s “umbrella” in a hope that they can get something better than the sum offered by the government.
“There won’t be another Sea Malta, because we will not allow the government to buy workers to divide them,” Zarb told the dockyard workers on Monday, in a meeting convened at the dockyards.
The GWU is not even opposing privatisation. The union is simply expecting it is allowed to negotiate with the new owners of the dockyard as it has done in other privatised entities.
And although it has lowered its demands, the stakes are still very high for the GWU. For the closure of the dockyard would signify the loss of one of its last major strongholds after losing the strategic control of the ports.
For section secretary Pawlu Bugeja, the latest clash is part of the government’s “war against the workers’ movement,” auguring that the union will prevail in the same way as “the Russians stopped Napoleon.”

But dockyard workers seem wary of confrontation, despite facing dire consequences and being deprived of their basic right for information. Contrary to what was reported on Radio 101 which claimed that workers took to the streets to demonstrate, Monday’s rally was a sombre and stationary affair in which workers gathered to listen to trade union leaders pleading them to remain united and not to rush in to accepting the government’s termination benefits.
The only loud cry from the crowd just before Tony Zarb took the podium was: “we want 50,000 liri.”
It was former dockyards chairman Sammy Meilaq, who was raising workers’ expectations by telling them that in Greece, the government had given workers Lm50,000 each before privatising the docks. In so doing, Meilaq is keeping on board those workers who would gladly accept the termination benefits while keeping alive the struggle for a job guarantee.
Proving his proficiency in playing chess, the militant leader seems to understand the government’s moves. Meilaq spelt out the government strategy to split workers in three camps: those who simply want the termination benefits, those insisting for a job guarantee, and those who would like to know more before deciding on whether to accept the termination benefit.
“If we rush in to apply for the termination benefits, the government would have won through divide and rule tactics,” Meilaq warned as he reminded workers that they will have two whole months before committing themselves.
Workers in their 40s are the most opposed to the government’s offer of termination benefits. “If I was 55 years old I would have gladly accepted the termination benefits but at my age it is difficult to find a job with the same pay,” a 39-year-old worker told MaltaToday.
Yet the same worker expressed doubts whether workers will remain united in the face of pressure to take the sum and bid farewell to the docks. And this is also the fear of the trade union leaders.
The gist of Meilaq’s speech was that by not accepting the termination benefits immediately, the workers would give the union more time to negotiate a better agreement for all three categories of workers.
The union’s demands were spelt out clearly by Zarb: those who want to retire early should be allowed to do so, but not a single job should be shed.

Labour support
Neither can workers count on the Labour Party. GWU section secretary Pawlu Bugeja did not spare the Labour opposition in his fiery speech for keeping too quiet on the dockyard issue. With reference to the “squandering of Lm20 million” in relation to the Fairmount contract, he called on the Labour opposition to “wake up… challenge the government to present the accounts of the dockyard.”
He did not even refrain from taking a jibe at One TV, for not reporting the speech he made on Friday to union delegates.
Union leader Tony Zarb did thank Labour leader Joseph Muscat for promising his support to the union, but only after thanking Zminijietna, Moviment Graffitti and Campaign for National Independence leader Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.
Clearly even among workers, there is disappointment on Labour’s moderate stand on this issue. “We are aware that the party has to appeal to those fed up with paying taxes to subsidise the dockyard, but one would have expected them to take a more clear stand on this issue,” a dockyard worker told MaltaToday.
Until the 1980s the dockyard workers used their might to impose the Labour Party’s agenda. Ironically 30 years later, the workers feel abandoned by the same party.
“We are here not to support any party, we are here for your families,” Bugeja told the assembled crowd.
But ironically, Labour’s reluctance to deploy its troops in a battle where the government can pit exasperated taxpayers against desperate dockyard workers, could thwart the government’s design.
For the dockyard has always provided the government with a convenient punching bag to rally middle-class support in times of popular disenchantment.
With the hike in international oil prices making it very difficult for the government to honour its electoral pledge to cut income tax, dragging the GWU on to the warpath for an epochal confrontation could just be the government’s usual way of manufacturing consent and garner support.
And yet by punching hard against a vulnerable adversary, the government risks appearing as the bully and the dockyard workers the victims.

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