MaltaToday | 17 August 2008

NEWS | Sunday, 17 August 2008

Political football at the docks

By taking their battle to the streets, dockyard workers could prove to be the government’s trump card in a dangerous game of political football, into which the Labour party will inevitably be dragged by its own grass roots. Analysis by JAMES DEBONO

It was business as usual in Paola as dockyard workers gathered to listen to their leaders’ fiery speeches. Gone are the days when shop owners put the shutters down whenever the dockyard workers marched.
The kiosk at Paola was selling even more beer and pizza than usual as workers sought shelter and refreshment from the scorching afternoon sun.
Judging by the standards of trade union protests in the European continent, the dockyard workers’ rally was a calm and civilised affair.
Surely there was a dose of fiery and passionate rhetoric with Sammy Meilaq threatening to “knock down” the doors of Castille and Tony Zarb repeating the mantra that while “Gonzi rules Castille, the workers rule the streets.”
For inflaming the streets with militant rhetoric might be the only card left for the GWU’s leaders to keep the dockyard workers’ spirits high in the face of the government’s divide and rule tactics.
Deprived of its strategic control of the ports and still bruised by past defeats like that of Sea Malta, the union can only bank on keeping dockyard workers united.
And with some workers present at the meeting, this tactic seems to be working.
“We have nothing to lose… if we remain united we will surely get a better deal… those who want to retire will get more money while we get our job guarantee,” a 43-year-old worker attending the meeting told MaltaToday.
The GWU’s only chance of winning this battle is to keep the majority of workers from accepting retirement schemes until the government bows to its demand to give those workers refusing retirement schemes a job guarantee.
Faced with such a scenario, government would have either to budge by offering concessions to the union, or close the dockyard and fire 1,700 workers in a single blow without offering them any compensation.
This could well be a Hobson’s choice for the government: if it remains intransigent it risks an epochal clash similar to that endured by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s, a course of action alien to the PN’s centrist Christian democratic leanings.
But the GWU’s gamble could pay off, but only if the government’s more subtle divide and rule tactics are unsuccessful.
Dockyard workers themselves know that some of their comrades will not resist the temptation of accepting the government’s offer. “I can only vouch for myself, but so far it seems that only a few are caving in to pressure,” the dockyard worker told MaltaToday.
For if a substantial number of workers take up the government’s offer, the union will have lost its battle.
Surely the union cannot bank on Lawrence Gonzi having any qualms of betraying his own pre-electoral promises. Gonzi seems to have heeded the Machiavellian maxim that “a prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.”
It is useless for Sammy Meilaq to remind him that “Malta is not a run by a prince” and that only a prince “has the privilege to go against what he promised.” Nobody disputes that before the election the government had promised not to downsize the dockyard, written black on white in an article penned by Lawrence Gonzi.
The PN went as far as promising dockyard workers that they will earn more money and pay less in tax despite knowing that under EU rules, no subsidies were allowed after 2008.
Gonzi’s calculation is that with public opinion on his side, he can do away with a few pre-electoral promises especially those made to a category known for its Labour sympathies.
He surely had no qualms in breaking Jesmond Mugliett’s promise not to liberalise motor hearses. Sure, he had to buy them off from the ensuing strike by dishing out a gift of €230,000. But unlike the Labour leaning dockyard workers, this category was led by the Nationalist deputy mayor of St Paul’s Bay, John Bray.
Surely by breaking a promise to dockyard workers he will even distract his own middle class constituency when he will be unable honour his tax-cuts pledge in the next budget.
Certainly, the call by the dockyard workers’ union secretary Pawlu Bugeja to Labour to “wake up”, made during the first dockyard workers’ meeting at Ghajn Dwieli, paid off, with the Labour party being represented in last Wednesday’s protest by party leader Joseph Muscat.
The fact that former MLP leaders Alfred Sant and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnnici were also present underlined the continuity between KMB’s old, Sant’s New Labour and Muscat’s hybrid movement of moderates and progressives.
Sant’s presence did not stop Bugeja from lashing out at former dockyard chairman John Cassar White, the man entrusted by Sant in 1996 to come up with a plan for a radical reform to make the Malta Drydocks viable.
But this time round Labour has the double advantage of having a new leader untainted by Sant’s doubletalk on the dockyard and being in synch with opinion makers like Lino Spiteri and Alternattiva Demokratika.
And by accepting privatisation, the GWU has played ball and refrained from taking an intransigent position which would have embarrassed Labour.
By not acknowledging this historic compromise, the government risks alienating some discerning middle of the road voters who are not blinded by class hatred.
For as Lino Spiteri observed “everyone now agrees in principle that the ‘yard should be privatised,” and that it’s the way “the government is going about doing it [that] could jeopardise the objective”.
As Spiteri warned, the government’s “pigheadedness” could simply result in a further waste of public funds possibly to make way for a ‘yard “staffed by expatriate workers”.
Spiteri himself has so far presented the best way forward: see what business plans are presented to determine the overall most advantageous offer; see what the jobs element in it is; put forward early-leaving schemes; see what the residual who prefer to continue to work in the maritime sector is and assist the workers involved to form a cooperative, carefully helped along with the unutilised balance of €49 million of public funds which the Finance Minister said was the limit which the employee shedding should cost.
Yet the temptation for government could be ignoring Spiteri’s sane advice and embarking on a confrontation to galvanise the PN’s dormant grassroots while dragging Labour into an epochal war. Government knows that decades of subsidies have alienated dockyard workers from taxpayers, so far immune to the union’s allegations of gross managerial errors like the Fairmount contract.
The problem facing Labour now is whether it will keep its presence on the streets when the union runs out of ammunition and is forced to escalate its actions. “We will keep moving until we reach Castille… we will knock you down (nisfrundawk) with the papers in our hands,” Meilaq warned, earning an ovation from the assembled crowd.
Those scandalised by protests in front of Castille may well remember that the Sliema women banging pots in the 1980s had no such qualms.
But what cards will the GWU have left after marching to Castille? Surely Joseph Muscat faces a dilemma. His presence and support in future meetings is in itself an insurance against a violent escalation of the conflict.
But what if exasperated workers start to interpret Meilaq’s words literally and really try to knock down Castille’s door?
The bus and taxi drivers who tried to knock on the same door a month ago only earned the rebuke of the rest of the country. And by going down that slippery road, dockyard workers risk dragging down Labour with them.

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.




MaltaToday News
17 August 2008

Four prison wardens denied bail on charges of violent assault

Lija buffer won’t stop three-storey monster

This tree must die

Data protection chief dies aged 65

Marsa open centre manager throws in the towel

Joe’s last story

Azzopardi’s family cling to bracelet as they query CCTV evidence

Malta Shipyards saga drags on and on in privatisation war of words

Drinking themselves silly

Political football at the docks

Malta accused of concealing tuna exports

Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email