News | Sunday, 28 February 2010

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Back to the barricades?

The news that the GWU has decided to hold a march and rally to protest against the rise in water and electricity tariffs is hardly any surprise. What is surprising is that the Nationalist Party media is depicting this decision as one in which street protests are something to be abhorred, more so with the constant use of the phrase ‘inizzlu n-nies fit-toroq’, implying that the presence of large crowds in the streets could lead to the type of violent behaviour that was so common during the 1971-1987 Labour era.
Of course, the PN media strategy is to subtly recall those times without actually mentioning them and provoking a reaction that is understandable only in the case of those who remember them. People of a younger age must surely wonder whether the PN has something against the right to dissent and to protest against a government decision. Paradoxically, it was only the PN that dared exercise the people’s right to dissent so many years ago.
The news coming from Spain and Greece tend to abet the PN spin. Last Tuesday thousands of workers protested in Spain’s major cities against government spending cuts and plans to raise the retirement age by two years to 67. The rallies were the first mass labour protests in the six years of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist government.
On Wednesday, some 50,000 Greek workers took to the streets and a few protesters threw rocks and paint in clashes with police during the widest strike yet against the government’s austerity plan aimed at easing the country’s debt crisis. The unrest flared amid a looming deadline for demonstrating tough cuts demanded by the European Union and fresh revelations over misleading Greek data reporting that triggered the financial turmoil.
Yet, there is absolutely no reason to think that the GWU march and rally today will be anything but a peaceful demonstration. Anything else will be a GWU public relations disaster of such magnitude that it will take years for it to recover from it; especially considering the dire straits in which it has found itself after the loss of a substantial number of members and the practical closure of the Drydocks.
The higher echelons of the GWU know that such protests can never produce tangible results but many are of the opinion that the GWU has no alternative but to organise such protests as a sop to the more militant of its members, who are continually egging the union to take such kinds of action. Their constant lament is that the GWU is not doing enough to ensure that their rights and standard of living are not diminished in any way. In other words, these public protests are part of the Union’s fight for its own survival, more than anything else.
On the other hand, the PN media is correct in maintaining that the GWU only resorts to protests when the PN is in government and in recalling the GWU’s meek reaction to the hike in utility tariffs under Alfred Sant’s 1996-98 Labour administration. Rather than protesting in the street, the GWU then took months to prepare a technical report showing the impact of the rise in tariffs on the standard of living – a report that was completely ignored by Alfred Sant.
The GWU’s ‘two weights, two measures’ policy in the way it deals with the government of the day is, by now, an established fact of political life in Malta and since 1987, various PN administrations have lived with it and survived it with hardly a scratch. This contrasts sharply with what is happening in Spain and Greece: in both these countries, the socialists are in power, but the trade unions do not hesitate to protest publicly against official polices when their members are negatively hit.
In spite of the obvious political bias, GWU secretary-general Tony Zarb and MUT President John Bencini managed to keep a straight face when meeting PN officials to invite the party to participate officially in this Sunday’s protest. This Kafkaesque piece of theatre had to be acted to ‘demonstrate’ to everyone that the protest organisers were keeping their equidistance from the two parties represented in Parliament.
The Labour media made a mockery of all this cant by continually broadcasting appeals for people to attend the protest: obviously the double political act played by the GWU and the MLP is here to stay even with the new movement that encompasses moderates and progressives!
On the other hand, the PN media kept harping that street protests do not solve problems and that these should be analysed around the discussion table. What the Prime Minister actually means when he speaks of discussion round the table leading to results when street protests do not, is not at all clear. This indirectly refers to the meetings of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD) but there are now a lot of misgivings regarding this Council, which many think is just a talking shop where people dish out their opinions without agreeing on anything. I always thought that the MCESD is a forum for social dialogue and consultation and not a forum for negotiation with one side bargaining with the other. Indeed bargaining with government about utility tariffs does not make sense in today’s world, as these tariffs should no longer imply spending taxpayers’ money in subsidies.
The MCESD itself does not claim to be a bargaining medium and describes itself as an advisory council that issues opinions and recommendations to the Maltese government on matters of economic and social relevance.
There are also other issues regarding the composition of the MCESD that ignores developments since it was established by law. Since then, the Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of industries (FOI) have merged and the new organisation now occupies two seats on this Council. On the employees’ front, the MUT has left the CMTU and joined a group of unions now co-operating as the Forum Unions. The GWU has two seats within the MCESD while UHM and the CMTU each have a seat, but the CMTU – excluding the UHM – now represents only 5% of unionised workers while the Forum Unions, which are not on the MCESD, represent 13%.
Government should correct this anomaly rather than expecting the Forum Unions not to join the GWU in today’s protest and to thrash out matters around the discussion table when they do not even have a seat on that table!
But barring such aberrations, today’s protest demonstration is more of a non-event than anything else. Rest assured that we will not see Tony Zarb and John Bencini manning the barricades. After the protest and a dose of useless rabble-rousing, both will go peacefully home to follow some televised football match!

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