School teachers stage one-day strike over working conditions

The Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) instructed its members working in state schools to strike on 30 April 2009 in protest against the alleged inadequate working conditions of teachers. Another strike in church-run schools scheduled for the same date was called off after MUT and the church authorities settled their differences and signed a new collective agreement on 28 April.

Reasons for industrial action

On 24 April 2009, the President of the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT), John Bencini, instructed the union’s members who work in state and church-run schools to take strike action on 30 April and work-to-rule as of the following working day. MUT is Malta’s oldest trade union and the third largest union in the country.

This industrial action was called in view of a dispute between MUT and the Maltese Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport over teachers’ working conditions and also the church authorities as the union believed it was ‘dragging its feet’ over an agreement that both parties had been discussing for a number of months.

Dispute with ministry

The basis for the dispute with the ministry revolved around the educational reform agreement (MT0708019I) that MUT had signed with the government in 2007. The trade union felt aggrieved by the government’s policy in negotiating the educational reform. While the government claimed that it could not improve its pay offer during those negotiations, it had actually agreed to higher payments in other sections of the public sector, such as healthcare. MUT accused the government of failing to submit counter-proposals to its proposed draft addendum to the agreement reached in 2007. The addendum contains revisions of working and pay conditions of teachers. The proposed amendments were reported to include requests such as increases in allowances, new wage rates for new posts and a reduction in the number of students in a class.

MUT also expressed its disapproval about the non-implementation of several clauses in the 2007 agreement. Mr Bencini stated that teachers were not being given fair treatment and were suffering from injustices by being denied what they had been promised. Moreover, he stated that the educational reforms announced by the government, including the proposed new system of transition from primary to secondary education, called for much more investment in human and economic resources than were available at the moment.

The General Workers’ Union (GWU), Malta’s largest trade union, supported MUT by instructing its non-academic staff to refrain from doing any jobs that would fill in for the striking teachers. GWU stated that, as Malta’s largest employer, the government has a greater responsibility to respect the collective agreements it signs and should act as a model employer.

Reaction of education authorities

On her part, the Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Dolores Cristina, stated that discussions about the amendments of the 2007 reform agreement would continue once discussions with MUT about supply teachers, kindergarten assistants and learning support assistants were concluded.

The ministry insisted that MUT’s requests went beyond the terms agreed in the collective agreement signed in 2007 and would thus cost the government an extra €15 million annually. According to the ministry, out of the measures listed in the 2007 agreement, 76% had already been fully implemented, while another 12% were about to be implemented in the coming weeks.

In line with the ministry, the Curia’s Catholic Education Secretariat also stated that the industrial dispute was unjustified and urged MUT to suspend the industrial action.

Conclusion of stand-off

All pending issues between MUT and church authorities were solved during a meeting on 26 April 2009, following which a new collective agreement was signed on 28 April. The strike in church schools was thus called off.

On the other hand, a conciliation meeting between the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport and MUT on 29 April was inconclusive. Therefore, the strike in Malta’s primary and secondary state schools went ahead as planned on 30 April. Since she could not guarantee the safety of children at school on 30 April, Minister Cristina suspended school transport and instructed parents not to send their children to school on that day. The media reported that the strike was a complete success, with almost no teachers, assistant heads or head teachers turning up to work.

Meanwhile, on 30 April, Minister Cristina and MUT President Bencini announced separately that the work-to-rule directive was suspended after the parties agreed to continue talks on supply teachers and to meet on 11 May to discuss a schedule of meetings to address the amendments being put forward.

Manwel Debono, Centre for Labour Studies

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