Unions in dispute over recognition at bank

Trade unions in Malta have clashed over which should be recognised by an employer. A recent high profile dispute came in the banking sector. GWU, the General Workers’ Union, lost its right to represent employees at the Bank of Valletta (BOV) in 1994. It recently claimed it had regained its majority among employees. This was contested by the Malta Union of Bank Employees which successfully took out a court injunction to stop BOV negotiating a new collective agreement with GWU.

Background

Employment relations in Malta are governed and regulated by the Employment and Industrial Relations Act (EIRA) (215 KB PDF). However, the act does not regulate trade union recognition at a place of work. More than one trade union claiming majority representation – 50% plus one – among the same group of workers is becoming an increasingly common problem. The lack of statutory procedures through which a union or unions can claim recognition has created inter-union disputes which have proved difficult to solve.

Bank unions in dispute

An inter-union dispute between the Malta Union of Bank of Employees (MUBE) and the General Workers’ Union (GWU) at the Bank of Valletta (BOV), one of Malta’s major banks, dates back some years.

Between 1992 and1994 the bank’s employees were represented by the GWU. In 1994 this recognition went to MUBE after it proved that the majority of the bank employees were registered MUBE members. There was a further inter-union dispute over representation at the bank in 2007 (MT0703049I).

After the GWU section for Professional and Finance Services (PFS–GWU) carried out a recruitment campaign, it claimed that the majority of the clerical and management staff were now registered GWU members. It published a letter sent by the BOV Chair John Cassar White in January 2014 which confirmed that the majority of the bank’s employees were GWU members. It said GWU had been granted recognition by the bank to represent clerical and managerial grade employees in collective bargaining.

Injunction stops negotiations

MUBE contested BOV’s decision and asked the civil court on 9 January 2014 to issue an injunction to stop BOV negotiations with GWU over a new collective agreement for workers in clerical grades.

The court noted that a conciliation meeting had been held with the Director of Industrial and Employment Relations Noel Vella to establish which union represented the majority of bank employees. The court also noted that the bank had not waited for the outcome of an independent and impartial process, but had decided to take unilateral action and award recognition to the GWU.

The court upheld MUBE’s request for an injunction.

Rival unions’ reactions

GWU said MUBE had always denied that it no longer represented the majority of union members at the bank. It accused MUBE of misleading workers during the dispute, and of ‘not accepting the will of the majority of the bank’s employees’. It repeated that it now represented the majority of union members at the bank and had a mandate to negotiate collective agreements with BOV on behalf of employees.

Its official response to the court, protesting against the injunction, was that MUBE had neither claimed nor presented any proof that it represented the majority of BOV workers, and described MUBE’s actions as a violation of the rights of BOV employees. GWU said it was being unfairly restrained from negotiating a new collective agreement and it asked the civil court to award damages against MUBE to compensate workers for their losses as a result of the court decision.

Commentary

Several efforts have been made over the past 20 years to establish a trade union council based on the British TUC model. Even with the help of the former ETUC secretary John Monks, these have all failed. Maltese trade unions are not governed by an ethical code of practice which prohibits ‘poaching’ the members of other unions, and this is why MUBE’s only option has been to seek redress in the civil court.

The Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta made a number of recommendations on the issue in its memorandum to the political parties contesting the general elections held on 9 March 2013.

One suggestion was that where more than one trade union claimed majority representation at a place of work, the EIRA should empower the employer to negotiate and develop a joint collective agreement with the unions involved. Should such a jointly crafted collective agreement not be possible or desirable to the employer, formal regulations should be developed to establish how exclusive recognition of one trade union should be decided. This recognition, it recommended, should remain valid for a minimum period of time – three years, for instance – to bring stability to industrial relations.

Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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