Malta Union of Teachers pulls out of union confederation

In December 2008, the Malta Union of Teachers withdrew its membership from the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions. A rift was created when the union called for the setting up of a trade union council without previously presenting its proposal to the other unions in the confederation. Subsequently, relations became more strained when the union questioned the government’s document on the revision of the utility tariffs, after the confederation had reacted positively towards it.

Confederation of Malta Trade Unions

The Confederation of Malta Trade Unions (CMTU) was founded in 1959 and is affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). In June 2008, it had eight affiliated trade unions, including: the Union of United Workers (Union Haddiema Maghqudin, UHM); the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT); the Malta Union of Bank Employees (MUBE); the Malta Chamber of Pharmacists (MCP); the Medical Association of Malta (MAM); the Lotto Receivers Union (LRU); the Malta Union of Professional Psychologists (MUPP); and the Union of Maltacom Graduates (UGM). These trade unions totalled about 37,850 members, 41% of whom were women. The largest union in the confederation is UHM with 26,231 members, followed by MUT with 7,136 members. While CMTU is officially not politically aligned, it attained a strong sense of cohesion in the 1980s in its opposition to the statutory fusion of the General Workers’ Union (GWU), Malta’s largest trade union, with the Malta Labour Party (Partit Laburista, MLP), which was then in office.

Rift occurs over proposed trade union council

During the last two or three years, the differences within the ranks of CMTU were quite apparent judging by some of the comments made by the President of MUT, John Bencini, who was a former president of CMTU. On tendering his resignation from CMTU, Mr Bencini made it quite clear that he was not resigning for personal reasons. Nevertheless, disagreements were never brought to the surface during Mr Bencini’s time as CMTU president, as has been the case more recently.

The recent dispute between MUT and CMTU ironically started after all of the Maltese trade union organisations, including MUT and CMTU, joined forces in a mass protest rally on 14 November 2008 against the government’s decision to raise water and electricity rates. After the protest, MUT proposed the setting up of a trade union council, an issue which was raised in 2004 and discussed in the presence of ETUC General Secretary, John Monks (MT0407102F). The CMTU President, William Portelli, described MUT’s proposal as ‘untimely’. CMTU took exception to the fact that such a public announcement by one of its affiliates violated the rules of the CMTU statute. According to the confederation, this proposal should have been forwarded to the CMTU Council before being discussed in the public domain.

Subsequently, these differences in opinion between both sides widened rather than being ironed out. After the protest rally held by the trade unions, the Prime Minister of Malta, Lawrence Gonzi, held a meeting with all of the unions to study their jointly-drafted proposal regarding the government’s plan to increase tariffs. Following this meeting, the government issued a document in which the tariffs were revised. UHM together with CMTU immediately expressed their approval of this document, whereas MUT in unison with GWU and other unions expressed some reservations. These unions questioned the government’s claim that the new tariffs would be beneficial for 73% of Maltese households. The second point questioned by MUT regarding the revised version was the clause that the proposed rates would be operational as long as the price of oil remained low. The government failed to specify the price of oil at which the suppliers of electricity and water would reach a point where they could break even financially.

These issues led to public accusations between the leadership of CMTU and MUT. Among others, Mr Bencini of MUT stated that he had lost confidence in the CMTU leadership. Subsequently, on 6 December 2008, CMTU suspended MUT on the grounds of the latter’s alleged ‘unfair and unfounded’ attacks on the CMTU leadership and on trying ‘to cast a bad light on the officials of the other affiliated unions’. For its part, MUT accused CMTU of breaching its own statute when it voted to suspend MUT without any of the latter’s members being present at the meeting. While MUT argued that it was not given the opportunity to explain its case, Mr Portelli of CMTU disagreed, stating that MUT had twice been given such an opportunity which it failed to take. Finally, on 13 December, MUT decided to withdraw its membership from CMTU. The decision was taken through a secret ballot during an MUT council meeting.

Commentary

CMTU has always been a ‘loose’ federation, acting as an umbrella organisation for a number of trade unions. At present, MUT, which embraces within its fold practically all the members in the teaching profession, feels that it can manage without the shelter of the CMTU umbrella.

Manwel Debono and Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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