MUT President: ‘UPE did not criticise union, but lied about us’

Malta Union of Teachers President Marco Bonnici testifies in libel case against rival Union of Professional Educators • Bonnici reluctant to identify government officials involved in negotiations

UPE head Graham Sansone (left) and MUT President Marco Bonnici (right)
UPE head Graham Sansone (left) and MUT President Marco Bonnici (right)

Malta Union of Teachers President Marco Bonnici appeared unwilling to identify which government department his union had negotiated teachers’ salaries with, but strenuously denied the allegation that it had only ordered a strike to save face, having already accepted the deal.

Bonnici took the witness stand on Monday in ongoing libel proceedings filed by the MUT against its rival, the Union of Professional Educators (UPE). The union boss told the court that the allegations were lies aimed at discrediting him.

The union is contending that all the claims made in a press release issued by the UPE, and which had been published by all media houses, were untrue.

He went through the allegations, one by one, denying them all.

The claim that the MUT wasn’t negotiating about the basic salary, but only allowances was untrue, he said, because if a person is promoted to a higher pay grade, their basic salary will automatically increase.

He also refuted the claim that the UPE had been excluded from an agreement between the State and all trade unions, exhibiting a list of signatories and telling the court that not all trade unions were involved.

No internal information was leaked from the MUT, Bonnici said, as the meetings with its members and working groups had already taken place at that point, meaning that the information was in the public domain.

READ ALSO: Frustrated and angry teachers: ‘Why did we even strike?’

He denied the allegation that the MUT had already accepted the government’s financial proposals before it had ordered members to go on strike. “What is being said is that we first accepted the financial proposals and then went to strike, to assert our power,” Bonnici said, “but the agreement, more than two months since the strike took place, is still yet to be concluded.”

The MUT boss refuted the UPE’s claim that the union he represented had a side agreement with the government, insisting that no such agreements had been entered into since he had taken over in 2014, also denying the implication that Bonnici had been acting selfishly, in his own interest.

Insofar as the UPE’s description of an “illegitimate agreement” was concerned, Bonnici told the court that the discussions between the government and the MUT were both ongoing and legitimate, adding that this had damaged MUT’s reputation.

“Everything uploaded to the UPE website was picked up and reported by practically all national media outlets,” lamented Bonnici.

Bonnici was cross-examined by lawyer Jason Azzopardi, who asked the union president whether, in reality, he was objecting to the criticism levelled at him.

“I don’t object to criticism, I object to lies.” replied the witness. “It wasn’t criticism,” Bonnici said, “because it was aimed at discrediting me.”

Azzopardi asked him about the government’s proposals. “They were made to the MUT and were not accepted,” replied the witness, dryly.

The lawyer pressed Bonnici to identify who was representing the government in the negotiations. “The Permanent Secretary is the government, the minister is the government, the Prime Minister is the government,” Azzopardi pointed out, but the court overruled his objections, reminding the lawyer that the defendant was not using a “substantial truth” defence, (a plea that the claims had been substantially true, which excludes libel), and so the question was irrelevant.

He then asked Bonnici to exhibit a written copy of the government’s proposals that had been referred to both in his testimony and in the union’s press release.

Lawyer Keith Borg, representing the MUT, objected to this request. “First of all, the sectoral agreement Bonnici was talking about is still being discussed and secondly, we are in libel proceedings, so what is objectionable in Bonnici’s claim has nothing to do with what Azzopardi is saying.” He warned against upholding the request, telling the court that attempts to force the union to show its hand in the negotiations would damage their position in the ongoing negotiations.

Azzopardi suggested that the document could be sealed in evidence and only made accessible to the parties.

“My client’s argument is that when he issued the press release, the MUT had already accepted the government’s offer. As a face saver, to prove that the other side was wrong, the government had rejected them.”

The fact that Bonnici was reluctant to reveal who was representing the government in its negotiations with the MUT, indicated there was something worth hiding, Azzopardi argued, telling the court that without it, the magistrate would not be able to assess whether UPE's head Graham Sansone’s claim was his honest opinion or whether it was a fabrication.

The argument became heated when Bonnici replied that keeping the document under seal would not give him reassurance, because he did not trust Azzopardi’s client.

The Court cut the submissions short after the lawyers on both sides shouted over each other, adjourning the case to March.