A trade unionist for life? | John Bencini

Politics and trade unionism run in John Bencini’s blood. But although tempted to join the political fray after being offered a star candidature on the Labour ticket, Bencini decided that he prefers to remain a trade unionist

Forum president John Bencini
Forum president John Bencini

John's grandfather Ganni Bencini and his brother Robert were among the founders of the Camera Del Lavoro, a precursor of the  Labour Party. Both were later elected to parliament on the party's behalf and went down in history as the only twins to ever sit together in a Maltese parliament.

Robert Bencini later joined the Constitutional Party, only to return to the Labour Party after the war,  before retiring from politics following the split between Boffa and Mintoff.

On his part, Bencini was elected as President of the Malta Union of Teachers council member in 1982 getting his baptism of fire during the teacher's lockout under a Labour government in the 1980s. 

He went on to become the MUT's President in 1996.

In 2006, he rose to the helm of the Confederation of Maltese Trade Unions only to resign a few months later.

Subsequently, Bencini upset the traditional trade union set up by steering the MUT away from the CMTU towards the newly-formed Forum of Maltese Unions - a confederation of 11 unions representing 11,000 mostly professional workers. 

In this way, he helped to break the duopoly of Maltese trade unionism and create a viable third force.

For the past eight years, FORUM has been at loggerheads with the Gonzi administration over its demand to be included in the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development. It was only last week that the government finally accepted FORUM's request.

The government's change of heart came amidst rumours that Bencini will be contesting the next election on behalf of the Labour Party. When I confront Bencini with these rumours, the veteran trade unionist confirms that some time ago, he was approached by the Labour Party to contest the next election. But after serious deliberation, he decided to turn down the offer.

Bencini - who was recently confirmed in his post as President of the Forum confederation of trade unions - insists that he prefers to remain involved in trade unionism rather than join the political fray.

But Bencini appreciates the offer made by the Labour Party to contest on its behalf.

"The fact that a political party approaches you to give your contribution is in itself something very positive."

Bencini did not take Labour's offer lightly and did not dismiss it immediately.

"I gave it a lot of thought...because I feel that I can translate my beliefs as a trade unionist in the political camp."

He also points out that many of his friends in European trade unions now form part of the government of their country.

"There is nothing out of this world for trade unionists to retire from trade union activity to join political parties."

But after assessing the pros and cons, he took a final decision not to contest. What would he have done if the Nationalist Party made an offer?

"The PN did not approach me to contest with them but what counts for one party counts for the other."

While clearly pleased by Labour's offer to contest on its behalf, Bencini warns the Labour Party leadership "to be careful not to say yes to everyone".

"For example, Labour would be inviting trouble if when meeting conflicting organisations - for example hunters and environmentalists - it gives the impression that it agrees with both. Whether you like it or not, you have to take a stand."

He also warns Labour against raising expectations sky high, as this would inevitably rebound on the party if elected.

But Bencini praises leader Joseph Muscat for repeatedly saying that he would only promise what can be delivered.

"People are no longer gullible.  Political parties must be careful not to promise things which they cannot implement once elected or re-elected".

He also offers a nuanced criticism of the present government, praising its foreign policy, expressing a mixed judgement on its economic performance while denouncing its lack of social conscience.

According to Bencini, during the Libyan crisis Malta emerged with its international reputation strengthened.

Bencini also recognises that the country's economy is not faring as badly as other countries. But he also points out that government tends to compare our performance with countries, which are not doing so well, such as Italy, Spain and Greece, and not with some Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, which are faring better.

One positive indicator of the country's economic performance is its level of employment.

"Anyone saying that we are not doing well with regards to employment is being dishonest." He even points out that in some sectors there is an over supply of jobs which are not being taken by Maltese workers.

But he expresses concern about the increase of job precariousness. One factor contributing to this is the farming out of government services to private companies who employ people on a part time or self-employed basis.  Bencini refers to the case of carers working in old people's homes.

But the government's greatest failure according to Bencini is in the growing number of people at risk of poverty.

Bencini asks the Prime Minister: "You say that the country is doing so well with regards to employment... You say that the country's finances are solid...  then how come we have all these people with social problems?

"And why is the standard of living deteriorating?"

He refers to cases of teachers who buy bread for pupils hailing from poor families. He refers to an 85-year-old widow who could not switch on the heater during the harsh winter months because she cannot afford paying her electricity bill.

"Should these things be happening in this day and age?"

Bencini sees the risk of increasing social polarisation as the middle-class shrinks.

"I hate seeing extremities, with some people having it so good with yachts and luxurious cars - God bless them - while others live in miserable conditions?"

He also warns that the middle-class, whose spending fuels economic growth, is also feeling the pinch. At the same time, poverty is increasing.

"One in every five children is at risk of poverty. It was not like this before. I remember the time when people used to beg in the streets. We have not arrived to this yet.  But we are getting near because people are begging through different ways."

Bencini thinks that on this particular aspect, the country is regressing rather than progressing.

Bencini blames the hikes in utility bills and petrol for exacerbating social problems.

But can the government afford to subsidise things like gas or utility bills without increasing the deficit? Something, which in the long-run could erode the sustainability of welfare?

Bencini insists that this is not a question of increasing subsidies but a problem of identifying the government's priorities.

"If the country has such a limited amount of money, we should clearly identify what our priorities are."

He questions whether money in social assistance is being well spent and directed towards those who are most in need while also questioning the expense in government consultancies.

"What sense does it make to have ministers having as much as 20 consultants some of which earn as much as €70,000?  The government needs to examine its conscience in this matter."

Bencini also echoes the criticism made by European Trade Unions that austerity on itself can end up worsening the economic crisis. For austerity results in a dip in the very purchasing power of those whose spending fuels economic growth.

FORUM has been asking to be admitted in the MCESD membership since 2005. Bencini wonders why it had taken the government so long to accept this reality.

Bencini recalls that for the past eight years, the government had been saying that it had no problem admitting Forum in the MCESD but it needed consensus among present MCESD members before this step was taken.

"We never understood what the government meant by consensus in MCESD on our participation as a vote has never been taken in MCESD's history."

So what changed?

"I don't know. Some people are asking is this decision based on conviction or on electoral convenience?"

Bencini once alleged that the government was held hostage by an entity, which did not want FORUM in the MCESD.

Bencini clearly points his fingers at the CMTU referring to earlier problems faced by Forum to join the European Trade Union Council which accepted FORUM as a member if 2011.

"It did not take us eight years to join the ETUC but it took a year and eleven months after we applied."

He reveals that although the ETUC had no problem with FORUM's membership, it had to seek the opinion of its Maltese members. While the GWU made no objections, the CMTU had objected.

According to Bencini, CMTU also lobbied foreign trade unions, especially Christian Democratic trade unions like the Polish Solidarność and the Italian CISL to block FORUM's membership.

Bencini claims that the position of the CMTU against FORUM membership hardened after its participation in the protest against the utility bills price hike in Valletta.

"Both the CMTU and UHM objected to our participation and accused us of destabilising the country."

The government's change of heart came in the wake of a meeting organised by AZAD between FORUM and the Prime Minister. Significantly, the meeting with FORUM was the first 'Kuntatt' meeting arranged by Simon Busuttil following his appointment as the PM's civil society envoy.

Bencini reveals that upon being contacted by Busuttil's secretariat for the meeting, he immediately sent an e-mail to Busuttil.

"I clearly told him not to waste his time if the Prime Minister simply wanted to tell us that he was still seeking consensus before admitting us to the MCESD."

Busuttil replied telling Bencini that it was in the union's interest to attend.

"The meeting clearly showed a clear change of heart.  There was no longer any mention of the need for consensus in MCESD." 

During that meeting the Prime Minister argued that since FORUM had been admitted in an important international body like ETUC, it could not be kept out of the MCESD.

Bencini points out that this is the reverse process of what happens in other countries, where unions first join their country's economic and social council and than are admitted in the ETUC.

"All we ever wanted was to contribute to the country in an important council where things like the budget are discussed."

He also points out that FORUM is particularly strong among professionals in the education, health, social, environmental and tourism sectors - key policy areas where the union can give its contribution.

FORUM represents electorally strategic categories of workers like teachers, nurses academics, pilots, architects and other professionals who are either traditionally more inclined towards the Nationalist Party or who cannot be pigeon-holed politically.

The MUT's decision to leave the CMTU, which grew as a rival of the Labour-aligned GWU in the 1970s and 1980s, and join FORUM represents one of the most dramatic developments in Maltese trade union history.

Bencini insists that the straw that broke the camel's back was the MUT's decision to join a protest against the hike in utility tariffs but insists that tension had been brewing for some time. He also rebuts the attempt to blame the rift on him personally, referring to minutes showing that the MUT's decision to leave CMTU was taken by a secret vote in the union's council.

"The council did not want MUT to remain isolated. Therefore, we decided to join FORUM which in our opinion is made up of unions who are free from partisan politics and who have shown this in practice."

On 15 February, Bencini had expressed concern about the political uncertainty in the country, urging the government to take courageous steps to end the crisis, which was a distraction from the economy and jobs.

Three months later, Bencini still thinks that the crisis has not yet been resolved but he expects a resolution in the next weeks when parliament will have to vote on a budget bill.

"We cannot afford a situation where parliament does not meet as much as it should and where votes are not taken because of the government's fear of losing or of having to rely on the speakers' casting vote...We will only get out of the crisis when a decisive vote is taken in parliament and the government wins."

But according to Bencini, there would be no alternative to an early election if there is another indecisive vote like the one taken in January where the government had to rely on the Speaker's casting vote.

One issue, which keeps cropping up from time to time, is whether schools' opening hours match modern-day realities.

Bencini sticks up for teachers against accusations that they are privileged when compared to other workers.

Bencini insists that unions have no objection to the use of school assets after school hours, pointing out that the country has made an enormous and positive investment in school infrastructure.

"It does not make sense to switch off the lights after 2.30 pm."

Neither does Bencini object to informal educational activities being carried out at schools after school hours.

Bencini insists that teachers' work does not stop when teachers also have to prepare lessons and do their corrections, and this is done after school hours.

Bencini also points out that women are being increasingly attracted to the teaching profession - because this job leaves them more time to spend with their families. 

In fact, this could be one of the reasons why the profession remains attractive for some, considering that it is no longer perceived to be financially rewarding.

Let Mr. Bencini answer to himsef,this million dollar question. Why did he resign, or was forced to resigned, from the presidency of the CMTU?
Jekk il-PL jirbah l-elezzjoni li jmiss, post is-Sur Bencini jkun lura ma' l-ghalliema ghax mur ara kif jipprova jsallabhom il-gvern. Ga ssemma kemm-il-darba l-hin ta' l-iskejjel. Imbaghad inkunu rridu naraw l-irgulija ta' dak li jkun.
No hard feelings. I would have liked Mr Bencini to be a PL candidate, but he knows that, unlike other prospective PN candidates Rudolph Cini of the MUMN and Gejtu Vella of UHM, he has to remain away from politics once he has the workers at heart.
while his decision not to run on the pl ticket is a sure loss to the party, we cannot but respect the decision of this gentleman.
John Bencini ragel ta' veru. Dejjem meqjus fi kliemu.
Its seems that Mr Bencini really has the workers at heart. Well Done Mr Bencini!