‘In today’s capitalist world, trade unions must balance things out...’

The General Workers’ Union is celebrating its 75th anniversary, against the backdrop of a global economy which has since shifted far to the right. Is the veteran union marching towards inevitable extinction? Secretary-general JOSEF BUGEJA argues that trade-unionism still has a future; but it has to adapt

GWU secretary-general Joseph Bugeja
GWU secretary-general Joseph Bugeja

The GWU started out 75 years ago at a wartime meeting in Msida to demand (among other things) the right to strike. From its inception, it was very much a blue-collar workers movement, and that association became even more pronounced in the 1970s and 1980s, when it briefly became statutorily fused with the Malta Labour Party under Mintoff. Times have changed considerably since then: labour issues have changed, and so has the definition of ‘Socialism’ in general. Some even argue that the ‘age of unionism is over’. Do you agree? How do you see the GWU’s role today?

The GWU’s core principles have remained the same. What has changed is the type of services we provide, and the customers we provided them to. If, in the past, Malta’s economy was mostly based on manufacturing, or on the shipping industry, today it is leaning more towards financial services, and professional services of a value-added, scientific, research and development nature. We need to tailor our services accordingly.

An example I like to use is: if the GWU were a VHS video rental service instead of a trade union, today it wouldn’t exist anymore. Nobody rents videos nowadays: in the past, there were video rental shops on every street corner; today you won’t find even one. If our services do not change, and we remain static, our role as a trade union would become just as extinct. We have to reinvent ourselves, however... I strongly believe that in today’s capitalist, neo-liberal world, there is need for trade unions to balance things out...

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That is, in fact, the crux of the difference between today and the post-war period (all the way up to the late 1980s). Malta today embraces the prevailing capitalist, neo-liberal worldview; it didn’t under Mintoff, when our economic policies were based on nationalisation and protectionism. Doesn’t this mean that the GWU is, in a sense, hankering after a worldview that is, in fact, extinct?

I wouldn’t say it’s extinct. Today, we are once again moving in the direction of protectionism. America under Donald Trump has introduced certain additional taxes on products from South Korea, among other Asian countries. Now, even Europe is moving there: on the basis that, if America does it, we too will introduce measures to protect our industries... otherwise, it would be ‘dumping’. It’s in part an inevitable consequence of globalisation.

There is no way globalisation can be stopped: that’s for sure. So what should we, as trade unions do?   We must give globalisation a more social face: one that is not based on cheap labour or lack of working conditions. Local companies are now in competition with companies in India and elsewhere, which use cheap labour and substandard working conditions. How are we going to compete? By lowering working conditions?

That would be a race to the bottom. No, if there is competition, it should be on efficiency, while maintaining good conditions. The bottom line is that you can’t be ‘against’ globalisation, because you can’t beat it; but you can make the most of the available opportunities. And if employers are now globalised, trade unions must be globalised as well. We have to think national... but act global.

Perhaps, but isn’t that also an admission that Socialism is dead? Today we have a ‘Socialist’ government that is, at a certain fundamental level, also very ‘capitalist’....

It’s a question we get faced with a lot. The government says it is ‘pro-business’, because when business is created, working conditions improve...

Sorry to interrupt, but that is highly debatable. Government justifies its ‘pro-business’ stance by pointing towards economic growth statistics. And economic growth, in itself, is an EU target. It does not follow that working conditions would improve as a result: many would argue that the race to increase GDP – as an end in itself – has the opposite effect... it erodes workers’ rights.

Not necessarily. Let me give you a practical example. We were confronted with a situation when De La Rue informed us that some 330 redundancies were on the cards. It was closing down its Malta money-printing operations, and moving them to other countries: including Sri Lanka and the UK. I told them: ‘Normally, the movement is to places where labour is cheaper. The UK is not cheaper than Malta. Can you tell me why you’re relocating there?’ They didn’t answer. We starting working, as GWU, to find alternative employment for those 330 people. We contacted Crane, and asked them about the possibilities of moving to Malta – we have trained people, etc – and they liked the idea.

Obviously, we then contacted government, and had nothing to do with the subsequent negotiations: except when it came to the part about working conditions. Now, when Crane opened here – i.e, when the economy expanded - those 330 workers were all absorbed. First we were faced with 330 redundancies – and I can assure you, as a trade unionist, that redundancies are the worst things you can be faced with – and thanks to the new investment, the problem was solved. But the crux of the matter is that, after all this, De La Rue decided to stay in Malta anyway. And they suddenly found they had a vacuum of 330 employees.

Those workers had to be found somewhere... they started approaching other printing presses, etc. Today, both Crane and De La Rue have agreed on a common benchmark for working conditions, to attract better people. Automatically, all the surrounding businesses – not just in printing – had to improve their own conditions, to retain their staff. That is also why, as a trade union, part of our aim is to work together with the employer, as a collaborative partner, to attract more investment... to create more job opportunities.

That may be so from the GWU’s perspective. Employers don’t always see things the same way, however.  The MEA, for instance, regularly accuses the GWU of jeopardising productivity (and hence indirectly threatening jobs) by proposing minimum wage increases, opposing its unpaid sick-leave proposal, etc...

Traditionally, the criticism levelled at us has always been that we ‘try to block investment’, because we’re ‘too inflexible’. [Shrugs] I can give you a whole list of workplaces, in the last three years, where we worked with the employer to increase investment: De La Rue, Crane, Playmobil, the Hilton, the Dolmen, the aviation sector, Air Malta... During the economic crisis, for example, one of the hardest hit sectors was tourism; because if your foreign markets are all facing economic hardship, the first thing they cut back on are holidays abroad. So we were faced with a crisis.

As a union, we accepted to freeze certain conditions in our collective agreements, to help the workplace cope... so that they wouldn’t fire any employees. Now, naturally, when the country is passing through an economically successful phase, it’s a different story. Now, it’s our turn to ask for pay rises. And expectations are high...

All the same, we are at a stage when there seems to be no convergence at all between unions and employers. The GWU continues to make demands, and the MEA continues to resist, arguing that the demands are unrealistic. It is also a fact that the vast majority of Maltese companies are SMEs or micro-businesses; and that even if the country is booming, any change to the bottom line could still be crippling to a small company. How do you respond to the charge that you’re asking too much?

When you sign a collective agreement, that is considered a ‘success’. And it is a success. It is an agreement between two sides. But when things go wrong, they say it’s because the union’s demands were excessive. OK, but once you’ve signed the agreement... you have a responsibility, as much as I do, to tell me: “Listen, Josef: if you’re going to insist on these raises,  within six months or a year I will have financial difficulties and have to lay off employees”. Because at the end of the day, I want employment to increase, not decrease... so that our membership increases.

Our aims are the same. He wants to make a profit on his investment; I want him to make a profit, too; so that he shares that wealth with his employees... because the value of their work has to be factored into that profit. 

This approach may be true for trade unionism today: but GWU has often very militantly defended over lavish over-spending  in cash-strapped or financially burdened industries in the past. Obvious examples would include the (pre-privatisation) dockyards: where lay-offs were doggedly resisted even when the yards were running up debts of hundreds of millions. The restructuring at Air Malta, too, involves trimming back luxuries that unions defended in the past...

There are four trade unions represented at Air Malta, and I want to make it clear that I’ll only comment on the sections represented by the GWU. Basically, all the ground handling: around 700 members. The last collective agreement we signed was in 2004. Over the years since then, the employment model at Air Malta has changed drastically.

The conditions have remained the same, but the profile of our members has changed: from full-timers to part-timers, for instance. Yet we are still bound by the 2004 collective agreement. In fact, we are the only one of the four unions who hasn’t had our collective agreement updated.  Our members made sacrifices: we accepted the conditions we were offered. Under both Nationalist and Labour administrations we worked to safeguard jobs...

In fact, the recent industrial unrest at Air Malta involved other unions – mostly ALPA – and not the GWU: even though the GWU had been very critical of the restructuring process under Gonzi. Meanwhile, it is no secret that the GWU is politically very close to Labour. Does this closeness affect the union’s approach to negotiations? Is it easier to reach agreements with Labour governments than with Nationalist ones?

I understand that people can see it that way. But it’s not necessarily true. I started out representing workers in the Civil Service, under the PN. Now: for me to speak to someone, I need that person to listen to me. It doesn’t depend only on what I say; the other person has to listen to the proposals. I had occasions, under Nationalist governments, when I presented a particular minister with a proposal, and was totally – but totally – ignored. Nothing. Not even a single point taken in for consideration. Worse than that, the same ideas were passed onto another trade union: which then presented them itself, and they were accepted.

On other occasion, I wrote to a permanent secretary within the same ministry, to ask for confirmation that government was negotiating a particular sectoral agreement.  I was told, no, there were no negotiations. Next thing I know, I receive a copy of the new sectoral agreement: ‘Sign here, please’. I didn’t sign. I called the minister and told him that my interest is not in signing pieces of paper, but in negotiating on behalf of our members.  But then, there were other Nationalist ministers who were easy to work with: and we signed any number of collective agreements...

But it isn’t just about collective agreements. The GWU seems to be much more militant under the PN than Labour, too. It’s as though the union loses some of its fighting spirit, when dealing with a political ally...

Let me put it this way: when I became secretary-general, Joseph Muscat was still Opposition leader. The only thing I told him was, ‘Give us a chance to discuss and make proposals. That’s all. I don’t want preferential treatment over other unions. I only want the same treatment as all the others’. What I don’t want is for a proposal to be shot down, just because it came from the GWU. And if you look at how the GWU has interacted with the government these past few years, you’ll find that I only said: ‘Thank you for listening’.

Does it mean we agreed on everything? No. There are issues where we initially disagreed: minimum wage, for instance. It’s a shame that, in a country which boasts so much about economic success, the minimum wage had not been increased for 26 years. I can’t feel comfortable knowing that I’m doing well, but others are struggling to keep their heads above water...

Yet when the minimum wage was raised last April, it was by 8 euros a month: which is half of what the Caritas report suggested as a minimum increase. Are you satisfied with that?

Yes, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, the number of people actually on minimum wage is very low. Around 3,000. But then, there is another band above that, and another above that again: like a concertina. If the bottom level is raised by 8 euros, my next objective is to see to it that the tiers above are raised accordingly, in a way that doesn’t threaten jobs.

There has to be a relativity between the different salary levels. The ones at the bottom got an increase of 8 euros, and that’s good. Is it enough? As a unionist, I’ll always try to get the best conditions possible; but you have to be realistic. As a result of that eight-euro increase, the next level up will see their salary increase by 3 euros (in three years), the next by two, etc. Irrespective of COLA and any other collective agreement increase. But we also agreed on a Commission for Low Wage: so that we won’t have to wait another 26 years to raise the minimum age again. We created a mechanism, between government, employers and trade unions, to discuss how and when the minimum wage will increase next. We’ve already agreed that, by 2023, there will be another revision.

The way I see it, that is our role as a union: to raise the level of our members; to raise the standards of working conditions across the board... but also, I feel the GWU has a social responsibility to work towards solutions to national problems. In its 75 years the GWU has always been at the forefront in this sense. This is why we were the very first protagonists, along with the MEA, to start discussions about the minimum wage in Malta.