To strike or not to strike… | Marco Bonnici

… that was the question facing the Malta Union of Teachers this week, as Parliament debated a new Education Act with far-reaching implications for the teaching profession as a whole. MUT President MARCO BONNICI outlines the union’s objections to the new law, and why the MUT first called – then later cancelled – a strike

At a glance, there seem to be many contradictions surrounding this week’s events. On Tuesday, the MUT announced that it had not been consulted about the new Education Act; government responded by claiming that consultation had taken place in 2016, and that the MUT had participated, but raised none of the objections it raised this week. Can you give us the MUT’s version of events leading to this week’s (aborted) strike action?

The situation is this. In 2016, a bill was put forward for public consultation. Like all other stakeholders and the general public, the MUT gave its feedback to the version of the bill that was on the table at that time. This was under the MUT’s previous administration; but if you look at the union’s feedback in 2016, and compare it to our position today, you will see that we have been very consistent. For example: at the time, we were very vociferous about homeschooling; today – though two years have since elapsed – our position has not changed even remotely. Same with the issue of CPD [continuous professional development]. It was included in the original 2016 bill; and back then the union had objected to CPD being included in the law, because we argued that this was an issue of sectoral agreement, not national legislation.

Today, we have reasserted that same position. The underlying issue, however, is that despite the consultation exercise of 2016, we never saw the final document until this week. And when we saw it, we realised that it contained issues that had never been discussed with the MUT during those meetings. It could be that other stakeholders discussed them – the consultation was not just between government and the MUT – or it could be that government included them on its own initiative. But the bill was by that time already at second reading stage. So our major objection was that we only got to find out about these issues – and even then, only by coincidence – last weekend… though the bill had been tabled in parliament on 4 July; and had since reached an advanced stage of discussion. 

How is it possible that a document as important as this could be debated in parliament, without even being seen by a union representing the profession that this law would be regulating? And at the end of the day, the Education Act regulates the entire profession: including, naturally, the educators who will be putting it into effect. Yet we only found out about it last Sunday. On Monday, we went through the document together with our legal consultants; and on Tuesday we held a press conference where we listed out seven main issues we objected to. They were all matters of principle. We didn’t object to a missing comma, or to an individual word here and there that could be amended or improved. Those are small things that can easily be resolved. But matters of principle are different…

One of the main objections concerns changes to the warrant system. The MUT accused the government of trying to make permanent teachers’ warrants ‘temporary’, while Education Minister Bartolo has consistently denied that the new law makes any such change. Can you explain how the new law would have impacted the warrants currently held by licensed teachers?

The main difference since the original bill of 2016 is that the new law added three specific clauses: 17.1, 17.2 and 17.3. These specify that for a teacher to hold on to his or her warrant – literally – they would have to undergo ‘continuous professional development’, in conjunction with a proficiency test. If the Council of Teachers is not satisfied that a teacher has undergone that process, it could lead to the suspension of that teacher’s warrant. After that, there is an extraordinary clause that states the warrant could even be terminated… although this clause already existed in the present law…

To an outsider, that might not seem such an extreme injustice. Other professionals – for instance, doctors and lawyers – risk losing their warrants in certain circumstances. Why should it be any different for teachers? 

It isn’t. There are already circumstances whereby a teacher can lose his warrant: and it has happened in the past, although not very often. There are even current, pending cases before the Council as we speak. At present, there are two specific circumstances that could lead to the loss of a warrant: one is a criminal conviction, which automatically triggers a mechanism leading to warrant withdrawal. This is standard for all Public Service employees. The other circumstance is if a teacher is reported to the Council over a number of shortcomings: either concerning competence, or a violation of the Code of Ethics. But we’re not arguing about these factors. Our objection is that a new tier has been added to those established parameters, making the warrant subject to CPD and a proficiency test. That is why we declared that, with these changes, a teacher’s warrant would become ‘temporary’…

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister announced that he would withdraw the new bill, on condition that the strike planned for Monday was called off. He said this while a ‘conciliation meeting’ between the MUT and Minister Bartolo was still in progress… prompting the MUT to walk out of the meeting, and to announce that the strike would go ahead regardless. If the union’s demands had already been met… why not call the strike off straight away, instead of waiting until today?

It’s not as simple as that: let me explain. We were invited to a conciliation meeting, which as a rule is governed by established mechanisms. There will be a mediator, representatives on both sides… usually, the chosen venue will be a neutral location, to ensure that all sides can speak freely… it wasn’t on this occasion – we met at the ministry – but still, we’re not complaining about that.

Or even about the meeting itself, which proceeded according to the usual parameters: a ministry representative (Minister Bartolo wasn’t present himself) outlined government’s proposals, including the withdrawal of the bill if we called off the strike. So far, so good. But while this was going on, we started receiving messages from the media, asking us for our reaction to the Prime Minister’s offer – and also from our own members, to warn us that everything that was said at the meeting was coming out in the open.

To us, that is not acceptable. If we are in a conciliation meeting, and still discussing a proposal that has only just been put to us… we can’t have pressure emanating from outside that meeting to accept that proposal. One of the things that was said yesterday was: ‘Why hasn’t the MUT taken a decision yet?’ How could we? We had only just heard that proposal, and were still in the process of discussing it at the meeting: asking questions about it, and so on. Yet we were expected to already have an answer. That is why we said that the conciliation meeting had been undermined…

Be that as it may, the outcome has created the impression that the union has contradicted itself. Yesterday you said the strike would go on; today, you said that it has been called off... even if, on the surface, nothing has changed in the meantime. How do you account for the change of heart?

But there was a development between yesterday and today. The proposal we were given at yesterday’s meeting – and which was repeated publicly outside – was: ‘Cancel the strike, and we’ll withdraw the bill’. That’s not the way things are done. We would never accept any form of threat – no matter how subtle – to our right to take industrial action. Besides, our objections were not only to the wording of the new law, but also to the entire way the process had unfolded. What happened then, however, was that at around 6pm, there was a press conference by the Education Minister, who revealed that he had written to the Speaker to withdraw the bill.

That represents a different position from the one we were confronted with earlier that same day. We became aware of it only after 6pm: realistically, we couldn’t convene the council yesterday evening… partly because we had already had a council meeting that same morning. And I believe it’s in everyone’s interest that we all act prudently in this matter: we certainly don’t want to take any rushed decisions. So we convened the council first thing this morning. We considered the entire situation leading up until that point: and we concluded that we were still not comfortable with the position taken by government. Why? Because the ministry had until that point consistently denied all the issues we objected to. Throughout the week, the ministry claimed we had ‘misunderstood’ or ‘misinterpreted’ the law. They even published an excerpt of the new bill, to suggest that there was no mention at all of any such proviso. But it was not the excerpt we were referring to: there were another three clauses, as explained earlier, that did make warrants subject to those new conditions. In my opinion, we were faced with an orchestrated attempt to portray us as if we were saying heresies... as though we had nothing better to do than to raise bogus objections for no reason… and that, to me, is just not acceptable. 

But the MUT’s position still changed since then…

At this morning’s meeting, it was decided that – given that our objections were to those seven matters of principle we had listed out last Tuesday, and that doubts still existed in their regard – we would hold another meeting with the Ministry to discuss those objections. If, after that meeting, we were still not satisfied with the minister’s position on those seven points, then the strike would go ahead as planned. Because it’s not just a question of ‘withdrawing the law’. If the ministry’s position on those points remained the same: if he still refused to acknowledge that those problems even existed, and continued to insist that we were ‘misinterpreting the law’… all it would mean is that the next time we met to discuss the new law, the same situation would unfold all over again. It would once again be a case of: ‘This is how it will be, because this is how I [the minister] want it to be’. And we didn’t want that situation.

The withdrawal of the law, on its own, was not enough. So we held the meeting this morning – in fact I’ve just come back from it now – and made it clear that those three paragraphs had to be removed; that we would not accept a situation whereby a new bill, in future, would retain the same clauses. The minister agreed, and gave an assurance that the three clauses would be dropped. There were other issues: for instance, the proposed law as it was being debated – unlike the existing one it would have replaced – did not specify the qualifications needed to acquire a warrant. We believe these qualifications should be specified in the new law. And we raised all the other issues as well: home schooling, and so on. Most important of all, we emerged from that meeting with an internal document, signed by both parties, detailing all the agreements we reached on those issues. This is why we decided to call off Monday’s strike…

Judging by certain reactions, some people – including, it seems, MUT members – have interpreted that decision as a case of the MUT ‘backing down’. They would have preferred the strike action to continue. How do you respond to that view?

I would say that the MUT would have ‘backed down’ if it didn’t obtain any results. If, for instance, the new bill remained before parliament, and government told us: ‘Don’t worry: wait until committee stage, then come to parliament and we’ll discuss it there’… if we accepted that, then yes, we would have backed down. Because it would be a case of accepting a halfbaked ‘remedy’ that would most likely have got us nowhere. But we would never have accepted that. Parliament is not our forum… it is a forum for politicians. But the remedy we have now, quite frankly, couldn’t be better. The new law has been withdrawn completely; government has indicated it is ready to start talks over from scratch; we have already pre-emptively agreed, in writing, on all the major points… the issues we objected to would not even be up for discussion any more, and we have a signed document as a guarantee. In other circumstances, perhaps we could be accused of backing down; but not when we obtained the results we wanted. I might add another point: our members – especially those who, quite rightly, told us to keep up the pressure, and to go ahead with the strike – were not only concerned about the new Education Act.

There were, and still are, a host of other issues that need to be addressed: from questions concerning the teaching loads associated with certain subjects; how the new assessment mechanism – ‘LOF’ [Learning Outcomes Framework’] – is being implemented; as well as other pending issues, including the 20+ allowance, which some teachers have not yet received. At today’s meeting, we raised all those issues, point by point. The first part of the meeting was about the new Education Act; but the second part was about how all these other issues could be addressed. And on these points, too, there was an agreement to see how we can find a way forward. All the same: as a trade union, we will continue scrutinising government as before. If, for instance, government goes ahead and presents a new law without us having seen it… we will react in the same way. If government doesn’t respect the terms and conditions of our agreement, we will take action again, as we have always done. Nothing has changed in that sense.