Former General Workers’ Union secretary general Tony Zarb dies

Tony Zarb, the former General Workers Union boss who held sway over the largest trade union between 1998 and 2015, has died at 68

Tony Zarb
Tony Zarb

Former General Workers’ Union secretary-general Tony Zarb has died. He was 68.

Zarb had been battling cancer over the past couple of months. Only three days ago he was being positive about his personal battle with cancer, having just undergone a fresh round of treatment.

Zarb’s death was announced on Facebook by his son Elton. “I never believed I would have to write this message, and I have no words for this difficult time,” he said. “Dad, my love for you will never die.”

Prime Minister Robert Abela paid tribute to Zarb, saying his values had always prioritised workers’ rights and those in need.

The GWU saluted the memory of Tony Zarb, a man they said had been a pillar for workers’ rights. “I am without words. I’ve known Tony Zarb for such a long time. I learnt a lot from him professionally on the way negotiations take place. I have lost a friend with whom I grew up with,” GWU secretary-general Josef Bugeja said. “Maltese workers have a lost a trade-unionist who gave his heart out.”

Former GWU trade unionist Jeremy Camilleri described Zarb as a principal figure in his life since joining the union at 25. “We did not agree on everything, but I learnt a lot from him, and he gave me a lot of opportunities,” Camilleri said on Facebook.

In a statement by the Nationalist Party, leader Bernard Grech paid his condolences to the Zarb family.

Tony Zarb, last of the militants

Zarb was an unmistakable protoganist throughout the 1990s and 2000s in the battle between unionised workers and the Nationalist administration, as well as having opposed EU membership.

Tony Zarb during a protest outside the Malta Drydocks. Photo: Gilbert Calleja/Mediatoday
Tony Zarb during a protest outside the Malta Drydocks. Photo: Gilbert Calleja/Mediatoday

The odds were against him throughoiut his time. Once a union that could bring the country to its knees, in the 2000s the GWU was fighting against the weakening bonds of solidarity in the working class. Successive Nationalist governments managed to peel layer after layer of the union’s strength, while still avoiding a final showdown, indicating the corrosion of the values that once animated a union that championed social reforms.

Zarb was deemed an uncompromising figure by the Nationalist ministers he dealt with. As GWU boss, he fought against finance and public investments ministers, and against their plans to downsize workforces in government companies, chiefly the Malta Drydocks and Air Malta, apart from other government companies.

Zarb, left, with successor Josef Bugeja (centre)
Zarb, left, with successor Josef Bugeja (centre)

Zarb started work as a cutting operator at the Blue Bell jeans factory in the 1980s, joining the GWU a year after. He rose through the ranks and later took over the union’s port and transport section. In October 1998 he was appointed as secretary-general and took office in January 1999, holding on to the post for 16 years until October 2015.

Under his tenure, the GWU provided its continued alliance to the Labour Party, with Zarb spearheading national strikes against the Nationalist government’s austerity policy on energy rates. He fronted the ‘Issa Daqshekk’ campaign against the government’s plans to increase taxes, and also put up opposition against the winding-down of the Malta Shipyards ahead of its privatisation.

He staunchly opposed the privatisation of the Maltese ports, despite in 2006 port workers breaking off from the GWU under legal advice from George Abela, the former Labour deputy leader for party affairs who was later made President of the Republic.

But in 1999, Abela had stood beside Tony Zarb and other GWU officials after the police arrested a number of Malta International Airport employees following a union directive to strike. The union officials had raced after the police bus carrying the arrested workers and blocked its way at Marsa, where a scrum ensued. Zarb planted his body right onto the police bus’s bumper.

Famously, Zarb was the only union leader campaigning against EU membership, keeping the GWU in synch with Alfred Sant’s campaign against membership. “I did it on the basis of a decision taken by the GWU’s biggest institution, the national conference,” Zarb said in 2017 about his position against EU accession.

GWU boss Tony Zarb: We will not give in

“I really believed, at the time, that joining was not in our interest. One of the reasons was that, in our opinion, we could have achieved a lot more from [negotiations with] the European Union: there were many sectors we represented that would have been negatively and directly impacted by membership. This is in fact what happened. But it’s fair to also say that, as soon as the people decided, the GWU issued a statement saying that we now must move in accordance with the people’s decision. And we stuck to that decision.”

In 2015, he was made a Member of the National Order of Merit on the Republic Day honours list. But his comments in defence of the Muscat administration, and the ease with which he branded critics of the Labour administration ‘traitors’, became a problematic aspect. “I didn’t go abroad to talk against my country... like those traitors did last week,” he said in 2017 when Nationalist MEPs spoke in Brussels of corruption at home. “It’s what you do abroad that matters: those MEPs went abroad to damage our country... I had a lot of meetings outside Malta. But I never spoke a word against Malta. Never, not one.”