Tony Zarb, last of the militants

Tony Zarb steps down after 17 years in office, having faced three prime ministers. As a trade unionist he is the survivor who kept the militant flame burning. But at what cost for the General Workers Union, JAMES DEBONO asks

Tony Zarb observes proceedings at a rally for dockyard workers just before its privatisation. It was a coup for the Nationalist government and the union was powerless to oppose the expensive and inefficient state corporation from being run on its terms. Photo by Gilbert Calleja
Tony Zarb observes proceedings at a rally for dockyard workers just before its privatisation. It was a coup for the Nationalist government and the union was powerless to oppose the expensive and inefficient state corporation from being run on its terms. Photo by Gilbert Calleja

To those who know him, Tony Zarb is a cheerful, boisterous leader whose authenticity as an organically bred trade-unionist was never in doubt. He cut his teeth in the 1980s as a cutting operator at the Blue Bell jeans factory, where he made his debut in trade unionism. But it was in the 2000s that Zarb’s leadership faced its main challenges, with his “issa daqshekk” (we’ve had enough) rants in a series of animated protests in 2000 remained ingrained in the collective memory, attracting snobbish ridicule. Never a friend of the PN government, he repudiated the EU but was also well capable of singling out the exploitation of immigrant labour and widespread precarious employment as the new challenges of the trade union movement long before these become national issues.

The roly-poly secretary-general is now on his way out, bringing to an end a long career in the General Workers Union. But where has he brought the union in 2015?

Despite his insights and unwavering convictions, Zarb’s judgement has often been clouded by partisanship and an inability to stand up for left-wing militancy in the battle of ideas that was brewing in the wider Labour movement. He waved the flag of militancy, but never delved much into its meaning. In the process, his ways and tactics pave the way for modernisers alien to the labour movement’s traditions to strengthen their hand, failing to arrest the country’s political drift to the right.


Presiding over the decline

Elected in 1998, Tony Zarb took the helm of a General Workers Union that was powerful enough to bring the country to a standstill through its control of the ports, even thought it probably had already lost the political legitimacy of using this power to its advantage.

The odds were clearly against Zarb. An increasingly atomised working class had stopped perceiving the union’s power as a guarantee for its collective rights. It was then already doubtful whether workers still felt the bond of solidarity that once united their class. Instead the union and its leaders were increasingly perceived as being mostly interested in self-preservation. And so it came that 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.

17 years after his accession, today the ports and the dockyard have been privatised and Sea Malta liquidated. Now the union faces a sympathetic but increasingly business-friendly Labour government, making it unclear how strong its influence is on Joseph Muscat’s Labour, a party it historically helped found. The new government may have clamped down on precarious employment in government-awarded contracts, but it has avoided tackling the problem of low wages and precarious conditions in the private sector. Zarb’s last act of defiance – that of standing firm during last week’s bus strike – may well have been his message that the union will not be the new government’s lapdog. It could also be a rediscovery of an ethos rooted in workers’ everyday struggle, in a world that has changed drastically from the time when Zarb was elected, but which may well have become more fertile for the kind of militancy advocated by Zarb.


EU setback and Zarb’s albatross

Elected upon the demise of the short-lived Alfred Sant Labour administration which left the union disoriented by austerity policies, Zarb immediately had to face the choice on whether to take a position on Malta’s EU membership bid.

After signs of hesitation, the union chose to ignore the advice of industrial relations experts which the union had consulted and decided to oppose EU membership. Although the reports commissioned by the union pointed towards an improvement of workers’ rights in matters like health and safety, and social guarantees upon membership, the union chose to ignore these reports and campaigned against membership, reinforcing the perception that the union served Labour’s partisan interests against those of its own members.

Instead of aspiring for a social Europe, a concept backed by most European trade unions, Zarb preferred the cosy alliance with Sant’s Labour party, fighting a rejectionist battle which ultimately widened the gulf between the union and that part of the left-wing intelligentsia which saw EU membership as a way to improve social and environmental standards in Malta.

One major weakness of the union under Zarb may well have been its reluctance to cut its umbilical chord with Labour and forge wider alliances. Although no longer structurally bound to Labour as it was before 1992, when it was part of the so-called “workers’ movement”, the union under Zarb ended up taking the brunt of the splits in Labour. 

Like Alfred Sant’s fall-out with George Abela in 1998 when the party deputy leader called it day as Sant prepared to go in for early elections. Then the GWU’s legal advisor, Abela’s departure before the 1998 general election had deep repercussions for the union. In 1999, Abela 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. The stationary three-ton bus shuddered as the GWU boss took his seat.

The divorce between Zarb and George Abela coincided with the union’s fateful decision to campaign against EU membership. Abela’s defection was subsequently followed by a purge of so-called “moderates” from the General Workers Union. Up until the mid-2000s, it looked like assistant secretary-general Manuel Micallef was gaining enough influence to make a run for Zarb’s role. But after his failed leadership bid, Micallef ended up flirting with Gonzi’s PN before returning back to Labour upon Muscat’s election as leader. The flirtation with the PN strengthened the perception in the union that the “moderate” faction was led by Nationalist stooges, a perception which led to a siege mentality.

After 2008, under Muscat the PL moved to embrace the elements which had fallen off with Zarb as it gravitated to a more centrist stance. But the union appeared to have fossilised, led by a so-called “militant” faction that was incapable of presenting an alternative to Labour’s drift to the right and setting its own agenda. Zarb’s reluctance to press with demands for an increase in the minimum wage, realising that Labour would not back the union, was an example of his inability to renounce the GWU’s innate Labour partisanship.


The class enemy

Surely the GWU’s pact with Labour suited PN propagandists who always regarded the union as a convenient punching bag that allowed it to shore up support among its traditional middle-class support that loved to hate the union. Political fights with the GWU at the shipyards, its core support, was guaranteed to get middle-of-the-road voters’ dander up. One such case was the union’s dockyard section’s principled opposition to the repair of warships, which was based on strict adherence to the Constitution’s neutrality clause. Faced with Eddie Fenech Adami’s assertiveness when confronted by threats of resistance from the union’s militant dockyard section, Zarb reacted with pragmatism by doing his utmost to avoid confrontation on this issue. 

But the co-option of Labour’s “dissidents”, like Manuel Micallef and George Abela by the PN media and government machine, merely increased the perception among Zarb acolytes that the PN had set in motion a coup aimed at weakening the union.

This perception was solidified by the diabolical use of divide-and-rule tactics by Austin Gatt and the ability of the Gonzi administrations to buy the social peace through costly early retirement schemes. While Gatt would become the main driver of privatisation, Gonzi as social policy minister mollified workers’ anger by dishing out millions in debt relief for government corporations and shedding the bloated shipyards’ workforce. The GWU was facing a changing world after 2003: Malta had voted for the EU, privatisation was unstoppable, and the working class’s children were social climbers enamoured with the Nationalist government’s ethos of opportunity.

One battle which captured the spirit of the times was the capitulation of Zarb’s union to Gatt’s antics over national shipping line Sea Malta. The message was clear: if Sea Malta seamen refused the terms set by the Italian company Grimaldi (to which Gatt offered the state company on a silver plate), they would have denied their land-based colleagues of a guaranteed employment with Grimaldi; or even better, a cosy job with some government entity. Gatt sowed the seeds of discord between the shore-based office workers and Sea Malta’s seamen, sandwiching Zarb between the two conflicting interests and dividing Sea Malta workers.

Gatt’s triumph at Sea Malta paved the way for the privatization of the port and the Dockyard, which ultimately stripped the union of its power to bring the country to a standstill through its control of the ports. By offering generous early retirement schemes the Nationalist government even managed to sell the dockyard, historically the cradle of the Maltese labour movement.

The ease with which the former Nationalist government continued to erode trade union might, and even unionization rights – for example by eroding the right to strike in the transport sector by widening the definition of essential services – further amplified the growing weakness of trade unions. 

Bashing Tony Zarb remained one of the PN’s favorite hobbies, right up to the eve of the 2013 general election when the PN published the edited recording of Tony Zarb’s declarations in a private meeting with a cleaning contractor and two mediators, in which Zarb is heard suggesting the union would use its influence to “give a push” in tendering processes to companies that are friendly with it. Ironically the tape, probably recorded by entrepreneur Dominic Gafà, exposed the PN’s link to a contractor who was being accused by union of offering precarious conditions to cleaners.


Opening up to new realities

Despite the perception that Zarb was intransigent and inward-looking, Zarb did show signs of opening up to new realities in the labour market. It was the GWU which in 2005 defended 55 exploited Indian workers installing air-conditioning at Mater Dei Hospital. It was under his leadership that the trade union set up a section for immigrant labourers. Under Zarb’s leadership the union also strengthened its ties with unions who were traditionally antagonistic towards it and the Labour party. Zarb actively cooperated with the Malta Union of Teachers, marching alongside John Bencini in a protest against the hike in utility bills and supporting FORUM’s bid to gain representation in the Malta Council for Social and Economic Development. 

But he failed to heal the historic rift with the PN-leaning Union Haddiema Maqghudin. In fact the regular TV clashes between Tony Zarb and former UHM boss Gejtu Vella further amplified these divisions. Moreover it was the UHM which took the lead before the last election by presenting its ‘Jobs plus’ document, which included innovative proposals on free childcare which was endorsed by all political parties. The invisibility of the GWU in the months before the election in itself suggested an attempt by Labour to distance itself from its historical partner.

But the election of a new leadership in the both the UHM and the GWU may help the cause of trade union unity, constantly undermined by rival demands for trade union recognition. The decision by the UHM to support the public transport strike led by the GWU may indicate a thawing in relations.


Dependence on government

As trade union membership continues to decline due to the rise of a largely non-unionized service sector and the decline of the industrial sector, the union also faced a growing financial crisis amplified by the decline in newspaper leadership. This made the union increasingly dependent on property investments made in the past years, which may well prove to be a poisoned chalice, which undermining the union’s ability to confront the new government.

In 2010, the GWU company purchased 1,800 square metres of basement and garage spaces for €302,818 at the A3 Towers, as well as the ground floor’s showroom, cafeteria, and the first floor’s showroom and second-floor ‘mini market and pharmacy clinic’ for €1.16 million; and then another 35 underlying garages for €285,349 in 2012. Altogether, the GWU purchased the basement levels and first two floors of Montebello Brothers’ A3 Towers for €1.74 million. The GWU-owned Paola Estates then became the preferred bidders in an expression of interest from Transport Malta for the rental of new office space.

ARMS was also looking into the possibility of opening an office in Valletta and renting out the space currently owned and occupied by a General Workers Union subsidiary, despite a contract approved by Parliament in 1997 which only allowed the GWU to rent out parts of the building to companies in which it had a 51 per cent shareholding.

Zarb leaves a union whose might has been seriously called into question. The GWU’s printing press is up for sale, its newspapers have little of the influence they once had with union members and the working class, and the reckless Labour partisanship may have cost it a modernizing platform to enable it to build new bridges.

While government’s ‘bailout’ may offer the union some respite from its financial problems, they also risk making the union dependent on Labour’s good will. Ultimately the union may be forced to choose between rediscovering its ethos as a social movement engaged in popular struggles for social justice – setting the agenda for the Labour Party – or to become increasingly dependent on the fringe benefits of its unofficial marriage to the Labour Party. No longer the wife, but now more of a mistress, accepting the Labour’s increasingly business friendly agenda.

Zarb’s departure leaves the union at a crossroads, opening questions on whether a wrong turn at the turn of the century cost Malta’s largest trade union the very security it once accorded to its members.