Where will the General Workers’ Union be heading following the stepping down of Tony Zarb from the post of general secretary?

Ever since it was founded in 1943, the General Workers’ Union had a closeideological and strategic relationship with the Labour Party. This enabled the construction of various important aspects of Malta’s welfare state and also ensured that workers had a strong voice, even more so as the union became Malta’s largestworkers’ organisation.

On the other hand, the union’s closeness to the Labour Party affected its autonomy, often rending the union as a satellite. This was especially the case during Labour administrations between 1971 and 1987 and also between 1978 and 1992, when there was a statutory fusion between the two.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Union supported Labour’s rough governance, wage freezes, and economic mismanagement, which ultimately created a space for Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party and other unions to pronounce themselves as the defenders of workers’ rights.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, however. For example, former union militant Sammy Meilaq argued in his recent autobiography that the union’s strategy during the 1980s provided the spark for agreements between the two majorparties in the dark days before the 1987 general election.

Under post-1987 Nationalist governments, the GWU became increasingly militant, only to soften up its approach once again during Labour’s 22-month rule between 1996 and 1998.

The Union’s closeness to Labour was more than obvious when both opposed Malta’s EU membership, notwithstanding the fact that experts commissioned by the union recommended otherwise.

In the post-2013 Labour government, the union once again softened up, and its erstwhile commendable campaigns against precarious employment practices largely disappeared once Joseph Muscat became Prime Minister.

There was an exception though. In what seemed to be his swansong, Tony Zarb led the union to militancy just before he stepped down – and rightly so – in defence of bus drivers’ working conditions.

Indeed, Tony Zarb should be commended for popularising discourse on precariousness, the rights of part-time workers and the rights of foreign workers within Maltese society.

The social background of the labour force has changed too. Many workers today are generally more qualified than previous generations

Zarb’s successor Josef Bugeja has inherited some tough challenges. For example, the union has a relatively high representation in the public sector but relatively low representation in the private sector.

Private sector workers in precarious conditions might find it difficult to join a union, despite their legal right to do so. And this also includes foreign workers who are often more susceptible to exploitation and to lack of knowledge on their social and legal rights.

At the same time, however, an increasing number of workers might have a more individualised employment outlook, within smaller company settings characterised by professional human resource management and tailor-made contracts for employees. In the latter case, such workers may be less motivated to join a trade union, and if they do eventually join, there is no guarantee that they will join the GWU.

Besides, the social background of the labour force has changed too. Many workers today are generally more qualified than previous generations, and the number of both female and foreign employees is increasing.

Fellow sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino foresaw much of this some years ago, when he predicted that with an expanding services sector and with changes in employment settings, the GWU might face tough challenges regarding its membership base.

New general secretary Josef Bugeja seems to be aware of this. Indeed, in his inaugural speech he said, “we need to look at sectors that never believed in trade unions. We need to go out and convince the 50% of Maltese employees who are not members of any trade union, of the benefits to be in a union”.

If I had to give my two-cent worth of advice to the GWU, I would encourage it to be less dependent on the Labour Party, so as to be more attractive to prospective members who are not necessarily so keen on unconditional party politics. I would also encourage the union to give more importance to the diverse backgrounds and aspirations of workers. This would also mean that the union should mainstream discourse and policies which are friendlier towards gender, national, political and other identity differences.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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