2 OCTOBER 2002

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The GWU’s international and educational sphere

Marika Azzopardi recently spoke to the General Workers Union International and Educational Departments Head Michael Parnis about Malta’s largest union’s international relations and its educational initiatives – a task he describes as more of a mission than a mere job

As Head of the International and Educational Departments at the GWU, Michael Parnis is undoubtedly a busy man. Involvement in all the GWU’s international relations is a big task. "For one thing, there are all the foreign publications to check out – look," he said as he pointed to an enormous batch of envelopes and publications, "this is only yesterday’s post! I try to find time to read whatever concerns us and whatever is useful to other departments is handed over and circulated to be read." And the post also includes numerous invites for conferences held abroad.

The International Department receives at least three invitations per week. "In 2002 we sent 120 persons to attend 78 different conferences. We cannot attend each and every thing going on internationally. We try to focus on what interests us as a country and union. For instance, if there’s going to be a conference on textile workers, we would opt for that and not for something discussing nuclear power plants, which are not included in Malta’s industries."

The ETUC – European Trade Union Confederation, is a European organisation that holds an executive meeting four times during the year. GWU officials always attend and then there are the courses.

"We strongly believe in training staff, and persons from various sectors are sent out regularly to follow developments abroad. We have constant help and support from leading unions such as the CGIL and UIL in Italy. These help us by sending literature, offering moral support and providing sponsorships."

Support is also forthcoming from various trade unions in the UK. "With these we virtually hold an open cheque. For instance, the TGWU has provided a full sponsorship for nearly 40 persons whom we sent over to Britain to attend courses on health and safety, trade union laws, women’s rights and so on."

Through the years, GWU officials have been held in constant high esteem by foreign counterparts, as proven when the European Trade Unions selected Maltese officials for specific training. "These Unions offered to train some of our officials on particular courses and subsequently these were sent to Third World countries, such as the Philippines, to train union workers there."

As we broached the subject of the EU, I had to ask Mr Parnis just how Malta’s possible accession to the EU would affect the GWU’s functions. "The EU should not affect any of our present relations with other countries. During the last four years we have had continuous direct contact with Brussels and we are often called over to deliver lectures there. In fact next week two lawyers involved with the GWU are to attend a conference on industrial law."

I asked him why the GWU is held in such high regard by so many foreign unions and by the EU itself.

"I am not bluffing when I state that we consider ourselves the largest trade union in the world. Just consider the figures. We have 47,000 members, which makes up two thirds of all union members and nearly 50% of the working population. Now compare this with Italy. The CGIL has 5.2 million members which is just a fraction of the Italian working population and this is considered as being Italy’s largest and strongest trade union."

This led to a query about partisan politics and the union’s link to this social scenario and its subsequent influx on union membership. "The GWU is recognised as the strongest union. It is highly present in major public bodies and private enterprises and I can mention factories as a vivid example that being a Labourite does not equal being a GWU member and that being a Nationalist does not equal not being a GWU member." Mr Parnis went on to explain how even Nationalists are GWU members because the GWU may hold the majority of union members on the workplace in any particular setting.

"When the GWU was directly linked to the Labour Party, it might have been the case where a GWU member was definitely a Labour supporter. Today this is no longer true. We don’t check the political preferences of our members, it is virtually impossible and not in our interest. Membership is open to everybody, opportunities are open for everybody, our shop stewards are both Labourites and Nationalists."

Again I queried Mr Parnis about international relations and asked which country can be adopted as an ideal role model for the GWU. "Definitely the UK. The British understand us best and in some areas, such as those involving the law, we are even better equipped than they are." He pointed out that being an English speaking nation makes training feasible, whether sending trainees abroad or bringing in lecturers; and the British legal system is so close to ours that we can easily relate to it.

Then again he stressed how we can look up to the British system to examine trends, way before we adopt them for ourselves. "During the past 30 years we have observed that whatever happens in the UK today, will probably materialise in Malta eight years on. So by studying the systems adopted by the British, we can observe changes, anomalies, errors or successes and act accordingly."

I delved further into the conversation and asked Michael Parnis to switch to Head of Education Department mode and explain about the Fondazzjoni Reggie Miller, which is in its fourth year of activities.

"We have set up seven schools. A school is what we name any unit which organises more than one course. During 2001 we had 4,000 students attending, and we do not really advertise and many people do not consider our courses as being popular. What would happen if we were?"

Why are GWU courses so popular? "Well, for one thing courses are extremely cheap, ridiculously so in some cases. Many are even subsidised. Then again, they are held in Valletta, here at the GWU, which makes it central. We have good facilities and professional tutors and lecturers. And there is a whole gamut of courses for all people of all ages."

I was surprised to discover that amidst the standard language or computer courses, the general courses include specialised courses even for pensioners. "Yes, pensioners are presented with this course which prepares them for their pension days whilst they are in the last phases of the working year. We also organised a computer course for the elderly, wherein the youngest trainee was aged 65 and the eldest 85. Imagine being the youngest in class at 65!"

Mr Parnis expressed his pleasure at surprising events. Such as 501 applicants for the recently issued course of drama. "We’ve had to organise 13 classes to accommodate everybody, and I hope we don’t get any more as yet!"

The list of courses is definitely impressive and includes languages, crafts, music, IT, health & safety, art & drama and various others. I was also impressed by the attention which is dedicated to shop stewards who are offered from 12 to 15 seminars through the year, spanning from finances, and budgets through to health & safety. "Even a simple induction course can lead to further knowledge through more in-depth courses, where we have discussions, fieldwork, group work. We go as far as organising mock collective bargaining sessions for these shop stewards and hire a court room at the Law Courts to give them a hands-on feel of the real situation."

Michael Parnis’ job is not just a job, but as he calls it, a mission. Days start early at 08.00 hrs and if he manages to get home by 19.00 hrs, he considers it especially positive. I ask if he’s ever thought of leaving the job. Mr Parnis smiles at this. "This job becomes part of you, there are so many responsibilities, it is not simply a matter of making a hand-over. But we’re elected to this post every four years, so one never knows!"

He is in his second term in office and has another three years to go before approaching re-election. In reality this job is a far cry from Michael Parnis’ mind as a school-leaver. "I come from a small family and my parents did their best to train me. I managed to get a scholarship to the former Mount Carmel College but after my ‘O’ levels, I just wanted to go out and work." So he went to the then Technical Institute at Paola and sat for an exam to become a Dockyard worker, which he managed to do.

"I spent nine months in training and had one month to each trade. I’m still amazed to this day at the amount of skills I acquired in those months, especially knowing that I didn’t even know how to handle a simple hammer."

Eventually he specialised and became a journeyman – a steel worker and held the post of shipwright. In time he was one of the first eight people to gain a certificate in shipbuilding, which certificate landed him a job at the Malta Ship Building, where he stayed for seven years.

He is quite proud of the fact that at 36 he went to University and at 38 acquired a Diploma in Industrial Relations, which helped paved the way to his present role within the GWU.

"It is amazing how, from a young man who didn’t want to study and discovered a love for manual work, I ended up in this job. Providing training for others. But I’ve surely discovered the importance of training. It happens to us as well. We officials have our own retreat once every three months. It’s true, it sounds strange to people who are not aware of the importance of this. But we take time to meet, have topical discussions, brainstorm and be provided by specialised training from professionals. It makes all the difference to the job."

This interview originally appeared in our sister paper MaltaToday


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