09 June 2005

The Web

Trade unions are becoming less popular

James Debono

Membership in Maltese trade unions is declining with the General Workers’ Union losing almost 3,000 members since 2001 and the Union Haddiema Maghqudin losing just over 400 members.
When one excludes pensioners, membership in the GWU, the largest union, has declined by 2902 since June 2001. On the other hand the second largest union, UHM saw its membership base go down by 418 in the same period.
The year 2004 was the fourth consecutive year of decline for the GWU.
This also means that the gap between the GWU and UHM has been closed from 19,382 to 16,266.
Writing in the Biennial Report of the Centre for Labour Studies sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino notes that “if current trends are projected and no radically different trade union strategies are deployed, then one would expect the UHM to reach and even to overtake the GWU in the near future.”
Without calculating pensioners the gap between Malta’s two general unions will be closed as early as 2014.
“We are responding to the new challenges. It is for this reason that I do not think the UHM will ever overtake us”, Tony Zarb told The Malta Financial and Business Times yesterday.
Aware of these statistics the General Workers Union has recently reshuffled its sections and is adopting new recruitment strategies.
“Up till some time ago few would have imagined the members of the national orchestra, driving instructors and other workers from normally non-unionised sectors joining the General Workers Union,” Tony Zarb said.
Tony Zarb attributed the decline in membership to the growing unemployment in various sectors and the early retirement schemes in public entities like the Dockyard and PBS.
In fact restructuring in the Maltese economy has mostly affected entities in which the General Workers Union was particularly strong. GWU membership in the Malta Drydocks, the cradle of trade unionism has whittled down to 1,700.
The decline of the manufacturing sector and the rise of small and medium size businesses has had a negative impact on trade unions.
Baldacchino points out that a more significant gap than the one between the UHM and GWU is that between two clusters of workers.
On one hand one finds a heavily unionised sector of workers enjoying protection from market forces and on the other hand one finds a category of workers fully exposed to the brunt of market forces.
In the latter field non-written contracts, seasonal, part-time and casual engagements, sub-contracting, hire and fire practices and contracts of service are rife.
According to Baldacchino in this context workers strive to deregulate and casualise the relationship with their employer and thus do not seek to join a trade union.
Unions are finding it difficult to penetrate this sector of the economy.
“Certain practices in the private sector like individual contracts discourage trade union membership. One also finds an element of egoism. There are also work-places where workers are not even allowed to join a trade union,” added Zarb.
The gap between these two categories of employees threatens the very idea of working class solidarity.

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