James Debono analyses the GWU leadership battle
In the present contest for the top General Workers Union post, Tony Zarb harps on the virtues of militancy while Manwel Micallef seems bent on downplaying this distinction.
The Nationalist media has also emphasised the rift between militants and moderates in the GWU.
But according to the employers who sit on the opposite side of the negotiating table, it is not easy to pigeon hole Tony Zarb as the union’s militant and Manwel Micallef as the union’s moderate.
While acknowledging that Manwel Micallef “prefers a less ideological approach” the President of the Malta Employers Association Arthur Muscat notes that both contenders can be reasonable interlocutors.
While reaffirming the view that Tony Zarb is known to project a tough image, speaking from direct personal experience Muscat contends that in the end “Tony Zarb can be mature and down to earth and come to sensible solutions and compromises.”
Commenting on Manwel Micallef Muscat says,
“Micallef prefers the less emotional, less ideological and more pragmatic approach.”
Yet according to the President of the Employers Association the rift between militants and moderates in the GWU is a reality.
“Whoever is chosen as Union leader, will have to close the gap between the so called militants and the moderates. There is as yet too much polarity within the GWU. Rather then black or white reactions to problems, the leader will need to project middle of the road solutions and unify the Union more.”
Sociologist and industrial relations expert Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino is also wary of using the moderate versus militant labels to define the struggle between the two leaders.
“Shrewd and capable leaders would know how and when to be moderate or radical, and whether to do so in public or private,” says Baldacchino.
Prof. Edward Zammit, the labour relations expert who tried to bridge the gap between unions earlier on this year, concurs that militancy and moderation can be two sides of the same coin.
“Effective trade union leaders need to be both militant and moderate, according to the different circumstances they encounter. There are occasions when it may be necessary to mobilise the members to strengthen one's position in negotiations. On other occasions, it may be necessary to moderate one's demands in order to ensure that a company remains profitable and that jobs are secure.”
Zammit quotes various studies showing that trade union leaders use most of their energies to moderate the unrealistic demands by their own members for the greater good of the members themselves and their own families in the long term.
Arthur Muscat would like the next GWU leader to take this role more seriously.
“While it is good for a leader to listen to the membership base, it is just as essential to influence this base and guide it to endorse decisions, which rely less on ideology and sectarian vested interests and more on pragmatic solutions to national problems which are pressing.”
A touch of class
But still Baldacchino notes a difference in the style and presentation of the two candidates, noting that at face value one is tempted to assert there is a “touch of class divide.”
“Mr Zarb cut his teeth in manufacturing industry, launching into trade unionism while working at the Blue Bell jeans firm in the 1980s, becoming later the darling of the GWU's port and transport section; Mr Micallef comes from a distinctly managerial background.”
While Micallef served twelve years in various management position in Malta Ship Building, Mr Zarb made his debut in trade unionism in 1981 when he organised the workers at the Wrangler jeans factory namely Blue Bell, where at that time he worked as a cutting operator.
Both Zarb and Micallef have experience in the private sector but while Zarb worked in the manufacturing sector, Micallef started his work experience as a reinsurance broker in an insurance firm.
Although coming from different occupational backgrounds, one finds a notable similarity in the ascent of the two leadership contenders in the union.
Both Zarb and Micallef occupied the influential positions of Secretary of the Port and Transport Section.
In 1986 Tony Zarb was elected Secretary of the Port and Transport Workers' Section, a post he relinquished in 1996 when the extraordinary General Conference of the GWU appointed him Deputy Secretary General and entrusted him with the responsibility of co-ordinating all the Union's Sections.
In 1999 Micallef left the Shipbuilding Co to join the GWU as Secretary of the Port and Transport Section. He was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the GWU on 1 August 2002.
Tony Zarb was appointed Secretary General in October 1998. Eight years later he is facing the challenge of the man who followed in his footsteps as secretary of the Port and Transport Workers Section and Deputy General Secretary of the General Workers Union.
Irrespective of whether the upcoming contest is a struggle between militants and moderates, one thing is sure, it is the first contest for the post of general secretary in the GWU’s history.
Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino attributes the rarity of contests for the GWU’s top posts to a balance of power within the union’s internal alliances.
According to Baldacchino the present contest between Zarb and Micallef suggests that the balance of power within the union has been “disturbed.”
According to Baldacchino “ambitions in trade unions habitually get checked, thwarted or boosted, depending on the size and assumed clout of internal alliances.”
These inner workings reduce the risk of contenders openly contesting positions without any significant chance of actually winning.
This does not mean that trade unions are not democratic.
“It would be simply naive to expect that 'democracy' - implying that any bona fide member of an organisation has the opportunity to contest for a leadership position in that organisation - would result in regular scrambles for power.”
One way, through which the established leadership succeeds in weeding out opposition, “is by co-opting it.”
But it is clear that something went clearly wrong in the relationship between the two leaders.
“The official contest between Tony Zarb and Manwel Micallef suggests that the previously existing power balance between the two has been disturbed.”
Although nobody before Manwel Micallef has dared challenge an incumbent general secretary, in recent years contests have taken place for other important posts in the GWU.
Prof. Edward Zammit points out that ten years ago changes were introduced into the GWU’s Statute through which all the incumbents of the top positions within the GWU hierarchy have to submit themselves for re-election periodically.
“There have been several contests for such posts throughout the GWU's recent history. For instance, the late Mr Tony Coleiro had unsuccessfully contested the post of Deputy General Secretary, after which he continued serving as Section Secretary.”
But he also points out that on numerous occasions, an agreement was reached in advance, “through internal consultations, so that there would be a single nominee for a particular post.”
Whatever the exit, the election for the GWU’s top position, can generate a healthy debate on the future direction of the General Workers Union.
Hopefully the debate will rise above the present dicothomy between militants and moderates.
Edward Zammit lists a number of challenges which the new GWU leader will have to face.
These include finding ways of reconciling flexibility and security, effective engagement in social dialogue and a reconciling work, family and life values.