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TUC is no sweet talk

The formation of a Trade Union Council has once again been thrown at us for consideration and deliberation. Almost like clockwork, every once in a while, this issue comes on the trade unions' agenda. So far various commentators have voiced their opinion and, in more ways than one, further fuelled the discussion.

I recall various instances when, behind the scenes, former leaders of the two major general unions and other trade unionists met with the sole purpose to unify the trade union movement under one umbrella confederation.

This issue has always struck me as one which should be dealt with maturity, responsibility, foresight and above all with good intentions.

The assertion "together we are stronger" is the premise put forward by those who favour the setting up of the Trade Union Council. On this issue I would like to make some reflections, most important of which is whether a TUC is truly in the best interest of workers and their family.

Reflecting on such an issue - like any other kind of assessment - requires a conceptual map which, as maps do, simplify the landscape and focus on the main features.

Some of those involved in the trade union movement and who favour the setting up of a TUC seem to look for refuge and shelter in the numbers, rather than in the merit and substance or otherwise of an issue. Small or large, the effectiveness of a union rests solely on the issues it elects to deal with, and more importantly how it works towards achieving results for members in its fold.

Some may believe that if all the unions join forces under one umbrella they will have the necessary strength and force to take the lead to govern in lieu of a democratically elected government. Others believe that a unions' umbrella can throw any government out of office. I reiterate - a union's function is not to throw governments out of offices. It is governments who lose office because they fail to comprehend situations and fail to take actions that need to be taken at the right time.

Forming a TUC takes more than a press conference, some commemorative photos, and claims that it is a historic moment for trade union leaders rubbing shoulders.

A TUC may well dovetail into the plans of those who intend to dismantle the trade union movement. I sometimes wonder whether there is the invisible hand of neo-liberals working hard trying to solicit trade unions to come together, thus ensuring that the healthy competition of ideas, strategies and methodologies adopted by the different local trade unions is eradicated and stamped out. Far-right extremism seeks to undermine the work of trade unions and it takes all forms. The setting up of a TUC may well be a camouflaged threat to trade unionism in Malta.

Competition is a healthy instrument that ensures workers can continue to receive the maximum of attention and a personal service from their union. Trade unionism goes far beyond strikes and industrial action. Trade union work is a service to members individually, collectively and at national level.

Trade unionism is an expression of solidarity and in this regard unions work closely at the shop floor level when required to do so and stand up to be counted when national issues warrant so. The UĦM has never relinquished this responsibility.

The UĦM - as an independent trade union with no political affiliation built on the value of solidarity - has always placed the workers at the centre of its agenda. The UĦM's agenda has never been politically motivated, though at times its stand might have not been popular with certain sectors.

The two major general unions and a cluster of smaller unions have, on various occasions in the recent past, led workers to move ahead on issues which were of importance with a high degree of success. The diversity of the unions created competition. Trade unions' competition has proven to be a source of social, political and economic progress.

The diversity of unions has over the years led their leaders to ensure that they come up with innovative actions and thematic issues that are of importance to their members while keeping in mind the wider national good.

A stream of thought is also put forward by some quarters that one trade union umbrella will help workers achieve more. On the contrary, workers would miss various opportunities. When it comes to national issues so far, it has always transpired that the two general unions were on opposite sides.

I am sure that there will be other instances where the trade union movement will have to take well thought-out decisions to give the best possible direction to workers. Over the years the UĦM has always given diligent advice to its members, thus UĦM credibility has grown.

Should we proceed in the setting of a TUC for personal gratification for the sake of someone who openly expressed his views that he wants to be remembered as the first chairman of this new trade unions' umbrella?

What is the situation in other countries? Not surprisingly, in most countries there is no TUC which encompass all trade unions. Italy, Germany, France, Greece, Holland and Sweden - none of these countries have one trade union council. And as yet, they have safeguarded workers' interests to the best of their ability at different levels of success.

Admittedly, it is different in the United Kingdom. Trade unions have a TUC in the UK.

However, notwithstanding the fact that the British Labour Party has been in office for a record time, trade unions in the UK - under a TUC umbrella - have not managed to regain what Margaret Thatcher took away from them more than 25 years ago.

Mrs Thatcher was the nemesis of the trade union movement in the UK but despite a change in government, promises made by the UK Labour Party to the unions are still not upheld.

Without sounding demeaning, those advocating the setting up of a TUC in Malta have so far only managed to give me the impression of children let loose in a candy shop... TUC is no sweet talk.

Mr Vella is the secretary general of Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin.

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