A day before the Valletta protests over the rise in utility rates, The Times argued that the biggest loser in the matter was the Labour Party, which had so excitedly jumped on the unions' bandwagon. With hindsight, it can also be said that an equally big loser is the island's trade union movement. Not that the island's disparate unions could claim any semblance of collective unity before - they could certainly not - but the protests contributed to turning fissures into chasms, a matter that is definitely not in the interest of the workers members of the respective trade unions or of the labour force as a whole. Ethics were thrown overboard and the unions attacked each other unashamedly, providing a sad spectacle of infighting that does only harm to them.

As the movement has developed over the years, there is always going to be that sharp division between the two major pillars, the General Workers' Union and the Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin. The GWU, which has had a turbulent history, is seen to be allied with the PL, which, on its part, considers it as its preferred partner, and the UĦM, which started out as a clerical union of employees in the public service and in later years opened its doors to all categories of workers, is perceived to side with the Nationalist Party. The fact that, over the years, both have had differences, or even frictions, with the party with which they are perceived to be "allies", does not alter the general perception of their party's political allegiance, however loose this may or may not be.

For one reason or another, several attempts made over the years to bring some form of unity among the trade unions through the setting up of a trades union council have fallen by the wayside, and, at times of difficulties, differences among the trade unions, particularly among the larger ones, often prevent the taking of collection action. This is what happened too when the social partners attempted to hammer out a social pact within the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development.

It does seem now that, rather than moving ahead with the times, the unions are moving backwards. Instead of seeking consolidation, solidarity and unity of purpose, the trade unions are all pulling in different directions. When the Malta Union of Teachers withdrew from the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions, it joined a group of unions calling itself Forum, which has, for quite some time now, been demanding representation on the MCESD. In effect, Malta now has two confederations. Meanwhile, another organisation has been set up, Għaqda Unions Maltin, which includes the 11 unions that make up the Forum, and the GWU. It is this organisation that organised the Valletta protests over the utility rates, though it was the GWU that appeared to be taking the leading role.

The story does not end there, for the leader of another important union within the Forum and the Għaqda Unions Maltin, John Bencini, president of the MUT, appears to be thinking up a new role for his union. He was reported saying that if poaching of members continued, the union could open up its doors to the whole educational spectrum or create a general union as a last resort. Mr Bencini may have said this out of anger or frustration over the alleged poaching. In any case, he should leave it at that, for the last thing the trade union movement needs is further fragmentation.

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