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In a class of his own

A man with a steely disposition who faced tense disputes head-on, outgoing Malta Union of Teachers president John Bencini tells Ariadne Massa how he was shattered by a threatening phone call from a fellow trade unionist.

On July 15, 2010, at 2.35 p.m., Mr Bencini was setting foot in his garage when he received a phone call from a “very prominent” person involved in the island’s trade union sector that perplexes him to this day.

This person – “who rarely calls me, certainly not to wish me a happy birthday” – told him in an ominous tone: “Listen John, I have been hearing a lot of negative things about you. You worked hard in the trade union sector, but beware... because you risk having a funeral with a church half empty. It would be a big pity for your family.”

Mr Bencini, 67, recalls that moment vividly: “It shattered me. I felt threatened. I had never received such a call in my life – it broke me emotionally and psychologically.”

Mr Bencini has never received an apology, even though he had written a letter to this person a few days later saying he was hurt.

He believes this phone call is the key to explaining why Forum, the confederation of 11 unions he heads, is facing such obstinate resistance from within the ranks of the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions to its membership of the European Trade Union Confederation, and entry into the Malta Council for Social and Economic Development.

“I am convinced this whole thing explains why Forum is being persecuted,” he says.

Mr Bencini is initially reluctant to divulge the contents of the letter he sent, adding it remains in the MUT’s files for “future generations to read”. He insists he is not prepared to reveal everything now, but if the situation persists he may have to change his mind.

However, after the interview is wrapped up, he changes his mind and gives a copy of the letter to The Sunday Times on condition the name of this person is not mentioned.

In the letter, Mr Bencini exposes his raw pain and opens with: “After your telephone call a few days ago, a call that terrified me and crushed me, I kept mulling over it night and day. Never in my life... have I been hurt with words that broke me so emotionally and psychologically.”

It continues: “I was not shocked that you were hearing things (negative things said about) me – I expect this and it’s natural in our line of work... But you chose to go further... Although there were occasions where we disagreed, I never had any resentment towards you. Maybe you can put my mind at rest and advise me as to what I can do...”

No reply was ever forthcoming and to this day he does not know what spurred this person to go this far. He cannot understand it when as far as he knew he has never done anything to personally offend this person.

However, wrangling between unions has been alive and kicking for years and the situation, Mr Bencini believes, could also be linked to the MUT’s unanimous decision to withdraw its membership from the CMTU in 2008.

This decision was taken after the CMTU suspended the MUT following a dispute over its proposals to form a Trades Union Council. It had come days after all trade unions joined forces to protest against water and electricity rates, but the CMTU felt it was untimely.

Mr Bencini admits the rift had widened when CMTU and one of its affiliates, the Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin, publicly declared it approved of the maligned electricity rates but the MUT had reservations and declared it had no confidence in the way the CMTU was being led.

“Things became more complicated and an uncomfortable situation arose,” he recalls.

In the past months unions have fired acrimonious words at each other as Forum intensified its efforts to get what it believes are its rightful seats on the MCESD and the ETUC. But Mr Bencini is not one to bear grudges for long, pointing out that in the 1980s the MUT’s relationship with the General Workers’ Union was far from chivalrous, but things had improved recently.

“European countries murdered each other in the past but now they shake hands and work together. Are we going to remain stuck in the past? Our wish is that the good relations we now have with the GWU are extended to CMTU. I mean this in the most genuine way. Everybody makes mistakes – we did, the GWU did and so did the CMTU.”

Political allegiances of different unions can be a stumbling block towards unity and he prides himself that the MUT has always been, in his opinion, a union that fought for what it believed in irrespective of which party was in power.

“My union has never shied away from standing up to be counted. It didn’t dwell on whether its actions would mean being associated with one party or another. We never based our arguments on politics,” he insists.

He defends accusations that the MUT has been cosying up to the GWU in recent months. He points out it was the same MUT that in 2003 had stood side by side with then Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami before a crowd of thousands waving the Nationalist Party flag and spoke out in favour of EU membership.

He adds that the MUT also did not mind criticising the Labour Party’s proposal to introduce a reception class in the 2008 general election campaign, even though this meant being associated with the PN.

This proposal, dubbed the “repeater class” by the PN, had been a major issue during the electoral campaign and considered to be one of the factors behind Labour’s defeat.

“Months before the electoral manifesto was presented we had flagged this issue in a meeting with Labour leader Alfred Sant. I told the party that even the mere mention of this word would create a whole hullabaloo, as it would mean increasing obligatory schooling by one year,” he recalls, insisting the MUT is an apolitical trade union.

“I’m a person, who despite what we’ve been through, am willing to move on and not dwell on the past,” he says once again expressing hope that all sides can one day come together.

It has been Mr Bencini’s dream to have a TUC and he is disappointed to be stepping down from the MUT in June without this materialising. He reflects on his decision not to contest the upcoming elections with nostalgia having been at the MUT’s helm for 15 years.

“I am a bit sad, because I love this work,” he says, reflecting on how he was compelled to join the teachers’ union by an enthusiastic shop steward when he was a young teacher fresh out of university.

He reminisces about the time he taught at the Agius de Soldanis School in Gozo and his unforgettable adventure of sharing a flat with seven other male teachers – “you can imagine how clean we kept the place”.

Nearly 15 years later, as a council member of the MUT, the adventure took on a different form when teachers went on a two-day strike in September 1984 over salary claims for teaching grades that had been going on for years. The then Labour government reacted by locking out teachers who refused to sign a declaration they would not obey union directives, leading to further protests.

The union’s premises at the bottom of Republic Street, Valletta, was also ransacked by thugs at the time and a white, reinforced steel door at its entrance remains a constant reminder of that ugly period in history.

“The MUT offices were like a bunker in those days. Everybody lived in fear,” he says, recalling how tension and confrontations erupted over the most trivial thing.

“An atom bomb exploded at every small stumbling block. Re-reading history you don’t know whether to love or cry at the situations that arose.”

Mr Bencini is one of the few representatives who dealt with various education ministers from Agatha Barbara to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, Michael Falzon, Evarist Bartolo, Louis Galea and Dolores Cristina. Who did he have the best working relationship with?

“As union president I didn’t work with all those ministers or I’d be 150 years old,” he jokes, while keeping his trademark poker face.

Reflecting on the four ministers he dealt with as union president he tries to be diplomatic by saying he worked well with all of them and that they all have their strong points.

Pushed to choose one, he concedes he worked best with Dr Galea, since he was the one who would get personally involved and was more hands-on.

“Today’s education minister (Ms Cristina) leaves a lot of the workings in the hands of directorates, while Louis Galea used to get into everything.

“He’d be at his laptop and he knew every sentence and every chapter that went into a collective agreement. This minister enters the situation when there is a problem and tries to bring the two sides together,” he says.

Mention of Ms Cristina veers the conversation towards the latest development in the controversial saga over the mismanagement of EU funds that led to two education programmes being suspended last year.

At the time, Mr Bencini had called for the resignation of those responsible for the management of these funds. Three officials had resigned but it has since emerged that two of them, Christopher Bezzina and Robert Tabone, believe they were scapegoats.

How does he view these developments?

“If this had happened to me and I felt I was being made a scapegoat I’d have spoken out earlier. I read what Prof. Bezzina wrote. To speak out after all this time worries me,” he says.

Does he doubt what they are saying?

“No. However, I feel if something like that happened I would have waited for the inquiry to be concluded and then speak right up. But to let months pass before speaking out and then realise I’m a scapegoat... I think if they had spoken out before, their argument would have carried more weight.”

Asked if he felt Ms Cristina should have resigned, Mr Bencini sighs and points out that in Malta there is no such culture. According to him, even if she is not directly involved, the responsibility falls squarely on a minister’s shoulders.

Mr Bencini has been meeting Ms Cristina more frequently in the past months as the island gears up to take on the mammoth challenge of education reform.

When it is pointed out that while MUT is in favour of change, it is constantly raising doubts in turn setting back the reform, Mr Bencini defends the union’s actions and believes he owes it to the profession to flag these matters now ­– not when it is too late.

He insists teachers have to be prepared and consulted and their union has to be involved. Instead, they were being left in the dark on certain matters as the government tried to quicken the pace since the proposed reform is around the corner.

To date, he says, the syllabus for Form 1 remains a mystery. Mr Bencini knows there is a draft, which the union has managed to obtain a copy of – “it’s as thick as three Yellow Pages on top of each other and apparently top secret” – but does not know why this has not been communicated to the teachers yet.

“Are they waiting to give this to the teachers before the holidays? These are their tools. When teachers see it they’re not going to like it because it’s put together as if it’s a recipe, detailing step by step what should be done every day according to each unit,” he says.

Is that so bad?

“It’s reducing teachers to robots, killing their initiative and flexibility. A guide is important, but the detailed way of each unit and timetable is going to drive people crazy,” he replies, adding that the curriculum framework was another mystery and they have no idea when this is going to be released.

Asked if teachers are the obstacle, Mr Bencini admits while there are a few who are resistant to change, the majority are prepared to cooperate.

“Reluctance to move ahead stems mostly from older teachers. The same thing happened when computers were introduced in classrooms, but today they’re fighting for laptops. There are those who don’t believe in reform, but we’ve encouraged them to face up to the challenges,” he says.

He denies the union is putting spokes in the wheels of reform and speaks of teachers’ concerns that they feel unprepared to teach students with mixed abilities in the same classroom.

“We are in favour of reform and there are a lot of things being done professionally.

“But there are concerns and we would be doing a disservice to our people if we don’t voice these now.”

Speaking up is something Mr Bencini excels in and he believes it is behind the surge in his union’s membership – his biggest achievement is seeing the figures swell to 8,100 from some 4,000 when he became president in 1996.

He believes the time is ripe for him to step down and he has full confidence in his successor Kevin Bonello, the vice-president who he has groomed for the post in the past years and whom he describes as a young person filled with enthusiasm.

What is his advice to Mr Bonello?

“Keep working on what the union has achieved. Be careful when taking decisions and ensure it reflects the wishes of your council. Don’t act on the spur of the moment.”

Mr Bencini now looks forward to spending some quality time with his wife, who has been a pillar of support, and his 32-year-old daughter.

While this closes a chapter in his career, Mr Bencini will still retain his post as Forum president and the island can rest assured it will still be seeing plenty more of him as he battles to give this confederation the recognition he believes it deserves.

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