The Times of Malta
After the petition
Two events involving the GWU and a Nationalist government both held in October six years apart from each other show just how much the government has lost its capacity to tolerate dissent and how much it is ruling by a sort of heavenly edict.
In October 1994 the GWU with the support of the GRTU ordered a one day strike to protest against the introduction of VAT. The Government tolerated this strike action as perfectly legitimate, did not question its legality and did not obstruct the free expression of those who felt should participate in the national strike protest.
In October 2000 the GWU orders a few hours strike to protest against the 2000 budget measures which in an unquestionable manner negatively influenced the standard of living of middle income families through increase in middle income bands of direct taxation , increase in National Insurance contributions, and increase in telephones and fuel prices, amongst others. Yet the government challenges the legitimacy of the Union`s action and is threatening to discipline workers who participated in the strike action. It also intimated many other workers to dissuade them for exercising their freedom to associate themselves with a directive issued by their Union.
The contrast between these two positions is further exposed by analysis of the respective underlying cause. The introduction of VAT was included in the electoral manifesto of 1992 and the government had an electoral mandate to introduce such fiscal regime.` Furthermore the unions were protesting then about a future action which they were fearing would reduce their members` standard of living.` As a matter of fact this would have been a once only effect on prices which government could compensate through other measures. It eventually did just that in the 1996 budget by softening the impact of direct taxation across the board.
So why did nobody then` question the legality of the Unions` one day general strike to protest against a possible future deterioration of the workers` standard of living from a measure for which the government then had an electoral mandate` Why is it that six years later we are firing all legalities at the GWU for organising a few hours restricted strike ( schools and hospitals were excluded) to protest against real deterioration in their members` standard of living by fiscal measures which do not match the electoral mandate through which the government has won its brief to govern`
Reality is that such legal threats are the last thing the country needs in order to find a permanent solution to its economic problems. Government`s high handed attitude is pushing this country to a state where free social services are becoming a dirty word and where the Unions are deprived of the right to show their dissent by organising a few hours strike.` In this pseudo democracy these are the fingerprints of a totalitarian state.
The question is what is motivating the government to behave so differently than it did six years ago I can think of only two reasons.` Firstly the absence of a proper electoral mandate for the measures being taken is forcing it` to the use of repressive measures and is reducing its tolerance for dissent. Secondly the economy still needs so much painful adjustment than what we have seen so far until control over government finances is regained,` that the government cannot allow the unions to use their strength even in a legitimate way.
This might suit the government fine but it does little to bring about harmony and stability, two basic ingredients for achieving true economic growth which is the least painful way of solving our economic problems.
Rather than using high handed tactics the government need to coax the unions and the opposition for the formation of` a national plan to address our deeply structured economic ills.` Just shooting at sitting ducks to squeeze more taxation without addressing the real problems of expenditure largesse which is still the hallmark of this administration` will bring more resentment, more protest and more disharmony.
Rather than arguing about the legality of the GWU`s actions the government should be explaining to the GWU that there is no way for an economic recovery programme to succeed without effecting the standard of living of the working class. But it` should be explaining the long term plan and explaining the all round benefits at the end recovery strategy. Just expecting the working class to do the sacrifices whilst` continuing to govern with the largesse so evident in all sectors is expecting the Unions to prejudice the interest of the members they are meant to defend.
Monday, 23 October 2000
After the petition
The Times of Malta