So Malta’s General Workers Union, in seeking to obtain recognition from Malta Freeport that it represents the majority of the terminal’s workers, has ordered industrial action, been hit by a demand from the Freeport for damages, and is now threatening to get its sister unions in other countries to boycott CGM CMA (the Freeport operator) and to blockade the port.
It all sounds like someone’s good idea gone bad. Recognition is not a dispute with the employer: it is the result of a mundane headcount run by the Registrar of Unions based upon verified, reported membership lists. If there is any scope for a dispute, it is with the Registrar or, at a stretch, with any other union seeking recognition.
This is the basis for the Freeport’s action against the GWU. It is not an attack on trade unionism: it is defence against misdirected union action.
Unions and collective negotiation are good for employees and good for employers. Yes, there are sometimes disputes – but imagine any HR department having to renegotiate the same contract three, four, five hundred times with each individual employee. Tedious, time wasting, boring – and unlikely to create good will.
From the employee’s point of view, joining in a collective imparts the necessary counterbalance to the employers’ power, putting the negotiations on a reasonably balanced foundation. But when collective power is misdirected it erodes this balance.
Much of the reporting on the issue in Malta has focussed on the economic damage a blockade or extended strike would cause. Yes, it would, but if the dispute were justified then so be it. The end point would be a better, stronger and more equitable situation.
But if the action is in support of a non-dispute, if it is seriously misdirected as in this case, then the damage done is to the whole concept of collective action and organised labour. It is damaging to trade unionism itself – and this is probably much more long-term damage.
And the damage is being done by the union – not by the Freeport, which in one sense is trying to save trade unionism by calling the GWU back from the brink.