Tony Zarb vs Manwel Micallef: two visions of the union in conflict

By Noel Grima, The Malta Independent, Monday 3 October 2005

There are many candidates standing for the various posts within the General Workers Union but in the end, the real contest will be that between incumbent Tony Zarb and Manwel Micallef for the all-important post of secretary general.

Seen from outside, it seems a foregone conclusion that Mr Zarb will be the outright winner. He is backed not just by the fact that he is the incumbent, nor just by a whole phalanx of union leaders who openly back him, but also by most of the members.

Increasingly, Mr Zarb in these hectic days before the poll, is also being backed by an underlying message that Mr Zarb is ‘real Labour’ while, it is being murmured, Mr Micallef is a stooge of the Nationalist government.

This comes as a surprise for although it seems that those backing Mr Zarb are indeed those who would vote for Dr Sant in an internal election within the MLP, those who support Mr Micallef are those who would support MLP deputy leader Michael Falzon than out and out PN supporters.

Certainly, all stops are being pulled out. There is a block vote being distributed among Enemalta employees, this newspaper was told, and there is even a printed block vote which suggests voting for Mr Zarb, Salvu Sammut, Gejtu Mercieca, Helen Mallia and Michael Parnis. This also shows that the big guns of the union are four-square behind Mr Zarb.

That is the way it is: Mr Zarb stands for continuity and is the establishment. Mr Micallef, on the other hand, seems to stand for change.

This is not how the Mr Micallef camp sees it. On the contrary, the reformist camp says it wants to first establish the truth about the union, then analyse the facts and plan the way ahead. It states the union is sitting on a mountain of hype and self-delusion, is failing rapidly and unless something is done, will fail even more.

Start from the union figures: the real figures are around 20,000 members plus some 6,000 pensioners — hardly the 43,000 the union claims. Even UHM inflates its figures, the reform camp says, but UHM is catching up fast.

Then there is the financial situation of the union. Union Print is being run at a loss and practically the only real income the union has comes from Cargo Handling, which is going to end next year and even if the union's bid (together with the Hili family) wins the contract, it would still need some four years without any dividends while it invests.

There is much unused space at the Workers Memorial Building which should be utilised. The circulation of l-orizzont (not it-Torca which has kept its strength) is decreasing and not all union members buy it, so they do not feel this is their paper. Nothing is being done to attract new readers nor new members: the workers' children today read other papers.

Another point of contention is the way the union's section secretaries are chosen. They are chosen on the basis of their popularity (but this is not a beauty contest, this paper was told) and some of them are not trained at all to be union leaders. It is for this reason that the union's credibility is being undermined.

The union must analyse its strengths and its weaknesses and address the latter, the reformist camp says.

There is now some very serious bad blood between the two sides. The Tony Zarb faction blames, indirectly, the Manwel Micallef faction for the many leaks there have been on the union in the media over the past months. Mr Zarb himself is understood to have written a very strong letter to The Times editor Ray Bugeja recently, but Mr Bugeja, contrary to what he did with an Austin Gatt letter, did not reveal it.

On the other hand, the reformist group claims that Mr Zarb broke a promise he made two years ago in the union's council that he would resign.

In 2003, Mr Zarb had resigned but had been persuaded to return (as this paper had it, he had bounced back). At a meeting of the council he had agreed to return but promised to appoint a designate Secretary General by the time of the next national congress.

This was minuted and entered in the council records but the same council that has now enforced a ‘silenzio stampa’ on all contenders, has chosen to forget this clear commitment.

In recent weeks, Mr Zarb was invited to become union president, but incumbent union president Salvu Sammut, who is also a union employee, decided to soldier on. He has less than two years before retirement age and it seems that Mr Zarb has argued the changeover should take place in two years' time.

But in two years' time the country will be in the middle of an election campaign and it would hardly be the time for a radical changeover within the union.

Inside the union structure, at lower levels, people are terrified. They are awaiting the outcome of the result with trepidation for they have been given to understand that a victory of ‘the other side’ would bring repercussions, even loss of jobs, as would also happen to those who support ‘the wrong side’. Whatever the result, this contest is doing untold harm to the union.