No need for Police Union

Published TALKING POINT – The Times of Malta (2nd July 2013)

The Cabinet of Ministers will be discussing a proposed law giving the Police Force (but presumably also other disciplined forces, such as the Civil Protection) the right to associate with a Trade Union. The Attorney General will give ample advice to the Cabinet in order that our executive comes to a decision reconciling the necessities and interests of society at large with the specific interests of the members of the forces, maybe also in the light of electoral promises made.
As a lawyer practicing employment and industrial relations law for the past twenty years or so now, I was tempted to put pen to paper to share some views with the readers on this issue. This issue is of national interest and not of sectoral interest.
To date, the members of the Police Corps, (taken to mean also members of other corps), are not allowed to join a Trade Union. The reasoning behind such a prohibition is possibly obvious – namely that the forces entrusted with keeping law and order are available all the time, and society should not expect to have one minute void of such security. A state, a nation, a country ought to be and feel safe and secure all the time, and consequently security forces are not left to legally and legitimately abduct such responsibilites by having a right to strike in furtherance of a trade dispute.
This is the situation in practically all states, certainly European states. In recent months, the UK Police Force members (Police Federation) voted to overturn a historic ban on their right to strike. With some 45,500 members voting in favour and 10,500 voting against, the Federation sent a clear message that its members want the right to strike. Whether this is to be deemed as a first step in that direction and whether the UK executive and legislative authorities will eventually succumb to such pressure as to allow members of the Police Force in the UK to go on strike, (things had changed in 1919), is yet to be seen and possibly only time will tell.
As with so many other issues and circumstances, here in Malta, we are starting to discuss the idea of such forces’ members uniting and joining into a trade union. Much has already been said locally about granting the right to join or form a trade union without the right to strike. As far as I recall, but I stand to be corrected, both parties are actually in agreement on this.
I, for one, beg to differ. I am against the idea that members of our forces join or form a trade union. I speak here on a purely personal level, irrispective of my professional work. Having said this, I am all in favour of giving more rights to the members of our forces. And I am confident that I can reconcile these two positions.
Joining an already established general union would mean that the members of our forces will be intrinsically involved in our political system, whether with a small “p” or with a big “P”. This is to be avoided at all costs. This alone, in my humble opinion, is a strong enough reason to discard any idea of allowing members of the Police force from joining a general trade union. No one police officer should be politicized, let alone all the memebrs of that corps.
The alternative remains that of giving such corps’ members the right to form a trade union themselves. A form of house union. Do we really need to, I ask? No, we need not, if I may reply.
With no disrespect to any trade union in Malta – I believe in the role that each and every Union has on this island and I would, for one, defend their rights and existance as much as i will always defend any person’s right to association as long as reasonable and legitimate.
However, today, members of our forces are already, by law, organised into an Association (at least most of them). I strongly believe that we should not jump the gun, and should only legislate to strengthen such Associations rather than re-inventing the wheel and providing the possibility of our forces’ members joining a trade union.
A few weeks ago, the Civil Protection Association managed to obtain a tremendously positive result in Court, when the Court of Appeal re-affirmed a decision it has previously given whereby the Government was ordered to compose the Joint Negotiating Council. I will not go into the specific technical merits of the case – but I sincerely believe that the issue remains that the members are not interested in associating with a trade union rather than an association. They are interested on getting results.
In truth, whether a trade union or an association, the members want results. If the trade union does not, because it cannot, obtain results, then giving the members of the police force the right to join a trade union can only lead to undermining the credibility and effectiveness of trade unions – and i guess no trade union would want this.
The statutes of the exisiting associations, as established by law, have as their primary objectives, similair ideals and principles as those of trade unions. So the structure exists already.
I sincerely believe that what has to be done is that such associations are given more responsibility and more bargaining power rights. Not the right to strike obviously, not the right to instruct its members to any other form of industrial action, but the right to take legimitate actions in the best interests of its memebers as much as those of society at large.
All we need is a clear structure whereby decisions are taken in case of stale-mates. To this effect, I strongly suggest that the only appropriate legislative changes that are to be made are, in brief, the following :
• Establish an association for all forces, particularly those who are not yet so associated.
• Establish, if need be, also a federation for these seperate associations.
• Provide democratic structures, and if need be, finances, to these associations.
• Provide a structure whereby mediation and conciliation proceedings are taken when the need arises, which proceedings will however be specifically regulated with time-frames, say of six months.
• Provide the associations with the right to take their claims before an adjudication tribunal, whether its the Industrial Tribunal or an ad hoc Tribunal, in order that the issues are determined once and for all, with binding decisions on either party.
In this way, the association will achieve results. Successive Governments have over the years, since 1976, procrastinated and avoided the Joint Negotiating Council, until the Civil Protection Assocation took the plunge to successfully challange the Government. No Government ever wanted this – the situation was comfortable enough the way it was.
I now call the bluff of the present executive and opposition alike – no more promises and possibly fake promises. The people who provide for our security, the people who save our lives when we’re in risk and danger, the people who risk their lives for us, are workers who want results. No trade union will be able to achieve results if such a trade union is impaired and weakened in its duties qua trade union.
Hence my appeal to the Cabinet of Ministers and the opposition alike – i believe that its not the name of their organisation that these workers are interested in – its the legislative provisions giving them the right to obtain results when their members have greviences which have to be settled without delay. And these people deserve it.

Ian Spiteri Bailey LL.D. LL.M. EU (Employment) Law is a specialised employment and industrial relations lawyer.

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