Regulating negotiations

Recent developments present us with an opportunity to discuss and evaluate the current situation in industrial relations. The MUT and Alpa issues will be briefly discussed within this context.

The teaching profession, a most noble one, had long wanted to conclude a collective agreement to see its present employment conditions improve.

The new MUT administration hit the ground running and within weeks of taking up office at the helm of the union, the MUT reached agreement with the government for a new sectoral agreement. This was achieved, it seems, following intense negotiations. There were moments of tension, pressure and anxiety, not least when the MUT ordered strike action which was subsequently called off at the last minute.

It then transpired that numerous teachers, and hence union members, were not at all happy with the outcome of the negotiations and reports emerged to the effect that a sizeable number of MUT members had resigned and proceeded with planning the formation of another teachers’ union.

In the meantime, MUT and Mcast failed to conclude their collective agreement, and as I write, Mcast is set to face industrial action ordered by the teachers’ union.

In the meantime, the Air Malta saga has continued. Air Malta negotiated with the four recognised unions and concluded relatively smoothly with three of them. It seems, however, to have met with difficulties where Alpa is concerned – the union representing the airline’s pilots. Following heated discussions, public announcements by politicians involved in the negotiations, threats by either camp, notice of industrial action and prohibitory injunction warrants filed in court – the parties finally reached an agreement which was approved by Alpa members.

These two experiences provide us with the opportunity to reflect on the present situation of industrial relations in Malta, how this is developing and whether the competent authorities and interested parties ought to discuss and agree on improvements in this regard, particularly in terms of the mechanisms of the way our industrial relations are conducted.

Some of the thoughts I share with you from my experience in this field of law are related to the way the parties conduct negotiations, the role of the negotiating committees, the authority to conclude and sign collective agreements and the parameters within which negotiations are conducted.

All unions are regulated by their own statutes. I have seen many a statute throughout my professional career, and I can attest that not all unions have a proper statutory mechanism in place which affords transparency and competency when it comes to negotiations. Maybe, the time has come for unions to review their statutes to make sure that the proper negotiating machinery is in place for all members to observe and accept, in a democratic way.

Traditionally, we have always stated that “where there is unity, there is strength”. This motto has lived with the unions for decades.  Is it still the case? Do workers still feel strong about this? Is ‘individualism’ superseding ‘unity’?

Competent authorities and bodies, not least the government, should invest in providing the necessary training in negotiation skills to all involved personnel.

Many unions and employers’ HR officials do a very valuable job, but negotiation skills, even the basic ones, are many a time, still lacking. Many trade union and employers’ representatives, in my view, still lack the much needed basic negotiation skills which allow for more effective, smoother and expeditious negotiations.

We need to invest in a pool of qualified mediators who can help in the process of negotiations. The importance of mediation in this field has been overlooked for far too many years, and with the help of qualified mediators, industrial relations can avoid reaching the heated levels of negotiations.

I believe that certain parameters for discussion must be divulged from the outset. Should the employer, for example, divulge from the outset the budget, the objectives, the parameters, the plans for its commercial entity throughout the period to be covered by the agreement? Should the union know when and how far it should expect the company to invest in its workforce, be it training, wages, allowances etc?

On the other hand, a trade union should list priorities, and from the feedback it gets from its members over the years, provide the employer with a list of objectives which the union intends to achieve from the agreement to be negotiated.

Our industrial relations often face turbulent moments because a collective agreement lapses and a new collective agreement takes years to be concluded and signed. While the rule that ‘the lapsed collective agreement should in the meantime remain in force’ is valid and ought to be retained, overdue collective agreements should not be prolonged unnecessarily. It should be in the interest of both parties that an agreement be concluded without delay.

The negotiating team for the government and/or any government-owned company should be composed of authoritative people with full and complete leave and mandate to conduct such negotiations. A lot of time is wasted, negotiations become more strenuous, arduous and exhausting when a minister is to be informed on whether any go-between is acceptable or otherwise.

It has further become practice that the responsible cabinet minister sits down at the negotiating table and be directly involved. That state of affairs, I believe, belittles his/her office, possibly places undue pressure on the unions’ representatives and instils in the negotiations, whether we like it or not due to our particular circumstances, the political tint which should be kept completely extraneous from our industrial relations.

The ballot for union members for the approval or otherwise of a draft agreement negotiated by the union representatives should be held only after the draft agreement is duly explained to the members, who are to be allowed to participate in any discussion and vote in respect of the draft agreement. I have recently encountered a situation whereby a union deprived fully paid-up members from attending the meeting and voting simply because they were on notice with the company with which the agreement was to be reached. Such incidents are a cause of concern, create lack of respect and trust in the unions and illustrate bad practice in the field of industrial relations.

Our Industrial Tribunal has constantly advocated that, as far as possible, and unless there exist certain exceptional, established criteria, there should not be a proliferation of unions within the workplace In a recent award, the tribunal appealed to the competent authorities to regulate this matter through legislation. The lack of regulation and clear rules on separate bargaining entities is yet again a serious cause of concern in our industrial relations and should be rectified.

By way of conclusion therefore, training in negotiation skills, openness, set objectives, transparency and better regulation are among the keys towards better industrial relations. The MUT and Alpa issues are but two of many from which lessons should be learnt.

Bad practice today should not be repeated next year or in two or three years’ time. The importance of such improvement lies not only in the positive development of industrial relations as such, but also in the progress of our worker’s rights and conditions, not least and similarly important, to be balanced with better commercial achievements for our employers.

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