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Our View: We must work as one by putting petty interests aside

TRADE UNIONS are often perceived as forces of social and economic progress because they protect the interests of weakest members of society, defend their rights and improve their standard of living, thus ensuring a fairer distribution of national income.

While this view may have been valid 30 or 40 years ago, in today’s Cyprus it can only be described as a bad joke considering the irreparable damage they have caused the economy in recent years.

Not only have they helped destroy the economy’s competitiveness, with all the negative consequences, but public sector unions also helped bankrupt the state, while the bank union contributed to high interest rates and charges and so forth. Unions ended up protecting absurd privileges, restrictive practices, inefficiency and low productivity in the name of workers’ rights, especially in public and semi-governmental sectors.

This was not the only damage done to the country by the total domination of the unions. They completely destroyed the community spirit that characterised Cypriot society in the past, making the relentless pursuit of self-interest, at the expense of the rest of the country perfectly acceptable behaviour. The interests of union members are always placed above those of the country.

PASYDY defended the privileges of its members even when the state was on the verge of bankruptcy; Cyprus Airways employees demanded ultra-generous redundancy compensation even though the company could not afford to pay and the cash-strapped state would have had to foot the bill; state school teachers threatened to strike because they would expected to teach one extra period a week to help the government save money; judges took the state to the Supreme Court, appealing against the pay cuts imposed on them.

This pursuit of self-interest, encouraged by unions, has taken place during the worst recession ever to hit the country with the state bankrupt, a record number of unemployed, an unprecedented number of people living below the poverty line and the opening of soup kitchens. Not even the worst disaster to hit the country since the Turkish invasion has persuaded people to display community spirit and put aside their narrow self-interests for the good of the country. Whereas in most countries a big disaster would unite people, in Cyprus it has accentuated divisions.

Who will change these attitudes? Who will appeal to people to persuade them to adopt a more giving attitude in these trying times? The DISY leader has invited his AKEL counterpart to talks aimed at putting ideological differences aside and forging a united front for tackling the many difficulties facing the country. A commendable initiative that is unlikely to work because the primary concern of the parties is votes which are normally secured through confrontation and public bickering. As soon as one senses that unity benefits the other side more, the front would collapse.

The truth is that only President Anastasiades is in the position to foster a community spirit and a sense of unity. If he could recruit the support of the party leaders it would be a big help, but he could also go it alone. He must appeal to people’s patriotism (which should not be displayed only in relation to the Cyprus problem), speak of the need for sacrifices, for solidarity and support to those worst hit by the recession and urge everyone to put their personal interests aside. These must be the theme of every speech he makes in public instead of assuring public employees, the people least affected by the depression, that they will not suffer more pay-cuts.

When a national disaster strikes, people should unite, forget their petty personal interests, support each other, offer help to those most in need and ultimately work for the good of the whole. By doing so we would not only speed up the recovery, we may also re-discover the old social values that we lost in our single-minded quest to improve our material well-being at the expense of everything else.

People need to be pointed in the right direction and neither the political parties nor the unions, which actively encouraged the cut-throat pursuit of self-interest, can do this. The president is the only person in a position to do so, even though he has been avoiding this type of discourse, preferring the old political rhetoric that panders to public opinion. But unless he attacks the selfishness of the interest groups and explains that the way forward is through sacrifices by everyone – not just the low-paid and unemployed – we will not enjoy the practical benefits of a united population working as one for the good of the country. This is now imperative.

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