WHENEVER workers’ rights are perceived to be violated or there is an attempt to address labour market distortions caused by unions, all the great and the good of our political system take public stands posing as the protectors of the workers and pontificating about the need to respect collective agreements and the industrial relations code.
When the Papdopoulos government ordered police to clamp down on state school teachers that were violating the terms of their employment contract by giving afternoon, private lessons, it was accused by parties and unions of persecuting teachers. Under this pressure the clampdown was abandoned and the teachers were left to continue their illicit activities. A few years earlier, the Clerides government drafted a bill that aimed to regulate strikes at essential services and there was a universal outcry, because the right to strike was ‘sacred’ and could not be touched; the bill was never passed.
Thanks to the safeguarding of this ‘sacred’ right, we now live under the threat of random, daily power cuts because the unions of the Electricity Authority of Cyprus (EAC) decided this would be a good way to prevent privatisation. Predictably, none of the parties or politicians dared to take even the mildest stand against this appalling abuse of power that violates the industrial relations code and would penalise households and businesses. On the contrary, the entire political system was united in pandering to the bullying unions, happily giving in to their despicable blackmail.
EAC unions decided that starting from last Friday, workers would have staged a daily, three-hour work stoppage (from 7am to 10am) which would have caused random power cuts because the power output would not have satisfied demand – output would be 450Mw while average demand in the mornings is 500Mw. By threatening inconveniencing the public on a daily basis the unions hoped to prevent the submission of tenders for the study of the EAC privatisation framework (final day was March 31), requested by the Commissioner for privatisations – and it worked.
On Thursday the political parties urged unions to call off their action until Tuesday when the House commerce committee would discuss the issue of tenders. The government used the legislature’s ‘mediation’ as an excuse for a full retreat. Energy Minister Giorgos Lakkotrypis announced on Friday morning that the deadline of the submission of the tenders had been put back by two weeks, to give the commerce committee the chance to mediate. In another attempt to appease the unions he said that EAC’s privatisation was not a certainty and there would be additional discussions with the troika, the implication being that the government’s delaying tactics were successful.
Such a show of cowardice, at the first sign of union muscle-flexing, was disgraceful, and a clear message to unions that a little blackmail would always ensure the retreat of weak politicians. It also sent a message to international lenders that it is not just the unions and opposition parties that would fight the privatisation of SGOs, but also the government as far as it could.
Not surprisingly, the unions of the Cyprus Ports Authority, which is also destined for privatisation, decided on Friday they would follow the example of their EAC comrades and stage a daily, one-hour work stoppage in an attempt to block the government’s plans. This will not inconvenience the public, but union leaders have been authorised by members to step up the measures in coming weeks – three-hour stoppages are entirely possible as these would boost overtime pay- if the mild blackmail does not yield the desired results.
Instead of sucking up to the unions of the SGOs, the government should have been drafting legislation that would ban strikes at essential services, like the one prepared by the Christofias government and approved by the parties for airports and air traffic controllers. Is power production a less essential service than the airports? The appeasement pursued by the government is a show of weakness that union bosses will exploit to the full.
Apart from legislation, the government should also be publicly challenging the legitimacy of the proposed work stoppages and the broader issues at stake. For instance, do the unions legally own the EAC and the Ports Authority to have the right dictate their future ownership status? Is it within the law for a group of workers to cut the electricity supply of households and businesses in order to impose their wishes on the authorities?
What type of democracy is it that allows self-interested groups to block and overrule the decisions of the country’s elected government and prevent it from honouring agreements it has signed? This is no democracy it is a tyranny of the unions that has been going on for decades because our politicians are too cowardly to fight against it.