THE EMPLOYERS and Industrialists Federation (OEV), concerned about the regularity of industrial action and strike threats by public sector workers, prepared a law proposal that would regulate the right to strike at essential services. The proposal, which covered power production, healthcare, telecommunications, water supply, customs and the ports, was sent to the president but also made public by OEV as it wanted to start a public debate about the need for an end to the arbitrary actions of public sector unions.
As the Federation noted in an announcement last Wednesday, “regulation of such an important issue and the impact on society and the economy is currently based on certain fundamental assumptions, chief of which is the existence of responsible and prudent trade unions in essential services.” Experience, it concluded, showed that this assumption was mistaken which was why regulation was necessary. It proposed that a nine-member arbitration panel should be established to deal with industrial disputes at essential services, as the unions complied with the industrial relations code only when it suited them.
No rational person could disagree with this reasoning. In the last few months there have been work stoppages or threats of stoppages at the ports, power stations and hospitals and all have had as their objective preventing the implementation of government policy. Port workers and EAC staff have been using action to thwart the procedure for privatisation, which is an obligation under the memorandum, while health workers are demanding higher pay and more jobs before the introduction of the National Health Scheme.
All industrial action in the last two years has taken place in the public sector, the workers of which have been well-protected from the effects of the recession; overpaid hospital nurses staged a four-hour work stoppage on Thursday demanding higher pay scales at a time of record unemployment and food banks.
However most industrial disputes relate to the privatisation plans and union efforts to block these because they fear the many privileges enjoyed by their members would be lost. Port workers have repeatedly held strikes in protest against privatisation, causing losses to the economy, while a few weeks ago EAC unions decided to carry out a daily work stoppage that would have led to power cuts because they objected to privatisation procedure decided by the government.
There could not have been a clearer case of blackmail and the government gave in (as it had done when hospital doctors threatened a strike a few months ago) rather than face public anger over the power cuts. EAC unions would do the same the next time they object to a government decision, making a mockery of the constitution and our democracy. Policy was being decided by unaccountable, self-serving union bosses rather than by the government of the elected president. Thursday’s strike at the hospitals had the same objective – unions of the doctors and nurses want to dictate the type of national health scheme we will have. Teaching unions are doing the same in state education, vetoing the education minister’s plans and attempting to impose their own.
Under the circumstances, a law regulating strikes at essential services is not just a good idea it is an imperative if union blackmail is to be stopped. But prospects of this happening are not good. AKEL, which supports the idea of the unions rather than elected officials controlling the country, immediately went on the offensive, claiming OEV’s proposal was an attempt to “criminalise” strike action and demanded that the “sacred” right to strike was not negotiable. It also accused President Anastasiades, who had dared to describe Thursday’s hospital strike as “unjustified and unnecessary”, of supporting OEV’s proposal. It was not a good sign that the government spokesman immediately issued a denial saying that at no time did the government “support any restriction on the sacred right to strike”. This was another illustration of presidential spinelessness, Anastasiades content for unions to impose their diktats through blackmail and wreak havoc in the economy rather than take a stand on principle which might affect his popularity rating.
OEV should not give up the cause because Anastasiades has come out in support of the unions’ “sacred right” to abuse their powers, blackmail society and hold the economy to ransom in order to defend their members’ privileges. The Federation should keep the debate alive, maintain the pressure on the government and respond to AKEL’s propaganda and lies. It should be made clear that this is not a case of trampling on the rights of downtrodden, exploited workers but of restricting the constant abuse of power by greedy, irresponsible, unaccountable and selfish unions.