TRADE UNIONS have always enjoyed excessive powers in Cyprus, because the politicians have never dared to stand up to them. One reason for this is that unions represent many votes, which are a sizeable percentage in a country with a small population, and could swing an election. Inevitably there is never an industrial dispute in which the unions will not have the support of the majority of the parties, the only notable exception invariably being Disy.
Thanks to this political backing we have now reached the point at which unions are taking all important decisions and dictating how the country is run. Apart from preventing economic and social progress, by holding on to antiquated, restrictive practices, the union oligarchy also poses a threat to democracy as it has been preventing the government of an elected president implement its policies. Although our politicians love legal arguments, they conveniently refuse to see that a bunch of unaccountable union bosses are preventing the executive exercising its constitutional powers.
The unions of Cyta and the EAC opposed the government’s decision to have their organisations privatised (an obligation under the memorandum of understanding signed with the international lenders that would have raised €1.4 billion) and have recruited the support of the political parties to stop this happening. Not even the scandalous incentives offered by the government to secure union consent have worked. Why would SGO workers surrender the ability to plunder these organisations and give up the obscenely high retirement bonuses and pensions the unions have secured for them. As part of the memorandum the government also undertook liberalising of the electricity market this year, but thanks to the behind-the-scenes actions of the EAC unions this has been put back to 2020.
What is happening at the state hospital is another example of union excess. All attempts by the government to proceed with the autonomy of the hospitals, a pre-requisite for the eventual introduction of the national health scheme which was another memorandum obligation have been blocked by doctors’ and nurses’ unions because they do not approve of autonomous hospitals which might change their work conditions and terms. They do not care that the scheme would serve the whole population, because their personal interests come first.
On Monday the doctors’ unions held a three-hour work stoppage because they opposed an agreement made by the government and the University of Cyprus allowing the latter’s medical school to use the Nicosia General and Makarios as medical training hospitals. Although this would raise the standard of healthcare offered to patients, by bringing in the medical school’s specialist doctors, the unions were determined to stop it on the grounds that the consultants would be paid higher salaries than their members. Unions always promote the same pay for everyone, de-incentivising work in order to protect the mediocre and incompetent.
Should we also mention the state schools which are essentially run by the teaching unions? State primary schools will be hit by hour-strikes from this week, because the education ministry refused to obey the diktats of Poed, which insisted that supply teachers were given 12-month contracts; the government, the employer, offered 10-month contracts which were unacceptable to the union. Last month, the union had threatened strikes unless the government hired more teachers on contract and the ministry gave in instead of taking a stand on principle – it was the ministry’s right to decide what teacher needs of the primary schools were and not the union’s.
It is as if the schools, the hospitals and SGOs are the ownership of their workers, like workers’ co-operatives in the utopian socialist state. What these workers have is much better than ordinary ownership because they have paid nothing for the control they wield and have taken no financial risk. If Cyta eventually goes bankrupt, because it is being run like a workers’ co-operative rather than a business, it is the taxpayer that will pick up the bill as he did in the case of Cyprus Airways, a shining example of what union rule, backed by the political parties, can achieve. And it is the taxpayer who is covering the €100 million deficit in CyBC pension fund, with nobody daring mention to that staff pensions should be cut.
Speaking at the 7th Limassol Economic Forum on Friday, the finance minister, Harris Georgiades, slammed the rise of populism and said there was a need for policies that served the whole of society, instead of policy-makers satisfying entrenched interests. Sadly, the government he serves has not embraced this principle, too often surrendering to the union oligarchy, and there seems little to suggest it has the resolve to do so any time soon.
Nothing will change – the only possibility is that things will get worse – unless there is a government that is prepared to fight the unions. And the issue is no longer about workers’ pay and rights but over who has the constitutional authority to govern the country.