THE BOSSES of four of the biggest unions were invited to the presidential palace on Friday morning for talks with President Anastasiades who wanted to inform them that he would consider drafting a law regulating strikes at essential services if the Electricity Authority of Cyprus (EAC) union went ahead with their plans for industrial action, which included cutting the power supply. In short, he was countering union threats with his own threat while hoping the bosses of Pasydy, Peo, Sek and Deok would act as mediators, talking some sense into their militant comrades.
It was a bit of theatre as government sources quoted by the press said Anastasiades told the union bosses that it was not in the government’s plans at present to regulate strikes through legislation. He warned them, however that he would consider it an option if the EAC union took action that would paralyse the state. Government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou, also indicated that the government threat was not to be taken too seriously, saying “the president gave assurances to the unions that the need for legal regulation could be avoided as long as all the provisions of the agreement of 2004 are adhered to.”
The agreement of 2004 was introduced as an alternative to a law governing strikes at essential services, at the behest of the unions, which opposed any legislation. The agreement has not proved very effective and has been ignored by workers at the ports, the EAC and hospitals with impunity over the years. The proposed law has been on the cards since the Clerides presidency but no government has dared do anything about apart from use its drafting as a mild threat when workers at an essential service were planning strikes. Why would unions take such a threat seriously, especially when the president assured them it was not in his plans?
Friday morning’s meeting was hastily called after the EAC unions held votes among their members and overwhelming backed a proposal for industrial action in order to pressure the board into giving in to their demands. These included returning to staff all money that had been deducted from wages because of the economic crisis in line with the administrative court’s decision that ruled the cuts unconstitutional, moving them up pay scales, a practice that had been frozen during the crisis, and the EAC carrying on paying for full private health cover for employees (5.9 per cent of monthly wages) even after the introduction of Gesy.
Government policy for the whole public sector is that no money would be returned until the there was a court decision on the state’s appeal against the administrative court’s decision. As for Gesy, the EAC unions want to keep the private health cover while the Authority also pays the monthly contribution to the national health scheme, which would add up to an 8 per cent contribution on monthly wages. Workers in semi-governmental organisations (SGO) consider the privileges they have secured through strike threats and blackmail over the years, in the name of consensus, as “workers’ conquests” that are non-negotiable. This the reason Cyta and EAC workers have been vehemently opposed to the privatisation of their organisations and successfully block it with the support of parties; they know all the privileges they enjoy – not to mention the power to dictate terms to the board – would be lost and they would be treated like normal workers.
The reason EAC’s unions decided to take action was because they had put their demands to the board and rather than engage in dialogue with them, the board sent a letter rejecting them. What was there to negotiate considering the government’s position that no pay cuts would be returned until there was a decision on the appeal? Yet the mediating union bosses, leaving the presidential palace on Friday, said conditions had been created for the EAC board to engage in dialogue with the unions. A dialogue about what? That the EAC should carry on paying for private health cover, when it has no legal obligation to do so once Gesy is fully introduced? Or perhaps that it would also pay the workers’ contribution to Gesy?
The reality is there is nothing for the board to negotiate and it would be a mistake to engage in negotiations because if it does not satisfy the unions, the strike threats would resurface. The law regulating strikes at essential services should be prepared by the government regardless of what happens at the EAC, because without it, unions will continue to hold the state and society to ransom. If the 2004 agreement ensured against this prospect the unions would never have agreed to it and if it was binding, they would not ignore it whenever they chose to. We need a law regulating strikes at essential services if the public sector unions are to be stopped from constantly blackmailing the state into submission. Using the drafting of the law as a warning is an idle threat that no union has reason to take seriously.