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Trade Unions

Union density is relatively high in Malta, with around half of all employees belonging to unions. Two main union groupings, the GWU and UHM, face one another, both organising a wide spectrum of workers, although some occupations, such as teachers, bank employees and nurses, are in independent unions. There are political differences between the two main groups and relations are often tense, although there have been some recent attempts to develop a more collaborative spirit among trade unions.

There are 91,576 trade union members in Malta. These are the figures from Malta’s Registrar of Trade Unions for the 12 months to 30 June 2013, based on the unions’ own records.1 They include 11,231 trade unionists who are in the pensioners’ sections of the two main union groupings, which means that around 80,000 trade unionists are likely to be in employment. This compares with 137,700 full-time employees and 33,100 part-time employees who do not have another full-time job, and suggests that around 47% of Malta’s employees are union members. This is close to the ICTWSS database of union membership that put union density at 48.6% in 2011.2



By far the two largest union groupings in Malta are the GWU, with 46,831 members and the UHM with 26,103. As both cover a wide range of industries and occupations, they are similar to union confederations in many other states.



In addition to these two major bodies, there are a number of smaller unions, which often have a high level of membership in the areas they organise. The most important of these are the MUT (teachers) with 7,905 members, the MUMN (midwives and nurses) with 3,181 members and the MUBE (bank employees) with 2,970 (all figures from returns for 2012-13).



The UHM and MUBE as well as some smaller unions are all members of the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions (CMTU), although it is the member unions rather than the CMTU that are dominant in the relationship. In 2008, the MUT, the teachers’ union, which had been one of the founder members of the CMTU, left the Confederation following major policy disagreements (see below).



There is also a third union grouping, known as Forum Unions Maltin (FORUM). Initially set up with eight unions in 2004, with the MUMN – nurses and midwives – playing a key role, the group was strengthened when the MUT joined it after leaving the CMTU in 2008. From the start FORUM has tried to obtain seats in the tripartite Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD), on which the GWU, the UHM and the CMTU were already represented. In 2012, changes were made to the legislation governing the composition of the MCESD and FORUM became part of this tripartite body.



The GWU, which was founded in 1943, began as an organisation of workers in the British naval dockyard. It now has eight separate sections covering different areas of the economy: hospitality and food, maritime and aviation, government and public bodies, metal and construction, other manufacturing and small and medium companies, technology and communications, and professionals and services. There are also associations for pensioners and youth. In the recent past the GWU has suffered from a decline in employment in the traditionally heavily unionised shipbuilding and ship repair industry, as well as parts of manufacturing such as clothing and textiles. As a result, between 2006-07 and 2007-08 it recorded its largest ever fall in membership, losing 4,650 members. However, it organised a recruitment campaign and it has made up most of the ground lost. It now once again represents just over half (51.1%) of all trade unionists in Malta.



The UHM began as a union for clerical workers in the Maltese government in 1966 and it has extended its membership subsequently. It has seven separate sections for employees: public service employees; health services; public bodies and communications; manufacturing and commerce; ports and transport; education, culture and recreation; and social care. There is also a UHM pensioners’ section.



The GWU is close to the social democratic Partit Laburista (PL) and was formally merged with it for the period from 1978 to1992. The other unions emphasise their independence from political parties, although the CMTU and the UHM, its main component, are seen as closer to the centre-right Nationalist Party (PN).



There is considerable rivalry between the GWU and the CMTU, although the CMTU has been weakened by the loss of the teachers union the MUT. The MUT, like the GWU, was opposed to government plans in 2008 to increase prices for energy and water. It therefore called for a common body to bring all unions together, a demand the GWU agreed with but which CMTU rejected as “untimely”. Following this clash, the MUT left the CMTU and joined the third union grouping FORUM. Subsequently the GWU and FORUM have worked together on a number of occasions, organising joint meetings and conferences.



Figures from the Registrar of Trade Unions show that overall union membership has grown over the last 20 years from 78,350 in 1992-93 to 91,576 in 2012-13. Part of this is explained by an increase in the number of pensioners in the unions and part by the overall growth in employment. However, it seems that in recent years union membership (excluding those in pensioners’ sections) has kept pace with overall employment growth. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of non-pensioner union members increased by 9.0%, from 73,736 to 80,345. Over the same period the number of full-time employees and part-time employees with no full-time job increased by 8.4% from 157,658 to 170,837.3



The unions are stronger in the public sector than in the private sector, particularly in the private services sector. In the two major union groupings men outnumber women – by 37,484 to 9,347 in GWU and by 15,149 to 10,954 in UHM. However, women are in a majority in the teachers’ union (MUT), the midwives and nurses union (MUMN) and the bank employees union (MUBE). (All figures from the Registrar of Trade Unions for 2012-13).

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.