Controversy between teachers’ unions and education authorities escalates

The Union of Professional Educators (UPE) is voicing its disagreement with the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) over a number of issues being raised by the latter as the last few months have seen tensions between the two escalate.

While the Malta Union of Teachers is making headlines about allegations brandished at the education ministry as well as authorities at the University of Malta, the UPE is contesting its stance.

The controversial allegations aired by the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) condemned the education ministry for “interfering in the issuing of marks by including or changing marks for a number of students who were absent during assessments”. On 23 July, the MUT also filed a trade dispute against the University of Malta after talks on collective agreements broke down.

“The allegations being made are misleading, and there is a reason for this. The Malta Union of Teachers has been reluctant to accept the fact that we intend on going into each and every school with plans to upend the educational system,” Sansone said when contacted for a comment.

“They know we are a genuine union and that we do not play to political favouritism or biases. These underhanded manoeuvres like the allegations made recently are meant to put spokes in the ministry’s wheels, a threat being made given that our union will soon be given the same level of access to schools as the Malta Union of Teachers,” he added.

MUT president Marco Bonnici later claimed that the allegations about attendance lists being modified without teachers’ consent was due to manipulation occurring in the ministry’s centralised attendance database. The MUT stated that the teachers who reported this manipulation were not reachable when The Shift asked for direct confirmation.

Bonnici argued that a directive MUT had issued earlier this year ordering teachers to refrain from taking attendance only affected internal attendance lists used to keep track of each individual lesson, different from the daily, centralised database kept by the government.

Executive Head of the Union of Professional Educators (UPE) Graham Sansone contested MUT’s version of events, arguing that several teachers had called him up to discuss how the same directive asking teachers to refuse to take attendance earlier this year had also played a role in affecting the database’s integrity, while further arguing that none of UPE’s members had reported any similar tampering.

“It is clear to us that the directive MUT had issued ended up turning against them, because frankly, it was a big mistake,” Sansone stated.

“As unions, we need to be careful with the directives we issue, we actually need to be sure of what we’re doing. If we want to bring the country to a halt, we can, but we don’t take matters lightly,” he added, insisting that most teachers only kept attendance for every lesson for the benefit of keeping better track of students’ work as they progressed through the year.

Five different teachers who spoke to The Shift in an attempt to clarify the matter about which attendance lists were affected revealed that different schools have different approaches, with some relying on the daily database and some also going the extra mile to take attendance for every lesson as well.

UPE suspects that the education commissioner’s report and the allegations being made by the MUT against the education ministry are connected because MUT is seeking to pile pressure on the government to ensure it does not allow its rival union the same level of access in schools.

“All of the fuss that the MUT is currently kicking up, including this frivolous claim about attendance being tampered with by the ministry’s officials, is aimed at pressuring the ministry because they were speaking to the education commissioner about our case,” Sansone claimed.

The build-up of tension between MUT and the education authorities has been occurring since May of last year, according to Sansone. Commissioner of education Vincent de Gaetano had concluded that the ministry of education had breached the union’s right to enter schools or disseminate union-related information, access which so far was only allowed to the Malta Union of Teachers.

“This ruling is going to bring a big change in the way all unions operate. This is a liberty that should be available. Competition in this case is good because people can decide on their own which union they think is most worth joining,” he added.

He also explained how once UPE is allowed the same level of access as MUT, the younger union is planning on eventually challenging MUT’s majority. Should the government prove unwilling to take the report’s recommendations on board, a legal case challenging the government’s decision would have to be filed.

The case could lead to the first instance in which a minority union challenges the majority union’s recognition from the government in an election that would require a 50% + 1 majority to be achieved.

The Education Commissioner’s report

The Union of Professional Educators, set up in 2018 by a former executive member of the older teachers’ union, the Malta Union of Teachers, is set to challenge the de-facto rule of the recognised union after parliament reconvenes in October and an official discussion is held about a report that found the education ministry guilty of discrimination against a trade union.

The commissioner’s report is yet to be officially released to the public. The Shift saw the report in its entirety as the news portal investigated allegations involving tampering with attendance lists.

De Gaetano’s decision to uphold UPE’s case, which had been pending for almost a year, now leads to a situation in which for he first time, rather than having a sole union with privileged recognition as the official representative of a trade sector, minor unions might be allowed equal access after parliament discusses the report.

In defence of its decision to not allow UPE to operate freely, which has been held consistently under the last three education ministers, the ministry stated that it “cannot accede to the complainant union’s request because this would risk upsetting ‘the other union’ representing the majority of teachers in the public service”.

The complaint was originally lodged on 3 June of last year. Just 27 days later, permanent secretary for education Frank Fabri attempted to undermine the investigation on a technical definition.

Fabri sent written correspondence to the investigating offices on 30 June, arguing that ”…an ombudsman is a state official appointed to provide a check on government activity in the interests of the citizen and to oversee the investigation of complaints of improper government activity against the citizen”.

”A citizen is a citizen, a person and not a trade union,” Fabri’s response stated.

After months of tussling over whether UPE has a right to file such a complaint, the report concluded that “it is evident” that both unions should have equal access to the same workplaces, barring the fact that the larger union should be the one holding collective bargaining rights.

Referring to the ministry’s defence about not wanting to award “a minority union” the same level of access awarded to the “main union”, the report rebuts by stating that “while the hesitancy is understandable, it should not be allowed to trump what is fair and equitable”.

“Freedom of association, including the freedom to join a minority union and the corresponding right and duty of a union to interact with its members, should not be sacrificed on the altar of expediency,” the report continues.

“For the above reasons, the commissioner finds the complaint justified in so far and to the extent that improper discrimination has been exercised with respect to the complainant union by the Education authorities,” the conclusion reads.

                           
                               
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