Chief Minister Fabian Picardo took flak from pensioners and teachers at the union May Day rally yesterday over separate and unrelated issues that have drawn the same criticism of the Gibraltar Government – its lack of progress on domestic matters.
Mr Picardo acknowledged that the Brexit negotiations had taken the lion’s-share of the Government’s time since the 2016 referendum.
But, he insisted, it is because the Government had “got Brexit right” that it is able to even entertain the claims of the pensioners and the teachers.
Ahead of the union rally, Mr Picardo was confronted by scores of angry pensioners who claim they are worse off as a result of privatisation.
Then, on stage, the president of the teachers’ union – Gibraltar NASUWT – laid into the Chief Minister and claimed it was his “arrogance” that has led to teachers taking protest action this afternoon.
Against the backdrop of a dispute over a pay claim, the teachers’ union will hold a demonstration at 4pm and will march from Casemates to No.6 Convent Place.
Yesterday’s union rally was held at the John Mackintosh Square, away from its traditional home of Casemates.
Upon his arrival at the event, Mr Picardo was jeered by some members of the crowd who also blew whistles at him.
He was then confronted by a group of Aquagib and Gibtelecom pensioners who levied criticism at him and claimed that they were worse off as a result of the move from the public to the private sector.
These pensioners had a commitment from the then Chief minister, Sir Joe Bossano, that that would not be the case.
Speaking to the Chronicle yesterday Mr Picardo restated that he was ready to honour that commitment.
He said: “The only issue in dispute is what the difference between the positions that they’re in now and the positions they would have been in if they were in the public sector are, and how that is determined.”
“Unfortunately that has taken a considerable period of time,” Mr Picardo added.
“They don’t have a commitment from anybody else to right that wrong, but we do have to make an assessment which is objective and which stands up to scrutiny.”
“The Government has been working with Unite on how to determine that,” he said explaining that there had been an opportunity to settle the matter but ultimately the offers made were “not acceptable in either direction”.
The matter looks likely to go to arbitration but again, the parties are in dispute as to whether this will be binding or not.
“If people are worse off, then we want to fix that,” Mr Picardo said.
“People are angry because of the delay…and I fully understand that and respect that and that’s why I wanted to engage with them and not ignore the fact that there’s a protest.”
Despite the anger he was faced with, Mr Picardo took the time to speak with each of those pensioners who approached him to make clear their concerns.
“Some people have said some things which are a little bit, in my view, unfair,” the Chief Minister said.
“I am happy to talk to people when they are pleased, I am happy to talk to people when they are displeased because my job is to represent all of them.”
“I work for every Gibraltarian and I work for them – the ex Gibtelecom and Aquagib pensioners – who are today disappointed but I hope will soon be pleased with the outcome.”
With regards to the teachers’ pay dispute Mr Picardo said the Government and the union were in “violent agreement”, adding that the Government was looking to properly settle and understand the claim.
He underscored that the Government has not rejected the claim, which was filed in June of last year, and insisted that it was being investigated in detail.
But, he said, the claim needs to be considered carefully because it is a large claim given the number of teachers involved.
“We’re able to continue to entertain the Aquagib and Gibtelecom ex-pensioners, the teachers and all the other claims we have because we have got Brexit right,” he said.
“But getting Brexit right meant giving a lot of our time to Brexit and how we were going to deal with that and that’s why things are delayed.”
“I can’t have done everything in the time allowed.”
“I hope that in the run of play people will realise that we put all our good faith and all our effort to be able to settle the meritorious claims when they are meritorious.”
For his part the President of NASUWT, Victor Gonzalez, said members had balloted in favour of strike action having grown “tired of waiting” for the government to address the pay claim it filed nine months ago.
He claimed that all parties, including the Minister for Education Dr John Cortes and Industrial Relations officer Michael Crome, were under the impression that the union would be presented with an offer.
And having waited for a meeting with Mr Picardo, Mr Gonzalez said the meeting proved to be a “great disappointment”.
“The Chief minister decided to have an impromptu discussion of the merits of the claim and at the end of the meeting he actually said that there was no counter offer,” he said.
“And this is the frustration that the teachers in general have at the moment.”
“The demonstration is not about the pay claim at all, it’s about the fact that the Chief Minister was arrogant in that meeting and dealt with us in what feels like a very disrespectful way.”
Mr Gonzalez’ remarks are at odds with a bulletin issued by Mr Picardo to the teaching profession in which he claimed that the outcome of that meeting had been “a good one”.
Additionally, he insisted that there was no counter offer in place and ready to go, and nor was an offer stopped in any way, adding that accountancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers would be analysing the different analyses and comparators that have emerged in the negotiation.
Hundreds of people packed into the John Mackintosh Square yesterday for a May Day rally that brought together Gibraltar’s three unions for the first time in five years.
Union officials had reflected on the importance of working together in defence of workers rights both during and in the lead up to the May Day rally.
The three union flags were raised side-by-side behind the stage throughout the rally.
Addressing the rally yesterday Wendy Cumming, GGCA President, said such unity was of “paramount importance”, underscoring that they are “stronger together”.
She added that she was proud of the unions for focusing on the issues that bring them together instead of those that divide them.
The change of venue follows increasingly tense relations between all three unions and the Government and culminated in Unite, responding to a call from members, opting against political involvement in the rally.
As a result of this the union found itself at loggerheads with the Government which, in turn, refused the unions permission to hold the rally in Casemates.
Despite the disagreement, the Government had urged people to attend both the union rally and its own events in Casemates.
In the run-up to the budget session and ahead of a general election expected later this year, all three unions have, almost simultaneously, flexed their muscles on issues key to their memberships.
For Unite, the May Day rally represented a continuation of the fight for workers rights and an end to ‘precarious employment practices’, that culminated in en-masse demonstration down the length of Main Street in January of this year.
The GGCA had called action of its own in recent weeks following a long-running dispute concerning its membership within the Information Technology and Logistics Department.
And Gibraltar NASUWT will today lead a march down Main Street of some approximately 300-400 teachers.
Victor Ochello, Unite Regional Officer, said it was important for all unions to set aside past differences and stand together, especially in a year that marked 100 years of union activism in Gibraltar.
Speaking in Spanish in what was his last speech as Regional Officer before his retirement, he told those at the rally: “Your presence here will send a message.”
Speaking in Spanish, he reflected on everything that unions had achieved not just for workers but for the community as a whole.
“These are things we must value and preserve today,” he said.
“We must remember our roots.”
He spoke too of challenges facing workers and Gibraltar’s youth, from precarious employment conditions to low salaries.
“We can’t forget Brexit and we have to acknowledge the work of this government, which was up to the job and has looked after the community in the way it has,” he said.
“They’ve tried to make sure that Gibraltar does not suffer as a result of Brexit.”
“But this government has forgotten something very important, and we have to remind it to get on with it, because not everything is about Brexit.”
“We’re worried by Brexit and what the future might bring, but not everyone is thinking about Brexit.”
“Many people here are asking ‘what about our issues, what about the social issues, the labour issues that exist here and are being ignored?'”
”This government has to come back down and deal with these issues that have been ignored for too long now.”
Unite National officer Stuart Davies, who will replace Mr Ochello for a six month period while a successor is selected, also addressed the rally and welcomed the Government’s publication of a Bill for pension plans in the private sector.
He said this was a “welcome step” but added that Unite fears it will not go far enough.
The “burning concern” for Unite moving forward will be the issue of apprenticeships, according to Alex Nuñez, Unite executive member and youth chairman.
Addressing the rally, he said the union had still not received an official response from the Government to the apprenticeships policy document it presented in February.
Despite this, he said the union was looking for a “strong and firm commitment” to quality skilled apprenticeships from all political parties.
The rally also heard from Henry Pinna, the chairman of Action for Housing, who said workers were entitled not just to a decent wage and pension, but to adequate housing too.
He said the problem was not that wealthy people lived in luxury, but rather that some people lived in penury and poor conditions.
“Unfortunately today, there are many people who live in undignified conditions, and for us, that is an insult in a Gibraltar that boasts about being a rich and prosperous place,” he said to applause.
“We also think it is an insult to continue building luxury homes while so many people are waiting for government rental homes.”
A one minute silence was held in memory of Willie Serfaty who passed away this. Unite official Christian Duo paid tribute to Mr Serfaty and highlighted his contributions to trade unionism in Gibraltar.
As part of the May Day celebrations Unite also unveiled a plaque on the façade of its Transport House headquarters in honour and recognition of the Moroccan workforce in Gibraltar during the Franco blockade.