Spotlight on Maia Kobakhidze (ESFTUG– Georgia)

“How to protect our members when we are fighting for the existence of the organisation! “

Georgia is Europe’s black sheep when it comes to human and trade union rights. The workers are being pressed to work in unhealthy and dangerous environments, trade union activists are being dismissed, and trade union leaders harassed and threatened. The whole existence of independent trade union organisations is put at risk. President of the national Teacher and Scientists Union (ESFTUG) representing 103 000 members, Maia Kobakhidze stresses the importance of international support.

With a background in computer science and a degree in math from the state university of Tbilisi, Maia has made a career in computer science and lately as a teacher and a trade union leader. But in between she worked for twelve years as a soloist dancer for the Georgian Singer and Dancing Ensemble.

What was your first struggle as unionist in a primary school?

- I was elected head of a primary school union structure in 2006. My biggest accomplishment there was that I managed to change the practice of only one-year contracts to open-ended contracts. This is still the only school in Georgia with open-ended contracts.

There are constant struggles for your union in Georgia. Can you please tell us more?

- We had a proper collective agreement between the teachers union and the Ministry of Teachers and Scientists. According to some of the provisions in this collective agreement, it is valid until a new agreement has been negotiated. Then it all started when the former president of the union tried to make changes to the collective agreement and the ministry refused to make any changes to the collective agreement. We then took this case to the court, and the court ruled that as a social partner, the ministry was obliged to negotiate with us. They also ruled that the ministry shall not interfere with the transfer of union member fees. But the ministry has never executed the decision of the court.

After that, the ministry issued a verbal order to all the resource centres and told them not to negotiate with the unions, and to break off any official contact with all unions. They were also instructed to stop the membership fee transfers. There are currently 103 000 members, and no membership fees are currently reaching the union. The union is completely dependent on membership fees for its survival.

You managed to get properly elected as president for the national teachers’ union, but it has been a long struggle, hasn’t it?

- The conflict between the union and the ministry just got worse, and as a result the president of the Teachers Union resigned. In the congress that was held to elect a new president, a big fracture of union members that are sympathising with the ministry walked out of the congress in order to try and prevent the election from taking place. The ministry wanted to take control of the union and also to open the way for their own candidate for the presidency, which was refused by the union.

Despite the walkout the congress continued according to the statuary rules of the organisation. Now the opposing fracture within the union is questioning the elections and is contesting this in a court of law. Despite all these struggles Maia Kobakhidze was elected as the president of the union. But the struggle continues.

- Since the election I have sent three formal letters to ask for negotiations, but they are ignoring me.

Is it even possible to recruit new members under these circumstances?

- In November 2010 the ministry instructed the school principals to normalise the relations with the unions. As a result some 400 collective agreements were signed. This was all thanks to the pressure from the international community. We are also quite sure it happened because the U.S. ambassador met with the Georgian president, and the president wanted to show the world that he is being reasonable.
Despite these 400 collective agreements, not a penny is making it to the union.

What is the state of affairs currently in your union?

- In January 2011 I had three confidential meetings with people linked to the Ministry of Education and Science. During these negotiations they had three demands.
- The first was that I was to convene a new extraordinary congress.
- The second one was that I had to make changes to the existing charter and especially in the articles concerning the legalities to become president of the union. This is of course to make sure they can place their own candidates in the leadership positions.
- Thirdly, they asked me to resign so they could put forward their own person as president. In return, they offered me a highly paid position with the ministry. These same conditions are now being put forward also within our union.

How is all of this affecting your everyday work?

- We as union officials are not even allowed into schools in Georgia. The teachers are still willing to be members, and they want a strong, independent teachers’ union. Some teachers have already been dismissed. But we are still here, and fighting. The trade union still exists, as does our headquarters.
- I have approached the ministry with public questions via mass media, but still no response. It is impossible to concentrate on the protection of our members when we are fighting for the existence of the organisation.
- We currently have five court cases pending over dismissals. Two of them are finished, and we won both. The crisis is getting worse financially, but there are also pressures from outside the organisation. This is a classic example of the state then executing its powers to destroy independent trade unions. Even the distorted Georgian labour law is being violated.

What kind of support are you looking for from the international community?

- The General Secretary of Education International, Fred van Leeuwen, published a report of the situation in Georgia. He also made two statements to support the teachers union in Georgia.
- I am most grateful for the continuing help and assistance from all the supporting organisations. And I do hope for support in the country meeting we are having here in Brussels. It is important to use the leverage to influence the Georgian government. But of course we also need both practical and financial help.

Interview by Kristin Blom

Read also the spotlight on Hamlet Lomidze (Railway workers unions- Georgia):
“There are a lot of hazardous and unsafe working conditions, and the traumatic cases have increased the last years.”

Read also the ITUC online (5 May 2011) : Georgia: Europe’s Black Sheep for Workers’ Rights’

For more information, please contact the ITUC Press Department on: +32 2 224 0204 or +32 476 621 018