Thursday, February 17, 2005

The other side of midnight

Our correspondent spends some time with the AquaGib pickets... This is the graveyard shift at the AquaGib picket line.

The watch starts at midnight and runs through to eight the following morning. The men joke around and try to make the best of it. ‘El pyromano’ piles pieces of wood onto a barbeque and feeds the blaze, while another man complains that his nerves are shot to bits by both the strike and the amount of coffee he is drinking. They laugh and tease each other, but the truth is that they would all rather be somewhere else.

Despite the makeshift brazier, it is bitterly cold. The incessant conversation on the ins and outs of the dispute is enough to drive a man crazy. Joking aside, the watch quickly becomes a drag.

Two Sides

The human focus of this strike, which has now been running for over a week, has understandably been on the tenants of the Alameda Estate. Since last Friday, residents there had been without drinking water in their homes after a mains pipe burst. The problem was finally resolved yesterday after AquaGib management broke the picket line, but tensions have flared in the process.

Yet from the start, there has been a different kind of hardship in this story, one that involves the workers and their families. The men on the graveyard shift at the picket line would rather be at home with their wives, their children. But that, perhaps, is the easiest problem to take on board. The stress and the uncertainty are tougher to deal with. They have not been paid since the start of the strike on February 8 and have no idea if they will receive wages for the period of the dispute. Both sides still at loggerheads, and the dispute is starting to exact a heavy toll on the men. In common with most people, they have mortgages, loans and bills to pay.

We’re still in the middle of the month so it’s not so bad yet,” said one man. “But next week will be different.

He is referring to the fact that salaries are paid toward the end of the month, meaning this is also the time when payments are due. “Next week is crunch time,” he concludes.

On Tuesday night, despite news that Chief Minister Peter Caruana had agreed to meet with them the following day, there was no end in sight to the dispute.

The level of frustration on the picket line then was running high. Now, after yesterday’s dramatic developments, tempers are frayed even further. Spend a couple of hours with these men and you are left with one overriding impression: they really do not want to be on strike. They want to be doing their jobs, getting water back to the people of Gibraltar. To many people, they are the baddies, the villains of this saga. But take a moment to ask them and it quickly becomes evident they have taken no pleasure at all in the events of the past week. Many of them have relatives living on the Alameda Estate. Some of them even live there themselves.

I hate what has happened with this, but what else can we do,” said one man.

What is clear, though, is that the workers insist they will stay put until their claims are met. Behind the war of words between union leaders and management is the workers’ passionate belief that they are right in their position. They are risking it all for what they believe is rightfully theirs, and they are not going to budge.

“It’s not easy but everybody is willing to be here,” said another man on the picket line. “But this is going to go on for as long as it takes.”

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