Trade Union federations and trade unions are well aware of the phrase United we stand, divided we fall. But instead of staying true to this phrase, they sometimes do the opposite. They will also be well aware of the famous trade union song, ‘Solidarity for ever for the Union makes us strong’. While the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) and Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) are singing the Solidarity song with the same tone and pitch, it appears they don’t complement it with the phrase, United we stand, divided we fall. BFTU and BOPEU signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on 22 February 2017 with clear objectives. BOPEU was an affiliate of BOFEPUSU until their acrimonious parting sometimes in 2014 after a litany of accusations and counter accusations. After resolving at its Delegates’ Congress to disaffiliate from BOFEPUSU in 2015, BOPEU started a relationship with BFTU. Towards the end 2015, BFTU invited BOPEU to attend a regional conference in Ethiopia. Thereafter, both parties visited Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) ‘to learn about the running of a paralegal system’. The first BFTU constitution draft was presented to the General Council of both parties. Based on these goodwill initiatives which are steps in the right direction, what more do they need to prove that their relationship is worth more than a MOU? Only mistrust and fear of the unknown could be the ultimate answer. In fact, this is the answer which is supported and confirmed by the statement made by BOPEU at the MOU signing ceremony that “… We had agreed not to rush into joining any other union’s federation…” But trade unions across the board have more in their In and Pending trays than in the Outgoing in which time is of the essence. Government has overtime made trade unionism in Botswana an occupational hazard through bad laws and policies - The Trade Disputes Act 2016 with particular reference to the provision declaring almost if not all public employees, essential in contravention of the ILO definition of an essential employee. The Bargaining Council is also almost dysfunctional as a result of the high-handedness and direct interference in its operational nature by government. The Labour Advisory Board is no different where the Minister responsible for labour is having a field day on how he picks and chooses how he deals with it. Other equally important anti-union issues require urgent attention. These are some of the urgent issues which make trade unionism in Botswana an occupational hazard where BFTU and BOPEU should be dealing with as project managers and not as sub-contractors. This is where the so-many-steps-backwards part of the article comes in. Most of trade unions’ time and resources are placed on fighting personality and ego wars instead of the core mandate.
Let us address the fear of the unknown in the BFTU/BOPEU relationship. BOPEU will be alive to the saying once bitten twice shy following its stint with BOFEPPUSU. Without harping too much on the reasons why it left because there are many and well known, it will however be amiss of me not to state that the last straw that broke the camel’s back was the issue of BOFEPPUSU supporting and endorsing the UDC in the 2014 general election. As far as I can recall, (and I always stand corrected) BFTU had not endorsed any political party for the 2014 general election where its members were allowed to vote via their consciences. If this is correct, it resonates very well with BOPEU’s. But these issues notwithstanding, and favourably making affiliation even more compelling and attractive, such affiliation remains elusive. This inevitably tells us that there could be deeper fear especially from BOPEU to affiliate. It cannot be the same with BFTU because it is in its interests as a labour centre to ‘capture’ BOPEU because above all else, the former’s membership base will substantially increase with corresponding revenue base. But what are BOPEU’s likely fears of the unknown? Is the BFTU doing all it can to lure BOPEU to its stable given that all the spade work appears complete or is it BOPEU’s way or none at all? I am tempted but will nevertheless do so, to conclude that the following could be close to the answer. Firstly, BOPEU appears to be a solid entity grounded on sound financial and other resources which makes it a cut above the rest. It is fairly self-sufficient. Secondly, it may view affiliating to BFTU as a serious and uncalculated risk given the ‘unstable’ position of the federation. Affiliating to it may put its own resources at greater risk probably emanating from its possible knowledge of the federation’s financial woes and other related factors. I am with the greatest of respect to BFTU, only making hypothetical suggestions for purposes of this conversation. Fourthly, the reason that BOPEU founded and chose BOFEPUSU as a federation of first instance may further explain why it appears not easy to join BFTU – issues which prevented it from joining BFTU in the past may still be there. The first cut is the deepest. It would appear that BFTU is negotiating from a hopelessly weak position just like the BPP is with the UDC. If this is the case, BOPEU will join at its own pace and terms.
In respect of the above, the MOU may for now be the only alternative to the two parties working together. In my view, the two parties have entered into a ‘marriage of convenience’ with no strings attached. Justice Pilladino of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania wrote that “A Memorandum of Understanding is not a contract; nor is it a collective bargaining agreement. It cannot be considered to have the same effect as a collective bargaining agreement”. This view could arguably confirm my point that the MOU under discussion will achieve very little compared to if BOPEU had affiliated. Before I forget, let me touch briefly on the issue of politics and trade unions. History tells us that trade unions started during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. In “Trade Unions and Politics: A Comparative Introduction” Volume 9 Number 1 of 1996, Andrew J Taylor observes “That unions are inevitably political, whether they or politicians like it…” Trade unions do not necessarily have to join or endorse political parties but cannot deny that the very labour issues they are not comfortable with derive from political decisions which should be challenged without fear or intimidation as and when they occur. I would have expected BFTU and BOPEU, for example, to have vigorously and viciously challenged the legality of the amended Trade Disputes Act as it has a direct bearing on their members. Instead, the disapproval was disappointingly timid, half-hearted with no telling conviction particularly from BFTU. This law has effectively rendered the most powerful, traditional and historical trade union weapon, striking, ineffective and obliterated. None of the trade union federations have fought to protect this weapon like animals do when their territories are invaded because they operate in silos and through MOU. You don’t fight through press statements but through action. In my view, the MOU, and while not overly critical of it in the context of being a catalyst that brings BFTU and BOPEU closer on one hand I am on the other because serious challenges facing trade unions in this country cannot be dealt with through MOUs. BFTU and BOPEU will be reminded of the denial attitude which for so long characterised opposition parties by trying to oust the ruling party on an individual basis. They have learnt the hard way. The MOU between BFTU and BOPEU is a step forward, so many backwards underpinned by fear of the unknown. The sooner this fear is effectively and decisively dealt with, the better for trade unionism agenda. Judge for Yourself!