Trade union federations, Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) and Botswana Federation of Public Sector Union (BOFEPUSU) have one thing in common with opposition parties: they are all fully aware that they can prevail over government in their respective volitions if they are united. Yet and this notwithstanding they continue to give their members a false impression that they can bring desired results in their present silo formations. Trade union federations and opposition parties are all aware of the old slogan-united we stand divided we fall. In their current formations, these entities end up dismally failing their members in more ways than one. If it could be argued on one hand that some victories have been achieved notwithstanding disunity, it could on the other be argued that a lot more could have been had the opposite of disunity been the case. That said; the purpose of this conversation is mainly on the disunity of trade union federations though reference to opposition parties will be made here and there for emphasis. After all, they are like identical twins. What is the cause of trade union politics?
I should perhaps attempt to define what trade union politics is. I would say it is a situation where enlightened members of a trade union influence and manipulate the un-enlightened to help the former to pursue a particular agenda of directing trade union activities or management. When the agenda is achieved, the enlightened start to in some instances unilaterally run the unions where accountability and transparency to union assets like funds becomes unheard of. When questions and concerns are raised by other members on lack of unaccountability and transparency, trouble starts with the eventuality that splinter trade unions are founded.
Just like opposition parties, trade union federations are ravaged by egocentrism, inward-looking, intolerance to other divergent views, drunkenness with power which in turn impedes the greater visions and missions of trade unionism and other such like distasteful attitudes. Just like in opposition parties, intolerance seems to be the main undoing of trade union federations. We have heard how trade union federation leaders nearly came to blows at the ILO meeting in Geneva last June. Yet, their destination was the same-to put trade union concerns to the ILO. In the course of competing to reach the other destination of protecting workers’ rights, they attract and/or recruit each other’s members where in the process, back-stabbing, maligning of other comrades take centre stage. In the end, reaching the destination becomes as hard as squeezing water from a rock.
I have argued before in this column that trade unionism has become a cash cow for certain trade union leaders where trade union resources have become the most sought out commodity. These leaders have become so stinkingly wealthy while their members’ conditions of service have remained the same, or worse still, have significantly worsened. I must be fair to mention that the opulence of certain trade union leaders here obtains elsewhere in the region particularly in South Africa where trade union politics has ravaged trade unionism for sheer personal ends. The membership base of trade unions in general has not significantly increased in the context of organising workers who do not belong to mainstream trade unions yet these are workers whose daily abuses and unfair labour practices in whatever form is the order of the day from employers who have gleefully taken advantage of the status quo. The recent case of Choppies employees comes to mind.
Cognisant of trade union politics and how it has polarised trade unionism, government has taken full advantage by passing laws whose other objective could be argued to be to cripple trade unionism. While government is well aware that these laws are offensive to trade union federations and trade unions on account of being non-compliant to ILO Conventions, she is also well aware that the least trade union federations can do to show displeasure, is to write articles in newspapers, go ‘rant’ in radio interviews and complain at the ILO. While these are good strategies, they do not exert unbearable pressure on government to relent and repair these laws precisely because trade unions are so fragmented to unleash such pressure. Just like the 2011 public service strike was a purely BOFEPUSU affair or so I thought, the recent Alliance for Progressives motion on the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry on the National Petroleum Fund scandal was not supported by the Leader of Opposition.
Even if BFTU and BOFEPUSU are separate entities, one would have thought that they have a compelling obligation to come together to collectively exert pressure on government on fundamental labour issues that have a direct bearing on their members. Public Service Bargaining Council for example, and for the reason that it was not meant to serve one federation over the other, should not have collapsed under the watch of these federations whatever the issues were. Government in some way and as argued by BOFEPUSU then aided and abetted its collapse because she knew that there would be no meaningful resistance to keep it functioning because trade union federations were pre-occupied with their differences and inter politics.
BFTU and BOFEPUSU have just emerged from their respective May Day celebrations where again the objective was the same for both of them-celebrating this day in the context of its origins, meaning, significance and symbolism to workers. Because workers have generally lost faith in trade unionism due to the minimal spin-offs they accrue therefrom, attendance of May Day celebrations have dwindled to unacceptable and disappointing levels. Nothing inspires workers to attend May Day celebrations because no one offers such inspiration. Not only that! Even the advertisements of these celebrations have become so low-keyed that some trade union members have forgotten the day itself let alone its significance. I still harp on the point that much as BFTU and BOFEPUSU are different entities in their own right, wouldn’t they just for one day organise a huge May Day event? The sad thing is that this is not possible because of the politics and intolerance between and amongst themselves.
The advent of being in close proximity to money and other resources by trade union leaders has somewhat rendered trade unionism inconsequential to the many poor souls in the form of their poor and somewhat disinterested members. I should be fair to BOFEPUSU for some victories it has achieved in pursuit of protecting their members. The same cannot be said about the oldest federation, BFTU, which and perhaps for all intents and purposes, has become a shadow of its former self. It is not as visible as is BOFEPUSU in the mainstream trade union body politic. BDP government is reported to be cajoling BOFEPUSU to lean towards it in exchange of reforming labour laws to which it has reacted with some measured caution. The same and to the best of my recollection, has not being extended to BFTU may be because of its ‘insignificant’ threat it poses or it could do so.