Saturday, September 19, 2020

How Trade Unions create a hostile environment

“Communication will transform the Siamese twins into triplets”

An unholy war has been allowed to ferment between three most inseparable legally equal entities in the productivity triangle. This war is being waged and fortified within this love triangle comprising of the government, the employer and the worker.

An unholy war has been allowed to ferment between three, inseparable and legally equal entities in the productivity triangle. This war is being waged and fortified within this triangle, which comprises the government, the employer and the worker.

However, I subscribe to the school of thought that disputes the equality of the parties on the grounds that superiority, or power, practically rests with the owners of the means of production and, inevitably, these remain the undisputed pacesetters in the industrial equation.

From a most factual and practical point of view, this exposes the worker as the weakest of the three parties who, probably, needs to be cushioned against the big two.

In my travels around Africa, with either the Norwegian or the Danish Trade Union Capacity Building Programme Africa Region, experience has shown the weaker party to be the most militant in protest against unmet demands by the big two.

The general labour force assumes the big two to be in active connivance against the worker. President Festus Mogae has fallen on the Trade Union firing line for his reference to government and industry as Siamese twins.

Yes! That is a fact! But they need to be triplets not Siamese. Siamese is not about docility, unholy connivance or over-dependency on each other; but it is about the willingness and readiness to communicate, listen, reason, explore and adapt to challenges when such need arises. Siamese in the sense that they never get to a point where they engage in violent or non-violent protests.

They never get disorderly on the streets or in the press to advance their causes. Neither do they opt for being derogatory in the process. In bad weather, siamese twins are expected to communicate and protect each other as they hereby do. This bonding between the siamese twins (government and industry) emanates from the amount of information flow between the two.

They act from a fully informed point of view and that is where brother triplet loses them. They are equally guilty of withholding strategic information from brother triplet, the worker/union. But they desperately need and value their brother triplet who has turned war-like in search of what he terms “inadequate acknowledgement or recognition” by his the Siamese brothers.

The Worker Point of Departure
It is most critical for the worker/union to act from a solid point of view in the day-to-day operations. It is also very important to remain focussed and maintain a lot of common sense and sound logic.

Yes! Workers are entitled to a variety of requirements, which I will sum-up as quality of working life. That is: a safe workplace, good health and an appropriate wage, of course, to guarantee bread and butter security. On the list, I would add ‘a profitable enterprise and efficient work tools.’

The above list highly depends on the profitability of the enterprise. It is so easy for the workers to take to the streets or to present a long list of demands and unrealistic percentages of wage increments and never bother to know how the organisation performs in the market place.

I call it unrealistic because any off-air calculations would be unrealistic. Workers/unions need to access strategic organisational financial information in order for them to negotiate from an informed point of view in relation to the above list.

Workers/unions also require sound communication, negotiation and presentation skills in order for them to effectively listen, be listened to, and offer qualitative leadership and followership. It is important to identify with the Siamese twins and this would be the making of the most desired Triplets in the industrial equation.

Rre Mogae was right! It would be very difficult to bond with the Siamese twins if workers opt for misguided militancy in blue, red, orange or whatever shirts. The organisation’s performance determines the quality of working life.

If government sets a good commercial environment, the employer provides the means of production and the worker chips in with labour all in good faith to empower all three! Surely, this would be the making of triplets in the industrial equation.

Workers and unions have got to appreciate that in as much as we would require a hundred percent safe work environment and consistent wage increases, it is the worker, the employer and government that should team together to achieve those most desired levels through commitment and communication of purpose. No stone throwing, road blockades or wars in the press.

Workers are a very lucrative market for both the devil and the angel. They have been, all the way, targeted by a plethora of forces with a variety of agenda.

These forces comprise of some international Non-Governmental Organisations, power aspirants or opportunists, enemies of the state, crime syndicates and, of course, employers and the respective governments.

They all want quality access to the workers/unions. Some NGOs, power aspirants and crime syndicates have a tendency to mislead unions into making countries ungovernable for their own ends.

Inevitably, this has made governments very cautious and suspicious of union activism, especially when it changes tone closer to state house politics and having visibly digressed from the traditional bread and butter issues.

It is an un-strategic move for unions to allow prominent political activists of whatever complexion to assume active leadership positions, as it would be common sense to conclude that such political activists would use the union positions to advance the respective political party agenda.

Take, for example, Elias Mbonini at the time that he was chairman of Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU) and, later, the Chairman of the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) but at the same time also being the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) Secretary for Labour Affairs.

It would be gross insanity requiring a psychiatrist for both the government and employers organisations to dispute the fact that they were facing direct assault from the BCP and not the workers. Workers aligned to other political or non-political entities, inevitably, get short-changed and would remain hostages of the respective union leadership.

No competent government would be sensitive to such a set-up and it is the wailing workers’ responsibility to correct this in order to get a ready and non-suspicious ear from the siamese twins.

For the BCP to dispute that it ever gained mileage from this politically strategic position would be political idiocy of the worst order.

Unionists- cum-politicians, driven by international entities, have cheated this lucrative constituency in broad-day light by verbally offering best alternatives in the labour market.

But on getting to State House, getting real becomes nonnegotiable and the election gimmick comes into the open. Africa watched its own Frederick Chiluba of Zambia rise from long-distance bus conductor to State House on the trade union ticket. He was a man who claimed to have the interests of the worker at heart and to make ready and meaningful deliverables to that lucrative constituency.

It never took the target constituency long to note that it was not riding on a double-decker luxury coach but on a donkey. His compatriot trade unionists, who had propelled him into state house, found themselves in prison for trade union activism.

That was the man who came to Sir Ketumile Masire’s farewell party and teased Zambia’s founding president in absentia after the former president had indicated his desire to make a come back to active politics.

At Masire’s party in Gaborone and in clear reference to Kaunda, Chiluba said to Masire, “Now that you have chosen to retire, comrade president, let’s not hear you talk of a come back on the grounds that the country was being misgoverned.”

When Kenneth Kaunda had condemned the Chiluba administration for corruption, bad governance along side other allegations that he was into drug peddling with various drug lords who had financed his rise to power.

At the end of his second and last term, he tried to change the constitution to give himself another term in office against the will of the very workers that he claimed to represent.

Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also rode on the unions ticket and is now battling to remain within the alleged looting grounds as the workers have began taking a second look at him.

If Lula loses the election race, Brazil has to come up with a new union or else the new government would feel bound by him in workers welfare.

The African National Congress of South Africa strategically teamed-up with COSATU during and after the liberation war and successfully got a firm, but now fragile, grip on unions based on unrealistic deliverables that never were. On getting to state house, need-to-be-real took precedence and the union felt betrayed.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the former champion of South Africa’s Mine Workers Union and, later, COSATU, is now a business mogul, a situation that now pits him against the workers that he militarised over the years. I take it that they were both inexperienced parties to the deal as none of them had had that exposure prior to majority rule in South Africa.

Today, with the Jacob Zuma saga, which has revealed the personalisation of COSATU, Mbeki and the business community’s dealings with the union would be a direct engagement with the disgraced Zuma.

In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Africa watched Morgan Tsvangirai, an alleged former tea-boy at Trojan Nickel Mine, stirring the political landscape riding on the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and narrowly missing the gate into state house.

But presently, he has failed to preside over his own union party the Movement for Democratic Change so dismally that it has been crippled into a token opposition equivalent to Botswana’s opposition.

But the workers are still there and suffering. Mugabe and the business community’s engagement with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions remains viewed as a direct Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change confrontation at the expense of the target group.

My aim is to sensitise workers/unions to come out and demand, demonstrate if need be, for communication, not necessarily rewards as they might not be available.

Encourage governments and employers to be transparent on organisational operational issues especially levels of profitability and workers dues. It is this hidden information that will make workers/unions top-flight negotiators and create industrial peace if availed.

To negotiate competitively one needs information. Not to be at state house. With information negotiations would remain focussed, sharp and short to enable participants to get back to their respective production lines timeously.

Due to the low levels of commercial wisdom within the unions, it would be a prudent idea for the unions to engage consultants to facilitate and negotiate on the union’s behalf, just as management does. It is also important and urgent for unions to source funds/donors for capacity building programmes.

Trade Unions have an equal responsibility as both government and employers to grow industry for employment creation and, inevitably, poverty alleviation.

It would be gross irresponsibility to leave it all to government. Downing of tools is an option highly retrogressive to all parties, and to the community, and therefore, should be avoided at all costs.

Reginald Thabang Gola is an Organisation Development Consultant
E-mail:[email protected]


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