Just when the dust was settling at the embattled Botswana Federation of Trade Unions, things have once again taken a turn for the worst after it emerged last week that some influential public sector trade unions, one of which is a BFTU affiliate, are at an advanced stage of forming a splinter federation that would specifically attend to public servants’ needs and effectively separate the public sector labour movement from their private sector counterparts.
The Sunday Standard is reliably informed that the Manual Workers Union, led by Johnson Motshwarakgole, and the recently unionized Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU), led by Andrew Motsamai, are just about to wrap up the formation of a public service federation that is set to rival the BFTU.
The BFTU Secretary General, Gadzani Mhotsha, said on Friday that BFTU has not received any correspondence from the Manual Workers Union to indicate that they intend to form a splinter union, and therefore they still consider the manual workers union a bona fide affiliate of BFTU.
But indications are that preparations for the formation of the federation are at an advanced stage as the two unions have not only engaged a consultant to formulate the funding of the federation and its logistical needs, but also appointed a task force to establish the federation’s constitution. The two have been given thorough instructions to be ready to present a detailed report to the two unions at their national congresses in December.
Trade union insiders told The Sunday Standard last week that the recent developments are not really a surprise as the two unions have never hidden the fact that they intend to form a public sector federation.
”While the two have never made any formal announcements it has always been known through the labour movement grapevine that BOPEU and the Manual Workers Union are not part of us,” they said.
They also told The Sunday Standard that past events have always indicated that Motshwarakgole has long harbored ambitions of heading a public sector federation. When the BFTU was plastered all over newspaper headlines as the National Development Bank threatened to seize and auction their prized Babereki House over a P10 million debt, rumours abounded that affiliates from some public service unions, led by Johnson Motshwarakgole, were contemplating forming a splinter federation in protest of the embarrassing spectacle BFTU had become. The dissidents also said that the BFTU was not effectively representing them in negotiations with the government. The federation’s affiliates saved the day as they rallied behind BFTU saying that the formation of a splinter federation would erode unity and solidarity in the labour movement.
It seems the newly unionized BOPEU, to whom Motshwarakgole was looking for support in his initiative, decided that they could not stand the pressure of differing with labour movement powerhouses who stood in defense of BFTU, and made a hasty retreat leaving the long suffering Motshwarakgole to face the wrath of the irate conservatives. Motshwarakgole found himself the villain of the moment as he was accused of seeking to sow seeds of discord among Botswana’s working masses.
With the backing of, among others, the Botswana Teachers Union (BTU), the Botswana Secondary Teachers Union (BOSETU) and the Botswana Land boards and Local Authorities Workers Union (BLLAWU), the BFTU won the day as the unions pledged their support and slammed the dissident unions for destabilizing the status quo.
Vocal BFTU affiliates threw salvos at Motshwarakgole, questioning the legitimacy of his initiative to challenge the BFTU executive while his union had been suspended from BFTU because of failure to pay subscriptions.
The Sunday Standard is informed that the manual workers union has since 2001 failed to honour their commitment of paying subscriptions to the federation. According to the BFTU constitution any union that affiliates to the federation must pledge 10 percent of its coffers to the federation as subscriptions.
While such a provision was waived at a November 2001 congress in Gaborone during which the Manual Workers Union, the Botswana Mine Workers Union and the Botswana Commercial Workers Union were seeking affiliation to the BFTU, Motshwarakgole’s union has up to now still failed to pay its affiliation fees. A subsequent general council meeting decided to suspend its membership as per Rule 3 of the BFTU constitution.
On Friday, Mhotsha revealed that a meeting of the BFTU council in July resolved to extend an olive branch to the beleaguered Manual Workers Union and wrote them a letter inviting them to a meeting whose objective would be to seek avenues through which the union’s affiliation arrears could be paid up. While the BFTU was awaiting the response from the manual workers union, Motshwarakgole delivered his bombshell.
In the same token, said Mhotsha, the BFTU, after realizing that BOPEU, unlike other newly unionized labour movements, was not forthcoming in affiliating to the BFTU, wrote a letter to the union inviting them for talks. Again, while awaiting a response from BOPEU, they were stunned with the news of a new federation in the offing. This means that BOPEU has never been affiliated to BFTU.
Trade union commentators say that all these developments are clear indicators that after the failed coup earlier this year, the manual workers union and BOPEU did not abandon their plans but only retreated to the drawing board to reassemble their canons.
They told The Sunday Standard that the duo retreated to lick their wounds and plot a new strategy and, led by the relentless Motshwarakgole who is no stranger to controversy, they have once again bounced back with an announcement that they are on the right track to forming a splinter federation.
But Mhotsha cautioned that the decision to form a federation does not lie with the union leadership but rather with the membership. ”We have all along been hearing of the intentions of the leaders but nothing has been said about the wishes of the working masses and we still have to hear what they have to say,” he said.
He added that the latest development is a very disheartening one as it does not augur well for the labour movement. “There is no reason why we should separate the public sector from the private sector because it kills the spirit of solidarity that is a key factor in the success of the labour movement,” he said.
Rumors abound that Motshwarakgole capitalized on BOPEU because the public sector labour movement has for a long time been suspicious of some BFTU affiliates whom they suspect of political affiliation, hence their hesitation to affiliate to the federation. A source close to BOPEU told The Sunday Standard that BOPEU is not comfortable with some private sector unions, teacher organizations and other public sector unions, like BLLAWU, whose leaders are perceived to be affiliated to some political parties. The leaders of these suspect labour unions, they said, have also annexed the BFTU leadership, and BOPEU feels that its continued association with such labour movements will compromise relationships with the employer.
It is also said that BOPEU frowns on the maverick and militant attitude of teacher organizations whose leaders have been accused of prancing to the media gallery to further their political agendas, thereby throwing any chances of fruitful negotiations with the paranoid employer to the dogs.
“While we appreciate the efforts of union leaders in representing the interests of their members, we cannot help but feel that some individuals within the working masses are playing to the media gallery and using the trade union platform to push their political agenda, and we would not want to be associated with such individuals,” said a BOPEU confidant.
Others, on the other hand, say that the public sector federations feel that their disassociation from the private sector unions will enhance relations with government, a contention that is summarily dismissed by conservatives who feel that the present scenario where both private and public sector unions are affiliated to one federation works very well and does not in any way affect negotiations with the employer as unions bargain individually with the assistance and support of the federation.
Commenting on the issue, BOSETU Publicity Secretary, Justin Hunyepa, said that manual workers union and BOPEU should have made an effort to sensitize the BFTU leadership about their unhappiness with the goings on at the federation instead of going their way.
”This is a new leadership with a new vision and it is sad that while BFTU made efforts to instigate communication with the said unions, they decided to go their own way without any consultation. It is indeed a sad chapter for the labour movement,” he said.
But BLLAWU President, Pelotshweu Baeng, is not as saddened as his trade union counterparts. The maverick president said that Botswana’s labour movement is currently undergoing a transformation and change of landscape, adding that no one knows what scenario will emerge after the dust has settled.
”It is a fact that the decision by the manual workers union and BOPEU is a damning blow, especially because of the large following that they enjoy. But it is important for them to tread with caution because the winds of change are sweeping through the labour movement and the numerical advantage that they are enjoying today might not be there tomorrow. It might be that they are shooting themselves in the foot.”