Friday, June 9, 2023

Lessons of the Public Sectors Workers strike (Part I)

The recent Public Sector workers strike has inscribed a glorious chapter in the history of the labour Movement in this country. It stands alongside the 1968 manual workers strike, the 1975 BCL workers strike and the 1991 manual workers strike as one of the most important landmarks in the development of working class struggles in post-colonial Botswana. But in terms of organisation and fighting spirit, it is much more advanced than the previous strikes. In the face of intimidation, threats and outright repression by the state workers stood their ground to back their demand for increase of their salaries by engaging in strike action for more than a month. The energetic fighting spirit displayed by the workers during the strike was all the more remarkable taking into account the fact that most of those involved were relatively young recently unionised workers who had never engaged in any strike action before. The case of the striking workers was very reasonable and justified. Not having been awarded any increment in the past three years their real wages have effectively fallen, and they are increasingly finding it difficult to make ends meet in the face of escalating fuel and transport costs and spiraling food prices.

Although they initially demanded 16% increase later they reduced to 12% and were prepared to negotiate any reasonable settlement which the Government put forward. On the other hand the attitude adopted by the state towards the workers case was from the outset indifferent and intransigent. While it pretended to be committed to a negotiated settlement, proposals put forward by its representatives at the negotiating table proved that the state was not really interested in meaningfully engaging the workers on their demand. The offers of 0%, a conditional 5% and 3% were a clear indication of the state’s utter contempt for the workers plight. But even more scandalous was the typically undemocratic, intolerant and insensitive manner in which the BDP Government dealt with the strike. Apart from the intimidation threats, detention of trade union leaders, it imposed a total ban on the coverage of workers side of the story by the state radio and television. It then unleashed intense propaganda against the striking workers whose main theme was to portray their demands as unreasonable and unpatriotic. It is important to deal comprehensively with the arguments forwarded by the state through its various officials to expose their utter groundlessness. The Government has for instance consistently argued that any consideration of increasing public sector salaries was out of the question as there is no money. In support of its position, it points to the experience of developed capitalist countries, where severe cuts have been imposed on public sector wages and welfare benefits by almost all the European states. This is an oversimplification of a complex situation. Huge resources amounting to trillions of dollars were raised by these states to bail out capitalist companies at the height of the economic crisis. This has worsened the fiscal crisis of the state thereby aggravating the already grave economic situation. But because of the symbiotic relationship between the bourgeois state and the capitalist, none of these states have considered the option of imposing some form of wealth tax on capitalists to make them pay for the crisis.

Even the Irish Government which had to urgently appeal for funding to the European Union and the IMF to save itself from bankruptcy refused to consider imposing a capital gains tax of two and half percent to raise some money to mitigate the fiscal crisis as suggested by some liberal economists. In the United States, ordinary Americans were outraged last year when some bosses of companies which had been bailed out by tax payers money awarded themselves millions of dollars in bonuses, at a time when workers are constantly being exhorted to tighten their belts. The U.S. Government did nothing to prevent this glaring economic injustice. In the view of most learned guardians of the capitalist system any alternative policies which would make capitalists really pay for the crisis would allegedly hurt the markets, scare away investors and undermine much needed growth and recovery. This is of course of an ideological rationalisation for adopting viciously anti-working class economic policies. The social costs of the economic crisis are consciously being shifted to the working class. It is not accidental that such cuts were more severe in countries like Romania and the Czech Republic presided over by the most retrograde capitalist regimes in a situation in which the working class movement is weak and consequently lacks capacity to effectively resist the capitalist onslaught.

What the BDP Government spokespeople do not mention is that in none of those developed countries where such austerity measures were adopted have the working class accepted them without a struggle.

From Greece to Spain, Italy, France, Italy, France and the United Kingdom, embattled batallions of organised labour have engaged in large scale mobilization and strike action to resist the capitalist onslaught. The Trade Union Movement in Botswana is correct in drawing a leaf from their class brothers’ book in the developed capitalist countries to advance the interests of its members. Workers are not unaware of the difficult economic situation engendered by the effect of the world economic crisis. But they are also aware of the enormous waste of resources caused by poor implementation of Government projects. They also know that on account of the huge cost-overruns and poor budgeting process it has now become almost an established practice that the Ministry of Finance invariably submits a supplementary budget running into hundreds of millions of Pula to parliament in the last quarter of every financial year. Last year such supplementary budget amounted to more than a billion Pula. The Government has never had much difficulty in financing such unexpected expenditure. In the light of this fact workers are of the firm view that if Government genuinely appreciated their plight, it would not have much difficulty in raising several hundreds of millions of Pula to finance at least a modest increase of their salaries even in the present unfavourable economic situation. The workers position was perfectly reasonable and justified.

The attitude adopted by President Khama was even more hostile. Instead of directly engaging the workers, he chose to address the issues they raised in rural Kgotla meetings hardly attended by any worker. He trivialised the workers case, portraying them as selfish people who in demanding a salaries increase, were seeking to appropriate an inordinate share of the national income at the expense of the rural poor. What cheap populist propaganda!

*Moupo is former Leader of Opposition and immediate past President of the BNF


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