Newspaper reports that the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) has publicly endorsed the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) did not come as a huge surprise. It has always been my argument that trade unions should form alliances with political parties that are favourably disposed to their interests so that they are able to play a meaningful role in social, economic and political transformation of this country (Trade Unions should form alliances with political parties ÔÇô Sunday Standard, 07/03/2010).
However, I was startled by how the endorsement was reportedly communicated by the union leadership, in particular, by the President of the Manual Workers Union. Unions generally serve the interests of members across the political divide. However, trade unions have to always revisit their position in the socio-political and economic trajectory and may in the process recommit themselves to playing a key role in the political transformation of the country. In doing so, unions could adopt a majority position that could possibly peeve some of their members in good standing and this is pretty unavoidable. This being the case, it is then imperative that members who could not assent to the majority decision are not forsaken. This will in some big way make such odd members go along with the majority decision even though they hold a different position. This requires the leadership to tread with caution and use tact and be highly sensitive to avoid behaving like trainees in substance abuse.┬á
Thus, BOFEPUSU may have taken a decision to endorse the UDC but the tone of their declaration of support as reported was unfortunate, poisonous and irresponsible. The labour movement flirtation with politics is a very sensitive and divisive subject that requires union leaders to choose their words carefully and avoid over the top rhetoric of delinquents. Reports that the President of the Botswana Manual Workers Union remarked that the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) should be punished for pulling out of the Umbrella project are alarming and depressing, more specifically the tone used to convey emphasis and express emotions. I must make it abundantly clear that this essay does not necessarily query the declaration of their endorsement but rather the manner in which such declaration was made. The labour movement would have done well to endorse the UDC without publicly vilifying the BCP or any other opposition grouping that opted out of the umbrella project. Like it has been asserted earlier on in this submission, trade unions are home to members with divergent political positions hence it is a basic rule that their pronunciations on controversial decisions are tempered with prudence to avoid hurting others feeling and alienating them. On many instances, what matters most is not what is being pronounced but how the pronouncement is made. This means that appropriate communication skills are critical to developing strong relationships especially when it comes to navigating the fragile project of drumming up support for the opposition under the Umbrella enterprise. Bragging about punishing other opposition parties is irrational, childish, divisive and self-defeating and presents the leadership of the labour movement as a disorganized sub-group of noisy, bigoted and self-conceited racketeers with self-serving agendas.
Admittedly, trade unions must have a wider role in society hence there is no running away from politics. While their immediate bread and butter issues of wages and conditions of service for their members are unifying, politics on the other hand is divisive and their participation therein, whether by forming alliances with political parties or merely endorsing certain opposition parties, should be preceded by a long process of robust and critical dialogue intended to mobilize members to rally for collective agreements. Arbitrary and capricious declarations by over-excited activists who think that being on the podium means that they own union members are inconsiderate and thoughtless. Leadership should not give leaders a false sense of entitlement and responsibility.
Throughout the world, the labour movement has always been the natural vehicle to lead the struggle for economic and political change and to succeed in this endeavour, they remained grounded in order to consolidate their base and organize the civil society rather than rushing into portraying other like-minded movements as illegitimate and deserving to be isolated. This approach is reckless, immature and has the potential to weaken unions by isolating some of their members and by extension breed internal anti-union sentiments.
The Badge of Courage sincerely opines that the labour movement in Botswana is presently at its lowest, having been humiliated consistently and perhaps rendered irrelevant by the state. Thus, they need to take time off and re-invent their combat strategies and tactics for engagement. They are certainly not as popular as they might think and should they not re-invent their mode of operation, they risk sliding into oblivion and that would be their fault.
The Sunday Standard commentary of May 4, 2014 titled ‘Trade Unions should recalibrate their priorities’ succinctly observed that union leaders are on a perpetual fighting mode and I must add, this could metamorphose into what in medical terms they call oppositional defiant disorder ÔÇô a kind of a persistent pattern of a mood to fight often unreasonably. Such a posture by unions could seriously undermine their credibility to the extent that many workers would dismiss them as clubs for narrow, self-seeking pathologically stupid demagogues. The commentary further stressed that ‘another thing that is necessary at this moment is that trade unions have to take a fresher and more detached look at their priorities because their…current obsession with politics is poisonous, divisive and counterproductive’.
Thus, unions should not be lapdogs to a particular opposition block but should be watchdogs for society’s interests. Such a principled position will ensure that the spirit of party loyalty do not obscure unions’ objectives of bringing justice and democracy to this great nation.┬á