In general terms trade unions have been formed to serve the interests of their members especially by working towards improving the conditions as well as terms of employment of the workers.
For this reason, trade unions in Botswana have made heroic sacrifices to remain relatively apolitical by not identifying with any particular ideology – heroic sacrifices because all over the world, the labor movement operates in a very hostile political and economic environment which automatically requires it to be politically hyper active.
Yet in Botswana the labor movement has opted to leave politics to individuals. Thus, many trade unions in Botswana show very little bias, if any, towards a particular political orientation.
Individual union members are free to join any political party of their choice. The leadership is also free to prostitute with any political party including the most reactionaries of all parties but they may not explicitly use their positions to intimidate members to join particular parties. To the uncritical mind, this seems a noble and righteous arrangement that makes it possible to organize workers from all walks of life, with varying political orientations.
Champions of this arrangement would like to argue that it is good in solidifying unity and a collective endeavor in the struggle for fair and dignified treatment at work. Yet on closer scrutiny, this arrangement is the single most obstacle to the effectiveness and efficiency of many trade unions. Due to this arrangement the labor movement has remained narrowly focused on small issues like grumbling over monkey pay, acquisition of mobile phones and purchase of sanitary pads and airtime on credit.
This narrow focus has meant that trade unions have remained relatively insignificant and do not deserve to be taken serious. Consequently, trade unions in Botswana have never really been a significant factor in political and economic development except as loose associations of irrational voters and abused self-loathing workers. Their ability to influence government policies is close to level zero and as a result government is absolutely under no obligation to advance the interests of labor. In other words, the government and employers in general will continue to poke fun at trade unions until they become capable of influencing policy directions as well as the outcome of general elections. It is therefore irritating to hear trade unions lament that they were never consulted or are never taken on board by the government when preparing the national budget. By now trade unions should be pretty aware that that the government does not recognize them as significant social forces.
Whereas the labor movement in many developing countries has experienced phenomenal growth as a potent political force, in Botswana the labor movement is yet to mature and show considerable interest in the vortex of the political life of the nation.
Our trade unions have largely remained peripheral and verge on terminal decline despite that employers continue to dismiss employees at will, pay them insulting and inhuman wages that are far below the minimum wage.
Many female employees continue to be subjected to sexual harassment so much so that one might suspect that this is done with the blessing of the union leadership. Botswana trade unions have largely acquired the stigma of noisy, bigoted racketeers and Mafioso intent on making unreasonable and at times stupid demands.
This perhaps explains why the Minister of Finance and Development Planning could announce in his budget speech that government will not increase salaries of public servants during the current financial year without bothering an inch to consult them. The government is not scared, not even worried to antagonize unions or humiliate them because they are miserably disorganized and inept.
The labor movement should be reminded that under no circumstances of whatsoever would the government take them on board of its own free will and to expect that from the current predatory, ruthless and evil administration borders on hopelessness and superior levels of stupidity.
The labour movement must demand what is rightly theirs- a legitimate role in influencing public policy direction, a stake in the policy making process. To do so, trade unions must necessarily revise their position on political neutrality because it is generally accepted that political neutrality is negative in nature precisely through its disorienting and paralyzing effect on the workers.
The truth however is that the internal dynamics of trade unions are conditioned by the economic and political framework within which they exist. This means that trade unions must necessarily be responsive to changing circumstances and constantly transform themselves in order to remain relevant. Challenges such as the global recession, assault on our democratic culture, incidences of corrupt practices by those in positions of authority which are turning Botswana into an organized kleptocracy and so forth should serve as compelling factors for the labor movement to engage in partisan politics.
Is it not scary that a full cabinet minister would tell Parliament, and by extension, the nation that as government of the day they will do as they please? Is It not frightening that the Vice President of the country would tell Parliament, and by extension, the nation that they (the ruling party) will use their numerical advantage to pursue their own interests?
Is it not horrifying that Members of Parliament are forced to withdraw or have their motions withdrawn through the intervention of some unofficial structures called party caucus?
Is it not scary that a State President could institute a secret team to investigate members of his party, more so at a time when people disappear and die mysteriously? Trade unions must recommit and inspire themselves to building a better future not only for themselves but for the entire nation by fighting to create a regime that responds to the needs and aspirations of the people.
Underpinning renewed commitment and inspiration should be an unambiguous declaration to form alliances with political parties. Characteristically, progressive trade unions are known to have intimate relationships with political parties that are favorably disposed to their interests. Such alliances will enable the labor movement to play a meaningful role in social, economic and political transformation of this country. The party-union relationship will allow trade unions to influence government policy towards the achievement of the ideals of a democratic, inclusive and dignified society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. Party-union alliances are appropriate in situations characterized by the pursuit of differing but overlapping goals.
Such a symbiotic relationship must however remain distant and flexible so that unions or parties are not beholden to the immediate interests of either of them. This demands that the relationship be not static such that either party could opt out whenever circumstances so dictate. Additionally, such collaboration is likely to generate consciousness and heightened interest in politics, and by and large help in addressing the problem of voter apathy.
In extreme cases of partisan political activism, trade unions could as well organize and mediate between warring opposition parties in pursuit of a common goal for regime change. These are difficult but appropriate times for unions to assert themselves and preserve their legitimacy and integrity. These are no times for beggars or ‘posh’ movements with no relevance to the realities of the common man.
Now if trade unions want to be taken serious, they must stop playing dead or fighting amongst themselves like bulldogs fighting over a bitch and get serious and become an important constituency in contests for political power.