Lefhoko Molebatsi slips into sabre-rattling when he is discussing the relationship between workers unions and government. In one of his “letters to the editor” the Tertiary and Allied Workers Union talks of the weak versus the strong, and his choice of words is heavy with war metaphors like “weapon” and “struggle”.
The war talk says more about Botswana workers unions, perhaps, than it does about Molebatsi – but it says something about their poisoned relationship with government.
For the past few months, the union movement’s campaign has followed an established pattern: Mainstream unions have attempted to establish their get-tough credentials by pushing to expand the workers’ bargaining power beyond pay structures and working conditions to influencing the process of governance.
With President Lt Gen Ian Khama leading a top down administration, the push to expand workers’ power has run out of space as it came crashing against the burgeoning power of the executive. For now, no one seems prepared to cede ground, but something has to give. There are no prospects of reconciliation, and indications are that there is going to be lots of tears before bed time.
Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) leaders are already fulminating against the labour movement’s decision to dabble in politics. A number of cabinet ministers have even tried to wean workers away from the movement by warning them to be weary of union leaders who use the labour movement to further political agendas. Unionists should stick to discussing workers’ rights and bread and butter issues, they argue.
“The working class is the most frequent proponent of the full extension of democratic rights because they have the capacity to organize. Organization is the weapon of the weak in their struggle with the strong. As the labor movement we have to dictate what we want to politicians, not the other way round. In contrast, the business of politicians is to listen to what the majority of the people want”, says Molebatsi.
Indications are that the war talk will turn into something substantial and infinitely messy. In the build up to the 2009 general elections, trade unions started courting opposition political parties, much to the chagrin of the BDP.
On the eve of the general elections, when the love affair between trade unions and the opposition was blossoming more than ever, the Manual Workers Union issued a statement urging all Batswana not to vote for members of BDP’s A-team faction and branding them “enemies of democracy.”
Even the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) which recently broke away from the BDP is flirting with the labor movement. BMD Deputy Chairperson Botsalo Ntuane was the guest speaker at this year’s Labor Day celebrations in Goodhope, while Wynter Mmolotsi declared BMD’s affection for trade unions at the same celebrations in Francistown.
The unions recently rallied behind one of their own, Pelotshweu Baeng, and threatened to down tools after government threatened him with disciplinary action for addressing Botswana Congress Party youth. Government eventually backed down.
And now the soured relations between government and the labor movement have reached the corridors of government enclave. It all started with the formulation of the new public service act. The act was first signed by President Khama in December 2008, and was expected to have been implemented by April of 2009. But that did not happen, and the unions threatened legal action. The act would do away with a clause that empowers government to fire public servants without giving them a hearing, or even reasons why they were being fired. At the height of President Khama’s delivery crusade, public servants could walk into their offices in the morning and find themselves jobless hours later. Many senior public servants, including the Director of Public Service Management Pearl Matome and the Director of Building and Engineering Services Jimmy Modise, would fall victim to this clause. Public service unions read mischief in government’s delay in implementing the new public service act, and accused government head honchos of playing hide and seek because they were not happy with the act as it stripped them of powers to fire and hire as they please. The act was finally implemented in May this year.
To date, government is inundated with multiple lawsuits from disgruntled employees who are contesting their dismissals. The most prominent one is currently before Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo. In the case, 17 of the 24 employees who were dismissed from the Ministry of Works and Transport are suing government for unfair dismissal. The employees are represented by Botswana Public Employees Union through attorney Tshiamo Rantao.
The new public service act also ushered in a new era in power relations between government and the trade unions. It provides for the formation of a public service bargaining council. After the implementation of the new act on May1, the unions wrote government reminding her of the need to finalize the constitution of the bargaining council. They met with DPSM on June 28 to discuss the establishment of the council. At the meeting, they were taken aback when government announced that she had taken a decision to withdraw their recognition.┬á?
“These are obviously delaying tactics by government. It is simply a ruse to delay the establishment of the bargaining council,” said Johnson Motshwarakgole, Organizing Secretary of Manual Workers Union.?
On Friday the public sector unions filed an urgent application at the High Court seeking a declaration that government’s decision is unlawful and of no effect.??They maintain that they had made agreements with government under the old public service act, and such agreements are still valid today. They argue that prior to June 28 government recognized and acknowledged the enforceability of these agreements, and has held several meetings with them as representatives of the employees.??“Even through circulars, DPSM acknowledged the applicants as collective bargaining agents for their respective members,” said BOPEU President Andrew Motsamai.┬á??The unions also argued that DPSM is fully aware of the fact that there is procedure to be followed prior to withdrawing the recognition. This procedure is laid down in Section 33 of the Trade and Disputes Act as well as the termination clauses in the recognition agreements. They said their loss of recognition rights has resulted in their loss of organization rights, like the right to administer check off facilities on their behalf.??“The livelihood of any labor movement is the monthly subscription it receives from its members. Without check off facilities, the unions will collapse, and their financial ruin will precipitate their dissolution,” they said.??De-recognition of the public sector unions, they said, has resulted in the 90 000 strong membership that they enjoy in the public service without workers representation.??“DPSM is now free to make changes to terms and conditions of employment without reference to the five largest trade unions in the country,” they said.?
It remains to be seen whether government and the labor movement will ever find peace. What is clear, however, is that the unions are willing to tap into their financial wealth to tackle government head on. They have also defied government and are now openly cavorting with opposition parties. In retaliation, government seems to be employing divide and rule tactics, openly siding with some trade unions to the detriment of others. But the fact remains that unions have a large following, and they can influence their members to vote for the opposition. It is even clearer that the ruling BDP will also employ its massive resources to circumvent such a development. To that end, there seems to be no end in sight for the war between government and trade unions.