An African maxim counsels that when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.
Botswana workers may be headed for a rude awakening that their trade unions are not protecting their welfare but instead engaged in power struggles that border on a clash of egos. That is if Monday’s interim ruling by Industrial Court President Judge Tebogo Maruping in the case between BOPEU and BOFEPUSU over admission of the latter into the Bargaining Council is anything to go by.
The Judge found that the standoff between Botswana Public Employees Union and Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions is about nothing else but power struggle. He observed: “Quite clearly this case involves power play or a power struggle based on numerical strength which leads to sharing of the eight seats allocated to the Union Party to the PSBC and the major players are NALCGPWU and BOPEU, the applicant.”
He then ruled that BOFEPUSU, which is a federation and not a Union recognised by government - is not entitled to be admitted into the membership of the Bargaining Council. Further the Judge interdicted the Bargaining Council from proceeding with the 2016/17 salary and conditions of service negotiations pending the conclusion of the matter.
This was the hardest blow. And indeed Dr Kaelo Molefhe, a Political Science and Public Administration lecturer at University of Botswana specialising in trade union issues, shares the sentiment. “This interim order means that salary negotiations are currently on halt and employees are going to suffer because of this,” he said. He said that BOPEU is to blame for the impasse. “What BOPEU could have done is to go ahead with the negotiations and raise their issue once they are complete,” said Dr. Molefhe.
BOFEPUSU Secretary General Tobokani Rari concurs. In fact while he views the judgement as an interim interdict which is returnable to court on 7th March 2016 and thereby demanding restraint on their part, he is still adamant that the behaviour of BOPEU is synonymous with that of a “suicide bomber.”
According to Rari if the judgment could be confirmed final it would be a sad day for labour in Botswana. “What it would effectively mean is that no union would be eligible to be admitted into the PSBC including BOPEU save for the Manual Workers Union as things stand now,” he said.
Currently Manual Workers Union is the only union that qualifies at the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) because it meets the threshold. Its verified membership is 29 471 while BOPEU stand at 26 394 members against a threshold requirement by PSBC of 28 780. The remaining three unions, BTU, BOSETU and BLLAHWU have members less than 10 000.
Rari said that if the judgment were confirmed it would be a total destruction of the ability and power to bargain by unions and in this case BOPEU’s behavior, he said is “synonymous with that of a suicide bomber.” But not so, says BOPEU’s Secretary General, Topias Marenga, who believes that his organisation has done nothing wrong because they wanted to protect their existence.
He said it was clear from the onset that BOFEPUSU did not want them in the bargaining council and that is why they went ahead to reach a settlement agreement with the employer. He said their representatives at the negotiation table were also “given the wrong document” which clearly shows that BOFEPUSU did not want them. “So they cannot blame us for this. Our existence was under threat,” said Marenga.
As for not caring about the welfare of workers Marenga retorted, that one of their objectives is to advocate for welfare of workers. “We care a lot about them. But we should first protect the existence of the organisation because we have been mandated to do so,” he said. But he concurred with the judge that unions must sit down and map the way forward because “we still need each other. We want to see workers being victorious in every struggle”.
Rari also defended his federation saying it cares about the welfare of workers. In fact he said on several occasions they have invited BOPEU for dialogue. “There is no doubt that BOFEPUSU always acts in the interest of the workers. We have demonstrated this by extending an invitation to BOPEU to be part of the case to support our view point against government when the employer was contending that BOPEU has terminated the acting jointly arrangement in spite of the fact that BOPEU had already disaffiliated from BOFEPUSU.”
A veteran Unionist, Oaitse Patle feels that the interim order and BOPEU’s “self-disqualification” from the Bargaining Council and from the acting jointly arrangement for admission into PSBC membership with the majority Trade Union (MWU) has brought a “catastrophic effect to its members and its future.”
He said BOPEU leadership must know and appreciate that, negotiation is not all about an increase in wages; but that negotiations also encompass advocating for change in employment policies and labour legislation and this can only be achieved when workers/unions are united and speaking with one voice. Unity is strength and no man is an island, he said.
“Fragmentation of trade unions, rivalry and continued divisions is unwarranted and must be condemned with the strongest possible terms by visionary unionists and the community as whole,” he said. “I therefore urge my fellow comrades in the struggle and in particular BOPEU members to rise to the occasion and to introspect” and find out where they went wrong.
“BOPEU members must ensure that they make objective decisions about the future of their union and its leadership before it is too late,” he said.