Trade Unions seem to be grappling with what to do in terms of their potential for influencing who goes to parliament and who ultimately runs the state.
In the last general elections, Manual Workers Union came out in the open in their support for the Barata-Phati Faction within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party( BDP). The basis for their support of the Barata-Phati against the A-Team Faction was that the union was defending democracy. They had concluded that the suspension of the then party Secretary General, Gomolemo Motswaledi, by the Party leader and state President Ian Khama was undemocratic.
They sent out a communiqu to their members with one clear message; do not vote for any BDP candidate who is a member of the A-Team Faction. Attached to the message was a list of candidates not to be voted for. As recent as last week, the Manual Workers Union is reported to have endorsed the candidacy of Duma Boko for the Presidency of the Botswana National Front. This takes place in the backdrop of the recent meeting between the representatives of five public service trade unions; Manual Workers Union, BOPEU, BLLAWHU, BOSETU, BTU, and Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) during which the BMD is reported to have briefed the unions on the reasons for its formation and asked for support from the unions.
Subsequently, BMD enjoyed invitations to most of the May Day Celebrations organised by the unions at the level of guest speakers. Botsalo Ntuane, Vice Chairman of the BMD, attested to this when he told a fully-packed BMD maiden convention held in Gaborone that "BMD has forged strong ties with trade unions, as evidenced by their active participation in May Day celebrations this year."
Pelotshweu Baeng, President of BLLAWHU, has also been reported in newspapers to have addressed the Youth wing of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP). Last week, The Telegraph carried a story in which he castigated the formation of Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS).
Jafta Radibe when he was president of the BTU has also spoken on an array of issues considered political; chief among them was the state of poverty in the country; an issue that led to his ultimate forced retirement from the public service.
Prior to this courtship between the unions and politics, in 2003, BLLAWHU then BULGSA adopted the working class ideology as its guiding philosophy, which has among its tenets, support for democracy, full employment, social justice and universal skills. The theme of the Conference in which BULGSA adopted the working class ideology was: Setting an Agenda for workers; a painful undertaking. Yet when BULGSA was turned into BLLAWU and ultimately to BLLAWHU, the working class ideology and the task of setting an agenda for workers are said to have been kicked to the bottom of the priority list in favour of pursuit of business ventures and wealth. Sunday Standard quotes Botsalo Ntuane telling the BMD convention that:
"The top five trade unions told us that they will work with parties that push the agenda for the working class." The first problem here is that the said 'Top 5' unions; Manual Workers Union, BLLAWHU, BTU, BOPEU and BOSETU do not have an agenda of the working class because the working class has not created one. The second problem is that the five unions have embarked on a project that will fragment the very working class that must draw an agenda to be pushed by a labour friendly party that would eventually carry it into state power. For starters, the Unions have marginalised Trainers and Allied Workers union (TAWU), which, although is a public sector union, is however not a part of any of their ventures. The unions want to form a second federation of trade unions separate from the existing Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU), a move that critics see as uncalled for and bound to fragment the labour movement into public sector and non-public sector workers and promote supremacy.
Sources deep within the leadership of BOSETU and BLLAWHU have revealed that BTU, BLLAWHU and BOSETU withdrew their memberships from BFTU last week.
The other reason why the trade union movement is grappling in the dark when it comes to politics is seen as emanating from lack of a guiding ideology on how to deal with political parties. It is not known, for instance, what guiding tool Manual Workers Union is using to inform its decision when endorsing candidates. In the Barata-Phati instance they claimed it was in defence of democracy whatever measure they were using. In the Duma Boko case the claim is that he is a human rights activist and that he has shown overtime that he has the interest of workers at heart.
The issue here is exactly what need of the working class is the union trying to address and in any event should it not be seeking, together with the rest of the labour movement, one progressive formation that will carry the working class agenda into state power? Instead of wasting workers' resources by supporting individuals who may not care less once they are in parliament; but then what can a lone voice do in our parliament.
And what business do unions really have in internal matters of political parties; more so that involvement of unions in internal matters of political parties might polarise the membership quite unnecessarily so. It is also not clear whether or not members of the union are involved when these endorsement decisions are made or whether or not the decisions are made along making favours for relatives and paying debts to old political associates.
So, when the five unions told BMD that they would support any party that would be willing to push the working class agenda, it begged the question; what agenda of the working class were they talking about when the working class is fragmented on their instigation and when it is unorganised as evidenced by thousands of workers, cutting across industries, who do not belong to trade unions, this is inclusive of domestic and farm workers. What working class are the unions referring to?
But it must be underscored that a working class agenda is vital if any relationship between a political party and the labour movement is to be meaningful and beneficial to the working class.
This, therefore, means that the working class must find itself, unite and forge a working class agenda; only then can they seek a political formation to take their agenda into state power. This is not a far-fetched aspiration because workers have the numbers and the money to sponsor their agenda into cabinet and the state house.