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Lessons of the Botswana public sector strike

D 25 juin 2011     H 04:37     A Botswana National Front     C 0 messages

The recent Public Sector workers strike has inscribed a glorious chapter in the history of the labour Movement in this country. It stands alongside the 1968 manual workers strike, the 1975 BCL workers strike and the 1991 manual workers strike as one of the most important landmarks in the development of working class struggles in post-colonial Botswana. But in terms of organisation and fighting spirit, it is much more advanced than the previous strikes. In the face of intimidation, threats and outright repression by the state workers stood their ground to back their demand for increase of their salaries by engaging in strike action for more than a month. The energetic fighting spirit displayed by the workers during the strike was all the more remarkable taking into account the fact that most of those involved were relatively young recently unionised workers who had never engaged in any strike action before. The case of the striking workers was very reasonable and justified. That they are not having been awarded any increment in the past three years their real wages have effectively fallen, and they are increasingly finding it difficult to make ends meet in the face of escalating fuel and transport costs and spiraling food prices.

Although they initially demanded 16% increase later they reduced to 12% and were prepared to negotiate any reasonable settlement which the Government put forward. On the other hand the attitude adopted by the state towards the workers case was from the outset indifferent and intransigent. While it pretended to be committed to a negotiated settlement, proposals put forward by its representatives at the negotiating table proved that the state was not really interested in meaningfully engaging the workers on their demand. The offers of 0%, a conditional 5% and 3% were a clear indication of the state’s utter contempt for the workers plight. But even more scandalous was the typically undemocratic, intolerant and insensitive manner in which the BDP Government dealt with the strike. Apart from the intimidation threats, detention of trade union leaders, it imposed a total ban on the coverage of workers side of the story by the state radio and television. It then unleashed intense propaganda against the striking workers whose main theme was to portray their demands as unreasonable and unpatriotic. It is important to deal comprehensively with the arguments forward by the state through its various officials to expose their utter groundlessness. The Government has for instance consistently argued that any consideration of increase public sector salaries was out of the question as there is no money. In support of its position, it points to the experience of developed capitalist countries, where severe cuts have been imposed on public sector wages and welfare benefits by almost all the European states. This is an oversimplification of a complex situation. Huge resources amounting to trillions of dollars were raised by these states to bail out capitalist companies at the height of the economic crisis. This has worsened the fiscal crisis of the state thereby aggravating the already grave economic situation. But because of the symbiotic relationship between the bourgeois state and the capitalist, none of these states have considered the option of imposing some form of wealth tax on capitalists to make them pay for the crisis.

Even the Irish Government which had to urgently appeal for funding to the European Union and the IMF to save itself from bankruptcy refused to consider imposing a capital gains tax of two and half percent to raise some money to mitigate the fiscal crisis as suggested by some liberal economists. In the United States, ordinary Americans were outraged last year when some bosses of companies which had been bailed out by tax payers money awarded themselves millions of dollars in bonus, at a time when workers are constantly being exhorted to tighten their belts. The U.S. Government did nothing to prevent this glaring economic injustice. In the view of most learned guardians of the capitalist system any alternative policies which would make capitalists really pay for the crisis would allegedly hurt the markets, scare away investors and undermine much needed growth and recovery. This is of course of an ideological rationalisation for adopting viciously anti-working class economic policies. The social costs of the economic crisis are consciously being shifted to the working class. It is not accidental that such cuts were more severe in countries like Romania and the Czech Republic presided over by the most retrograde capitalist regimes in a situation in which the working class movement is weak and consequently lacks capacity to effectively resist the capitalist onslaught.

What the BDP Government spokespeople do not mention is that in none of those developed countries where such austerity measures were adopted have the working class accepted them without a struggle.

From Greece to Spain, Italy, France, Italy, France and the United Kingdom, embattled Batallions of organised labour have engaged in large scale mobilization and strike action to resist the capitalist onslaught. The Trade Union Movement in Botswana is correct in drawing a leaf from their class brothers book in the developed capitalist countries to advance the interests of its members. Workers are not unaware of the difficult economic situation engendered by the effect of the world economic crisis. But they are also aware of the enormous waste of resources caused by poor implementation of Government projects. They also know that on account of the huge cost-overruns and poor budgeting process it has now become almost an established practice that the Ministry of Finance invariably submit a supplementary budget running into hundreds of millions of Pula to parliament in the last quarter of every financial year. Last year such supplementary budget amounted to more than a billion Pula. The Government has never had much difficulty in financing such unexpected expenditure. In the light of this fact workers are of the firm view that if Government genuinely appreciated their plight, it would not have much difficulty in raising several hundreds of millions of Pula to finance at least a modest increase of their salaries even in the present unfavourable economic situation. The workers position was perfectly reasonable and justified.

The attitude adopted by President Khama was even more hostile. Instead of directly engaging the workers, he chose to address the issues they raised in rural Kgotla meetings hardly attended by any worker. He trivialised the workers case, portraying them as selfish people who in demanding a salaries increase, were seeking to appropriate an inordinate share of the national income at the expense of the rural poor, what cheap populist propaganda. One of the most enduring peculiarities of capitalist development in Botswana is that notwithstanding the development and consolidation of a more stable and permanent working class in the past four decades, the average worker has not completely severed the umbilical cord which connects him to his rural roots. He maintains strong social ties with rural peasants not only by having a homestead in the village, but by taking interest in the welfare of members of his extended family residing in rural areas. He regularly provides money for food and other essential items for his parents and grandparents. He on occasion provides additional cash for clothing and school fees for his younger siblings, nephews and nieces who stay with their parents or grandparents in the village. This social tendency has been further accentuated by the collapse of the arable agricultural sector, which has undermined the capacity of poor peasant to independently sustain themselves, and thus rendered them more dependent on remittances from their working relatives.

But even when the arable agricultural sector is showing some modest signs of revival or improvement such as after the introduction of ISPAAD, the reciprocal obligations of mutual support and dependence are continually being reproduced and reinforced in diverse ways by more complex socio-economic processes. Between the ploughing and harvesting seasons many workers provide their relatives with cash to hire extra hands needed to perform a myriad of tasks important and indispensable for the completion of the cycle of arable agricultural production – ranging from weeding, harvesting to thrashing. Some workers use their salaries to obtain loans from banks to set up tuck shops and other small businesses in the rural areas, in the process providing much needed employment and livelihood to some rural poor. Yet others use part of their earnings to purchase livestock which they entrust to the care of their uncles or elder brothers residing in the village or cattle post. Needless to point out that during this productive season, workers also obtain many food items from the countryside. The above outlined facts on aspects of the conditions of existence and life of the rural producers incontestably attest to the non-existence of any antagonism of interests between the workers and the rural poor. Far from the prejudising the interests of the latter an increase of former’s salaries would in fact inure to their (the rural poor) benefit as well. Equally absurd is the idea persistently peddled by various Government spokespersons that striking workers were mere pawns in a sinister political gimmick orchestrated by opposition party leaders working in cahoots with some trade union leaders. This is an insult to the intelligence of workers who understand their real interests and consciously opted for strike action to back their justified demands. On the one hand trade union leaders were entirely justified in the face of Government intransigence and hostility, to enlist the support of opposition party leaders. For their part opposition party leaders were principled and correct in taking keen interest on an issue which concern the life and interest of the nation such as the plight of Public Sector Workers. The persistent efforts by BDP leaders to discourage trade unions from meddling in politics is an unsophisticated attempt to cause confusion within the Labour Movement and weaken its fighting capacity. The fact of the matter is that trade unions cannot effectively defend their members by remaining indifferent to political issues affecting their members.

The great teachers of the working class have on the basis of an exhaustive study of the political History of the developed capitalist countries long ago established that any dominant class having attained the status of a ruling class primarily uses state power to promote its own welfare and development (see for instance Marx & Engels – The manifesto of the Communist Party, G.V. Plekhanov – Socialism and the Political Struggle, V.I. Lenin – State and Revolution). The historical experience of the evolution of the post-colonial state in Africa has furnished ample additional empirical data to prove the scientific validity of these fundamental thesis of Marxist political science. In these scheme of things, the idea that workers interest can be better promoted by abstention from politics is quite simply preposterous. Being an exploited and oppressed class under the capitalist system, workers can only effectively advance their interests if they at the very minimal not only engage in the economic struggle for the better wages and working conditions but consciously strive to influence state policy in their favour. This they can only do by decisively intervening in the political process not just by participation in the electoral process as atomised individuals, but through collective organised political action as well. This is all the more imperative during the economic crisis when capitalists and their state adopt policies which undermine the gains won by the Labour Movement in past struggles. For Botswana’s Labour Movement the debate should no longer be whether trade unions should be involved in politics but what forms of political action and strategy tactics would better advance the interests of the workers to Copt. The decision by the union leadership to accept the 3% increase offered to them by the Government showed the willingness of the workers leadership to compromise in order to break the impasse. It also became patently clear that workers are neither selfish nor unpatriotic as alleged by Khama. On the other it became clear that Government had all along been negotiating in bad faith, with no intention of even reaching any settlement with workers. If anyone had any doubt about the insensitivity of the BDP Government and its implacable hostility to workers’ interests now it has been most clearly demonstrated. In effect the state has adopted a viciously aggressive strategy whose overall aim is to intimidate workers wear down their morale and undermine if not destroy their capacity for resistance. Its dismissal of thousands of workers and refusal to reinstate them even in the face of such a major compromise by the union leadership is meant to send a very clear message to the workers. That the state had gone on the offensive and would not hesitate to throw thousands more into the streets, and thus instill fear among those still determined to fight on. The arrest and detention of some trade union leaders is also meant to demonstrate that the state is not averse to using the sword of repression to intimidate workers and cow them into submission.

But even more insidious was the state’s refusal to reverse the implementation of the principle of no work no pay and refund workers money deducted from their salaries during the strike. This is obviously meant to hit workers where it hurts most, their pockets. In a situation in which many workers are struggling to survive even when regularly receiving their pay, the deprivation of one month’s salary spells disaster for their families.

It is true that once mobilised and well conscious of what they are struggling for workers are capable of making enormous sacrifices. But there are limits to everything and workers are not homogeneous in terms of consciousness and fighting capacity. Once some of them start having difficulty in being able to put food on the table, paying rent or paying for a combi which transport children to school, they will start asking themselves whether a struggle for improvement of one’s salary is worth all these sacrifices. Doubt will start despondency will start creeping in, and some will start to individual decide to go back to work. Once that happens the union leadership will be faced with a real danger of a spontaneous collapse of the strike which in the current circumstance would translate into an ignominious defeat for the Labour Movement, which would demoralise a lot of workers and make it more difficult to mobilise for future struggles. There are ominous reports that the IMF has advised Government to reduce the size of the public service to make it more efficient and reduce the wage bill. This advice could not have at a worse time for the Labour Movement. The Government would be more likely inclined to accept such advice to do away with some jobs and outsource services formally rendered by such workers to the Private Sector to accelerate the process of privatisation while at the same time reducing the unions potential membership. This affords just a glimpse of the immensity of the challenges facing the Labour Movement in future.

It is up to the trade union leadership to make a sober appraisal of the situation to decide on the best tactical way forward. Regardless of the immediate outcome of the strike, Botswana will never be the same. The public sector unions have decisively asserted their position as the most organised, militant detachment of the Labour Movement in this country. This is not surprising. The formation of BOFEPUSU uniting within its ranks recently unionized public sector unions with the older bigger and much better organised Manual Workers Union with a proud History of militant struggle spanning over 40 years did much to infuse the new federation with an impressive working class militancy and combativity. On the other hand, the newly formed and reorganized unions like BOSETU, BLLAWU and BTU with their young, vibrant and well educated leadership did much to invest the new federation with a formidable organisational sophistication.

But more importantly for the future of the Labour Movement is the enormous change in consciousness brought about by the strike. An ounce of real movement is more important than tons of theory as Marx long ago correctly pointed out. The experience gained from the strike is extremely instructive for the many ordinary workers involved in it. A strike welds workers together, fuses their will and enhances their class consciousness. (R. Luxemburg- The mass strike ; Political Party and Trade Unions, V.I. Lenin on strikes, L.D. Trosky- The Only Road).

For many workers the illusions which they had about the democratic character of the BDP Government have been shattered. Apart from enabling workers to more concretely evaluate their organised strength and social weight the strike has provided them with a unique, opportunity of assessing the tactics, strategy and character of the state. In this way, the experience derived therefrom has contributed to developing a tradition vital for the preparation of future struggles. That is an important achievement for Botswana’s labour movement.

By Otsweletse Moupo