May Day: Labour unions in danger of losing relevance

This year’s Workers’ Day celebrations have come and gone but the in-fighting within the Nigerian Labour Congress following years of increasingly weak leadership threatens to leave workers totally voiceless in an era where cost cutting for public and private sector employers starts from the payroll. PAUL OMO OBADAN traces the historical antecedents of the labour movements and present day challenges.

Last Friday was Workers Day, a day set aside all over the world to celebrate the working man or woman. As usual rallies as well as protests were staged in many international capitals by labour unionists, students, unemployed and members of civil society organisations, who are united in their advocacy for the improvement of the lot of workers in terms of welfare, pay, working conditions and pension terms.

Away from the sense of ceremony that that accompanied the commemoration in Nigeria, a long list of problems still stare workers in the face and many believe it is high time the labour unions started tackling this problems.

Such problems include casual employments, poor wages, and failure by employers to adhere to employment terms, which has seen a spate of industrial actions in the last couple of years.

More troubling is the division that now permeates the Nigeria Labour Congress following disputed elections last month.

What is a Labour union?

A labour union is an organisation of workers dedicated to protecting their interests and improving wages, hours and working conditions. Many different types of workers belong to unions: mechanics, teachers, factory workers, actors, police officers, airline pilots, janitors, doctors, writers and so forth.

Long History

Nigerian trade union movement has a long history beginning from the colonial era to the present day.

The first set of trade unions were modeled after British unions. Unlike the situation in most developed countries, trade union preceded industrialisation in Nigeria.

The organizsed trade union movement in Nigeria dates back to 1912 when the workers in the Southern Nigerian Civil Service under the then colonial administration organised themselves into workers’ representatives. This then became known as the Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU) in 1914. This became a pivot with which workers in  other sectors began the agitation for the formation of Trade Unions before and after independence in 1960. At this period, trade union could not take the pattern of radical organisation because of the paternalistic nature of colonial government which is the largest employer of public labor. Other unions which emerged during this period were the Nigeria Native Staff Union, NNSU, Nigerian  Union of Railway men, Nigerian Mechanics Union and the Nigerian Union of Teachers, NUT.

It was in 1938 that the Trade Unions Ordinance was

Enacted, which provided legal backing for trade unions. By 1975 during the military regime of General Murtala  Mohammed, Trade Union in the country rose to  over 1,000 which include Mushroom Unions.

In 1976, the Federal Government established a commission of inquiry into the activities of the various unions and appointed an administrator to administer the unions and come up with a structure for the proper administration of the unions. This became necessary as the unions were  polarised into ideological divide which was creating problems in the country.

Towards the end of 1977, these Unions were restructured into 42 along industrial line. The government also insisted on the formation of a labour centre as there were various multiple centers namely Nigeria Trade Union Congress, Labour Unity Front, United Labour Congress and the Nigeria Workers Council. In February 1978, the Nigeria Labour Congress was formed and inaugurated.

The then 42 Industrial Unions became affiliates of the Nigeria Labour Congress with a legal backing of Trade Union (Amendment) Decree 22 of 1978.
The emergence of the NLC ended decades of rivalry and rancor involving the four centres and unions affiliated to them.
One will also recall that the NLC had one time recorded unpleasant instances including dissolution of its national organs and consequent appointment of state administrators.  The first was in 1988 under the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd).  The second Military intervention was in 1994 during the regime of late General Sani Abacha, whose government also became fed up with the labour movements’ agitation for the restoration of democracy.
Like the initial case, the military government dissolved NLC’s National Executive Council and appointed a sole administrator.
By the constitution that established the NLC, the fundamental aim and objectives of the congress are to protect, defend and promote the rights, well-being and the interest of all workers, pensioners and the Trade unions.
It is also to promote and defend the Nigerian nation that would be just, democratic, transparent and advance the cause of the working class.
The congress is equally to continually promote workers education, principally for developing the trade union and social consciousness and to cooperate with other organisations with which trade unions may share common or specific interest for the attainment of common objectives.

A significant instance of trade union activities towards enhancement of workers welfare under democratic role was in 1981 under the regime of Alhaji Shehu Shagari when trade unions successfully mobilised their members for general strike which forced the government to increase the monthly minimum wage to N125.00.

The prevailing democratic atmosphere during this period enabled the unions to pursue its goal of improving the working lives of members through struggle for wage increase.

Trade unions have had cause to mobilise members to embark on concerted actions aimed at resisting unpopular government programmes. For instance, since 1999 when democratic rule was restored in the country, the Federal Government has severally increased the pump price of petroleum products. On each of these instances, the Central Labour Congress had to mobilize the workers for strike against the policy.

However, this did not go well with the government which responded by enacting what is now popularly known as anti-Labour Legislation – the labour bill of 2005.

The law among other things sought to decentralise the labour union in the country.

From the colonial period up till the contemporary times, trade unionism in Nigeria has combined industrial agitation and political activism in varying degrees dictated by the political gladiators and the exigencies of the times. Unlike in other parts of Africa, the Nigerian workers are highly organised as a result of the existence of a strong trade union consciousness.
 NLC and the unending challenges

Nigerians can vividly remember with nostalgia after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, it was National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers Association (NUPENG) and Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) that championed the strike that forced self styled Military President Ibrahim Babangida to step aside and install an interim government so as to avert throwing the country into chaos. Such vibrancy in labor Unionism is fast waning.

There is a school of thought that argues that the leaders of trade unions deploy strikes as a means of

self-promotion and relate with employers and government based on strategies for self-enrichment rather than improving the welfare of workers. The consequence is inability to negotiate or review workers’ conditions of service. We have some trade union leaders with poor negotiation skills.

In the midst of all these is the rising profile of the Trade Union Congress (TUC). Unlike in the past when NLC was first consideration to bipartite consultations between government and Nigerian trade unions, TUC today enjoys considerable recognition by the Federal Government. This is largely influenced by relative stability in the TUC vis-à-vis leadership crisis and threats of factionalisation in the NLC.

If the trade union movement is to measure up to public expectations in the country, there is the urgent need for the NLC to restore sanity in the workings of

the organisations and by extension, adjudicate and resolve any other lingering dispute fairly.

Secondly, the leadership crisis that has

resulted in some NLC affiliates threatening to register a rival labour centre under the integrity group should be addressed. There is the need to provide a level playing field for all affiliates.

However it can be said that the Omar leadership in spite of the numerous criticism against it,  has registered some achievements with the increase in the number of NLC affiliates from 29 to 42 now. However, this achievement will be dented, if not completely cancelled, if a breakaway is allowed to happen, under a new leadership, which is not recognised by the powerful Joe Ajaero group.

Thirdly, the issue of organisational culture and practice needs to be taken very seriously by the NLC. The present dominant attitude of union leaders whereby interest of union members is compromised is unacceptable. Selfless services to workers should drive the agenda of all trade unions and to that extent facilitate collective bargaining and grievance handling with employers and government.

Fourthly, the challenge for capacity development, more than ever before, is becoming more apparent today. Union leaders display crude arrogance rather than superior argument and knowledge. Some easily resort to blackmailing employers and government rather than mobilizing members. This is a reflection of the knowledge gap of the leadership of unions.

Also, there is the need to narrow the current boundary between NLC and TUC. Given the good relations that exist between the two organizations and their leadership, there is the need to start exploring unity agenda. The question will be: unity to what end? It should be unity for a stronger and democratic trade union movement; a movement in which the leadership will be subordinated to the interest of members; a movement with efficient

functional structures and competent personnel; and

a movement that can play leading role in our democratic struggles as a nation. These are challenges which the current leaders of NLC and the Nigerian trade unions need to engage and tackle.

Sunday Mirror spoke to Debo Adeniran, Executive Chairman of Coalition against Corruption Leaders is not impressed by the current state of the NLC.

“The last time NLC behaved the way we expected was in the years of Hassan Sumonu as the President. That was the period when true progressivism could be noticed in the actions of the NLC really representing the interest of the Nigerian working class. The late Paschal Bafyau did not do much. As a matter of fact, Bafyau ran the NLC as if it was a partnership between the government of the day and the Labour center without considering the interest of the working class. That was in the late 80’s and early 90’s. As a matter of fact, NLC agreed that they wanted to work with Patriots that is the elements from the civil service organisation when the they were about to organise the independent National conference to which the labour subscribed to the side of the civil organisations against the side of government that was represented by Philip Asiodu. They call them the Hawks and the Patriots. When the Hawks chickened out, seeing that the regime of Babaginda did not like the idea of independent national conference and that the issues to be discussed would include the total jettison of the conditionalities of the IMF, which rationalised the courses to be studied in the university, how we should devalue the naira, and how we should run our affairs as Nigerians so that it would plummet our economy. So Babangida regime did not like that because it will favor the generality of the people, so they chickened out. As soon as Babaginda announced that the government is no longer in support of the National conference that was to be held, somehow, the government of the day had bribed the Paschal Bafyau led NLC with buses and loans to run their separate transport system. So because of that largesse, they chickened out at the end of the day.

When Adams Oshiomhole came, he introduced some level of vibrancy. But the vibrancy sounded hypocritical because there are occasions when you look at his activities being supportive of capitalist system of government. The commercialisation and privatisation of the commanding heights of the economy that ought to have been fought by the working class was tacitly supported by the NLC under the even vibrant Oshiomhole. The extent the government ought to be confronted over the privatisation and commercialisation was not done. Then a number of anti-people’s policies were implemented. Yes, there were a number of strikes, but those strikes did not last as long as we expected it to last. We expected that Oshiomhole would change the face of things

But generally, when you look at Oshiomhole and and Abdul Waheed Omar, they are traditional friends, they have been very close for a very long time. That was the reason Oshiomhole chose to support Omar. Omar was a teacher and Oshiomhole was of garment and textile union. He supported him because they have been very close and he believed Omar will carry on with the work he left behind.

Omar seemed to be to gentle for the regimes he had to work with especially the last part of Obasanjo’s regime and the earlier part of late Yar Adua;s regime and Goodluck Jonathan’s regime.

Abdul Waheed Omar has played the game of the gentle guy who did not want to rock the boat. That means that Labour as veered off from the traditional practices of defending the rights and the privilege of the people by dancing to the tunes of the powers that be.

A number of issues cropped up and a number of decisions were taken.

What characterised all the regimes from Paschal Bafyau’s era was that they would pretend they wanted to work with the civil society populace but at the end of the day, they take joint decision with the civil society on maybe on a general strike but will go behind the civil society populace to reach agreement to call off the strike with the government without carrying the people along. The most recent of it was the January 2012 strike on fuel subsidy. Usually every time fuel subsidy is claimed to be removed or the prizes of petroleum products are increased, the civil setting will want to work with the Labour centers.

By the time Obasanjo came, the Labour movement had been deregulated. We used to have what is called CFTU and TUC. Obasanjo tried to break the solidarity within the Labor movement, that is why he allowed people to set up parallel labor centers, which wasn’t a bad in itself but the way they tried to use one center against the other, weakened the solidarity within the Labour movement. And that weakened the power of the masses to protect themselves against unpopular anti-people policies. The most prominent among the anti-people policies that people suffered jeopardy because the labour centre chickened out at a wrong time is the increase in prices of petroleum products. It happened several times over till what happened in January 2012 when NLC agreed with the civil setting element that we going to work together, but by the time they reach that conclusion with the government that the strike should be called off, they did not contact the civil society all over again.

There was a time we set up what we called LASCO. It’s like a coalition between Labour and civil society movement. The Labour side comprised of NLC, TUC and CFTU and the Joint Action front is on the side of civil society. We set this up with a view to working together, that even if Labour leadership does not cooperate with the civil society leadership, then the rank and file members in the Labour movement will be able to work with the civil society end of the coalition. Basically, that cooperative endeavor continued for some time, but at a stage it broke down because the labour centers because of their financial clout and ready crowd and more power to the extent that if there is any strike, they can down tools in their work places which will affect the running of government. The civil society elements, most of them are from the private sector. When the civil society goes on strike, it does not affect the government much. Remember in the days of June 12, it was the strike embarked on by NUPENG that made it a success because nobody could drive the car for so long on the street without fuel and the tankers would not pick fuel. Then we were able to persuade the National Union of Road Transport workers to also take their vehicles off the road. So who even wanted to break the strike could not have the opportunity to do so because vehicles could not move on the road, and even if they want to move, there was no fuel for them. That made it successful. That was what they used against us in 2012 when we learnt from the grapevine that the labour leaders were actually bribed to call off the strike. So they went back to work, and we kept on with what we were doing in Ojota and some other cities in the country, but it did not have the desired impact because government business was still being run. Civil service union was running, NUPENG were supplying fuel and the National Union of Road Transport Workers were doing their own business and that was the main reason why the strike actually broke. Because of the lack of support from the NLC and TUC, we could not sustain the agitation that was going on at various locations in the country. And that was why the regime of Goodluck Jonathan was able to bring in repressive forces including the Army, DSS and the Police to chase people away.

House divided against itself

Before now, one unique remarkable achievement that the NLC has had in spite of efforts by various governments to divide and weaken, it is that it maintained its organisational unity.
However, the recent development in the NLC leaves much to be desired. The Nigerian Labor Congress scheduled its 11th Delegates Conference for March 12, 2015 to elect another President. It ended in chaos.

Another election was rescheduled and conducted and a group has again rejected the results out-rightly.  For the first time in the history of labor movement in Nigeria, sharp division and faction has emerged.
The factions led by Comrade Ayuba Wabba and the faction, led by Comrade Joe Ajaero.
Few hours after the conduct of the recent election held by the congress at Eagles Square in Abuja a group involving 23 unions of the NLC led by three union leaders,  Joe Ajaero, Igwe Achesse and Isa Aremu addressed a press conference and declared the election as inconclusive.

Comrade Joe Ajaero in a statement issued immediately after announcement of the election results said that based on the anomalies observed during the convention a special convention where the “Wrongs” of the election will be addressed.

Giving an insight into some of the lapses observed and pointed out to the Integrity Committee before and after commencement of the election he said that “There was intermittent light outage during which my agent Mr. Benson Okorodudu fainted and was rushed to the hospital thus paving way for manipulation of the electoral process.

Ajaero who is also the Secretary-General, National Union of Electricity Employees, NUEE, explained further that counting of votes was delayed for 12 hours after ballot papers were sorted out even though the agent protested long delay in counting of ballot papers after voting.

He cliamed that the Credentials Committee changed rules midway into the election as ballot papers found in boxes not meant for position being contested were validated contrary to the rules

The Secretary General also spoke about manipulation of delegates from some parts of the country like South South, South West and South West by some unions notably: Medical Health Workers Union and Nigeria Civil Service Union.

He stated further that some industrial unions failed to comply with congress affirmative policy, which stipulates that 30 percent delegates should be women.

Ajaero pointed out that in spite of the policy that nobody should bring in campaign materials to the venue of the election some people wore clothing with inscriptions “Vote Ayuba” just as delegates from the Pension Union in the East were denied entry into the gate and their cards given to other people to vote.

Other lapses observed range from deficit in electoral materials such as tallies, which delayed counting of votes for two hours, one day election extended to two days to count votes of only 3,119 delegates, direct involvement of the former President of the Congress Abdulwaheed Omar in sorting and counting votes long after the dissolution of the National Administrative Council.

The Secretary General therefore stated categorically that “Since some members of the congress described attempt by some veterans to intercede as belated, there will be no going back on the special convention”.

As a result of these developments, the Comrade Ajaero’s group has scheduled a special delegate’s conference of the NLC.

Sunday Mirror also spoke to Comrade Tokunboh Korodo, Chairman of the NLC, Lagos State Council and also the Chairman of NUPENG Lagos zone, According to him, the Omar regime was the worst regime ever in the history of the union. NLC is known to be progressive, focused with visionary leadership, but during his own tenure, the reverse is the case.

“Its weakness lay in the fact that it was aristocratic to a fault. It did not just abhor strikes, but it lacked the courage even to make threats in furtherance of its demands.

“His reign made the NLC to look so dull and protection of workers interest was at its lowest ebb. Also there were a couple of fraudulent malpractices. The mortgage issue is still inconclusive. How do you explain collecting money from the workers with the intention giving them housing and at the end of the day, it was a sham. To refund now became another problem.

“The progressive leadership in NLC lost confidence in Omar long ago. And to put salt into injury, he tried to impose a candidate on us. Wahaab Ayuba. There is no way we can allow things to go this way. Ayuba served and worked with him as a treasurer. And they tried to rig him in. Thank God for the vigilant eyes of the comrades, when we saw it, we resisted and hell was let loose.

“Oshiomhole handed over to him, not because he is the best candidate, but because he believes that we should respect our tradition, that after the tenure of a particular sector, another sector should take over. Oshiomhole came from private sector, and handed over to him from public sector. So when he is leaving, he should also do the same thing by handing over to the private sector. The private sector has picked their own candidate, who happens to be Joe Ajaero. We believe in him as one of the best candidate we have presently now. We saw how INEC conducted the election. There is no way accredited people should be lower than the votes cast. The one he claimed victory over, the number of accredited people are lower than the figure that made him to be a leader. We said no to this, and that is why the progressive minded people regrouped and re-conducted a very clean, transparent, and democratic election and that one produced the most vibrant labor leader of our time, Joe Ajaero.

“Look at the issue of minimum wage. Some state governments were so arrogant to tell the public that they can’t pay the minimum wage and the labor movement kept mute. This is an affront to labor movement. The present leadership of NLC, will rise up to the occasion and resist it and ensure that every worker gets his or her minimum wage.

“Casual working is another problem. Most of the multinational companies are not ready to employ direct workers because the issue of casual workers which has become a lucrative business. We are going to embark on protest and picketing to right the wrong. And we have a labour leader seeing nothing wrong in that. That era is gone. Our regime is going to operate a zero tolerance to casual working,” Korodo said.

“Labour leaders should without further delay rise to redeem the NLC democratic honour which has been won since 1978.  All the aggrieved comrades should be called to a round table meeting to solve this impasse.
“The various aggrieved parties and their supporters should sheath their swords and stop utterances that can over heat the labour polity, so that Nigerian workers will again speak with one voice.
Veterans and labour lords should quickly agree on a way forward of resolving the present impasse in the NLC.

SOURCE: National Mirror

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