NLC, TUC: The death of labour activism?

SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI looks at the criticism that trails the actions and inaction of labour movement in the country in recent years, and takes some labour leaders to task over the growing unfavourable public perception of the contemporary labour leaders.

In recent years, labour movement in Nigeria has been a subject of criticism in some critical segments of the country. These condemnations, either right or wrong, have generated discourse in public space, most especially since the administration of the former President of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar. Before now, especially during the Comrade Adams Oshiomhole leadership of the NLC, criticism against the congress was not really evident, as Nigerians did not see through the deception in the Oshiomhole leadership of the NLC, perhaps because the congress then could swiftly call for a nationwide strike against the government and execute it.

But since then, the public admiration for the congress has shrunk. It began during Omar’s reign and even eight years afterwards when Comrade Ayuba Wabba took over, it remained contracted. After his emergence, Wabba wanted to change the public perception, but the crisis that polarized the congress after its 2015 election stifled his efforts.

Recent government policies that led to the increase in the price of electricity tariff and pump price of fuel also presented an opportunity to liven the dwindling public admiration for the congress, but how the labour leaders reacted to it thickened the wave of the criticism. When the government announced the increase, like all other Nigerians, the NLC and TUC rejected it. They asked the federal government to reverse the price increase or face industrial action after the expiration of their ultimatum.

The labour leaders also made some other demands and insisted on going on strike if the government failed to yield to their conditions before the expiration of the ultimatum. To avert the strike, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha led a team of negotiators and held a midnight meeting with the labour leaders at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa.

Meanwhile, in view of their growing frustration with the socio-economic situation of the country, Nigerians were eagerly expecting the labour unions to call for ultimatum, but that generated never happened as the government and labour leaders reached what many saw as questionable agreements which culminated in the suspension of the electricity tariff for two weeks and the setting up of a joint technical committee mandated to implement the agreements especially in the area of various palliatives agreed upon, and how to fix the nation’s refineries and address the issue of perennial fuel scarcity. This compelled the labour unions to suspend the strike even before it commences based on the letter of the agreement signed.

Widespread criticism trailed the decision of the labour leaders. Some Nigerians tagged them friends of the party in power, while others argued that since the time of Paschal Bafyau’s leadership, the country hasn’t been lucky to have labour leaders that will fight the course of the masses but only those who hobnob with government leaders for political appointments and pecuniary gains that would prevent them from getting what is right for Nigerians.

The former Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, Dr Reuben Abati, was one of those who publicly criticised the organised labour for not embarking on the strike. To him, the labour leaders since Bafyau’s reign have been deceiving Nigerians and befriending their rulers. He believes that they were pushed to give the ultimatum and issued a strike threat as they did initially.

In his publication entitled “How labour leaders deceived Nigeria,” Abati said: “After being pushed, a combined team of the NLC and TUC finally announced that they would call out labour on strike and shut down the country. They gave the Federal Government stringent conditions: a complete reversal of the hike in fuel price and electricity tariffs. Or else, Nigeria would be shut down indefinitely beginning from September 28, 2020. I was not impressed. I questioned labour’s sincerity of purpose. I felt they were just playing a game. The biggest tragedy that has befallen organized labour in Nigeria is the thinking since 1999, that the leadership of labour can be used as a stepping stone to a bigger role in Nigeria. Labour leaders use their positions to negotiate big benefits. They mouth progressive slogans and parrot aggressive rhetoric but it is all a lie.”

Abati noted that the fraternity between labour leaders and the government started since Bafyau reign under the military government. He stressed that, “Under the military, Paschal Bafyau used the ladder of labour leadership to gain prominence.” In view of this, Matthew Hassan Kukah, in his book entitled “Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria,” considers Bafyau ‘a sell-out.’  But with the return to democracy in 1999, Oshiomhole then from the textile garments and tailoring union became the new labour hero.  He put up a strong performance that convinced the public he was on their side. He could talk, dance and make communist-style speeches.

The Obasanjo administration soon appointed him on the boards of government agencies. He had learnt well from Bafyau and was clever enough to avoid his mistakes. He would soon dance himself into partisan politics.

He governed Edo State for two terms and later became chairman of Nigeria’s ruling party through which he became a godfather in Nigerian politics. According to Kukah, “Every labour leader after Oshiomhole wants to be like him. They too want to ride SUVs, enjoy unfettered access to the seat of power and be godfathers in the country’s politics. The danger here is that this transmogrification of labour leadership in Nigeria, which began with Paschal Bafyau and raised to another level with Oshiomhole, created a new brand of labour activism that contradicts norm, culture and tradition in Nigeria.”

Kukah stressed that, “The new generation of opportunistic labour leaders has devalued the heroism of leader such as Michael Imoudu, Herbert Macaulay, Eskor Toyo, Wahab Goodluck, the Sunmonu brothers and Frank Kokori,” and that, “A compromised labour leadership is a disgrace to the revolution.”

According to him, “the NLC and the TUC had no business calling out anybody on strike. When they reluctantly did so, they were playing politics and trying to appear concerned about workers’ welfare. This new set of labour leaders doesn’t care about the people. They are partisan politicians.”

While commending the government negotiators for doing a good job in the recent negotiation, Kukah said they have also helped to expose the incompetence and hypocrisy of the current labour leadership in the country.

According to an activist, Tajudeen Sadiq, the last labour leader in the real sense of fighting for the masses was Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, who was the first President of NLC after the era of Pa Michael Imoudu. Sadiq described leaders like Chief Kokori as men of repute, who gave all and desired nothing from the government. To him, the present leaders are too friendly with the government.

Sadiq argued that elderly Nigerians know that even during the military regime, Comrade Bafyau and President Ibrahim Babangida were very close friends, as Bafyau could hardly do anything without informing the former military president. Sodiq also accused Oshiomhole leadership of making too much noise as it embarked on many strikes but ended them without achieving meaningful results.

“This was evident as Oshiomhole joined the political class afterwards and became a governor shortly after his term as the NLC president, which shows that he has all along being secretly fraternizing with the leaders in power. Such a political position doesn’t come suddenly and easily the way Oshiomhole had it if he has not been one of them. President Olusegun Obasanjo attested to this at the last May Day rally of Oshiomhole’s administration when he invited the former Edo governor and Peter Esele of TUC to come and join the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) after their retirement,” Sadiq added.

Corroborating his assertion, another political observer, who spoke with Sunday Tribune, Olukunle Awoniyi, said, “The truth is that labour movement is dead now, and all we have now is chop I chop; bark but no bite; play along labour.”

Sabestine Onuh, another observer, simply said, “NLC of old was more proactive than the present one.”

A pastor, Segun Olajide, said, “the current leadership of labour unions has lost their voice and relevance. They collude with the elite, especially politicians to deny workers their entitlements.”

To Akinyemi Fagbolagun, an activist, “the recent EndSARS protesters finally consigned the NLC to dustbins of history as the ineffectiveness of its current leadership was once again brought to the fore when it came unstuck in its negotiation with the FG over the increase in price of petroleum products. It was unthinkable the NLC would even contemplate negotiating with a government who did not consult it before unilaterally hiking the price despite their previous discussion.

“I think the last time we had an effective NLC was during the Hassan Summon era. The current leadership and those who held the reins before them are nothing but political interlopers who are only interested in using their position to better their lives and curry favour from the political class. We no longer have a labour congress and we don’t really need them,” Fagbolagun observed.

Comrade Ayo Olorunfemi, the General Secretary of Senior Staff Association of Statutory Corporations and Government Owned Companies (SSASCGOC), admitted that the positions of Nigerians on NLC are understandable going by what has happened to labour movement in the country in recent times.

He noted that Nigerians who have criticised labour movement in recent years in the country have also failed to situate labour roles and responsibilities correctly with the issue of industrial relations and social partners because they lack adequate knowledge of these roles regarding issues of tripartism, negotiation and collective bargaining agreement.

Olorunfemi said, “during the period of Adams Oshiomhole, there were some compromises and we cannot really regard that in trade unionism as compromise per say, but a kind of industrial relation practice that sees organisations and unions as social partners. In partnership, there is give and take, but when this is missing and relationships are not built on equal ground, things become difficult.”

But in a bid to make Nigerians perceive labour movement positively, Olorunfemi advised that those in labour movement should give general secretaries the power to run the unions and be at the forefront of negotiation and struggle. General Secretaries, according to him, are full appointees of the union, who can go to any length to confront the power that be and cannot be sacked by the government or their employers for strongly defending the course of workers.

His words: “As General Secretary of a union who is employed by a union, you have the power to operate with government as equal partners. But when you are an employee of Mr. President being the person who appointed your own boss where you work, and you become a union leader, you cannot operate on an equal ground with government at that level. The reason we are having these challenges is because those who are elected officials of the union, who have their primary assignment in their various places of works, want to take over the responsibility of the entire industrial relations in the union and once that happens, there’s a limit you can go.

“You cannot go and face your boss that you want to insist on certain right. You can have your way today but he will deal with you tomorrow. And for fear of that, there will be unnecessary compromise at the detriment of the members and the generality of workers,” he added.

According to him, “Labour movement and industrial relation field has become knowledge-driven. A general secretary has a job to do as a professional who has been given the assignment, ensuring that the interests of the workers are protected. That is the missing link. Today, most General Secretaries are glorified messengers as their functions and roles have been taken over by elected officers. This is the hard truth.

“You cannot compare the period of Adam Oshiomhole with the period of military rule. During the period of Pascal Bafyau, of course, the military absolutely took over the duty of labour; they appointed sole administrator. They could sack NLC and its entire executive. Remember that they sacked the executives of PENGASSAN during the period of Kokori, and put a sole administrator in their place. But when we got democracy, you can see the role played by Oshiomhole.

 

The Labour Ideology…

The NLC General Secretary, Comrade Emmanuel Ugboaja, while reacting to the raging criticism against the congress, said the present labour leaders only embark on struggle based on principles, and not on self-convenience. He said: “The take-off point for the trade union is the welfare and better conditions for the workers. We used to call it bread and butter issues. We moved from bread and butter issues to begin to examine larger challenges in society with the eyes of trade union, not with the eyes of anarchy or fundamentalists.”

Ugboaja said the take off point for labour movement is the time-tested position “of social dialogue and tripod understanding that you must bargain and negotiate. “But when the employer or government is recalcitrant or shows excessive bad faith, we will then apply what is the strong instrument of the workers, which is withdrawal of our services. But this has never been an end; it is a means to an end because the workers deserve to work. The worker won’t be a worker if he is not going to work. So, for us withdrawing the service is not the end, it is a means to achieving what we want,” he explained.

While stating that the challenge the unions have had is that people often see the workers as brainless and willing tools that can be used to fan the nest of politicians and other characters within the society, Ugboaja cited members of the Nigeria Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) as examples of workers who Nigerians believe are often used as thugs to rig elections rather than to provide vehicles and transportation.

He said: “Fortunately over time, we have gotten the leadership of NURTW to move their members away from that crude desire of the elite to see them as tools for violence. We were able to ensure that the NURTW members are now being used to move INEC materials as strong logistic support stakeholders.”

On the appointment of labour leaders on the boards of government agencies, the NLC General Secretary said: “The era of banging table is gone. That is why people will tell you labour leaders went to negotiate to be on the board. Not for labour leaders to be on the board; it is for workers to have a voice in the enterprise where they roll the wheels that provide the wealth. People still believe in the idea of master servants; we are no more servants to any master in the world of works. We are now equal stakeholders, so we need to have a voice on the table for them to appreciate what we are doing.

For people not to appreciate that or think that by name-calling and evil insinuations, we will change our direction, it is not going to happen. Those, who think you can hire and fire without explanation, are the ones still living in deep past.”

Comrade James Eustace, chairman, NLC branch of Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU), told Sunday Tribune that labour movement is all about industrial relation, negotiations and collective bargaining with the aim of arriving at amicable resolution of issues of concern. “Industrial relation is not destructive. So people equate labour movement with a militant group that will always go on the offensive at every moment. So, those who are thinking from this perspective would tell you that an Omar regime was not as effective as an Oshiomhole regime, or an Ayuba regime is not as effective as Paschal regime. But labour relation is not all about’ I no go gree.

“Besides, the leadership trajectories in NLC that people are trying to compare are those that operated at different times under different dispensations. Those who operated under the military regime have every tendency to have shown some element of strong resistance that could have promoted their vibrancy because of the regime that was there at that time; while those who operated under democratic dispensation also have operated under a different system,” Eustace explained.

He stressed that, “Ultimatum is not a declaration of strike. This idea of giving an ultimatum for strike is illusive because the end, they say, justifies the means. The strike is a means to an end, but the end is the expected result. If I tell you that up till midnight today, if you don’t give me A and B, I am going to down tool, and you assent to my request a second to midnight today, do I still need to down tool? The primary thing is that it is these A and B I want and you have given me. So, why should I still say that even though you give me what I demanded, I will still go on strike for one day which is the expectation of the people and purely out of industrial relation.”

Also, the National President, Nigeria Civil Service Union and Vice President of NLC, Comrade Lawrence Amaechi said: “As much as we have taken an oath of office, we will continue to protect the interest of our members. Leadership style varies from time to time and from person to person. Most time when we go for negotiation, people will assume we have collected money and betrayed them. It is not true. I am telling you the truth. Thank God, you were there when we walked out on their food in the Villa. What did they offer us? Is it not water? Buhari will be the last person that will offer you money. Since I became NLC official, we have not gone to anywhere and they come to say this is how much they gave us. It is not true.”

 

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