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The splinter group from the 11th NLC Delegates Conference re-constituted itself as the United Labour Congress on December 17. It claims to represent the finest traditions of the trade union movement. The NLC has however described this as an attempt to break the ranks of the movement. One thing that is clear is that opportunism and not a genuine commitment to defending the rights and advancing the interests of the working class lies at the roots of the emergence of this new labour centre.

The new development is, in a sense, a movement backwards for the trade union movement. But the overall movement of the working class towards its self-emancipation is not a linear one. It has many contradictory turns and twists. And while a unified trade union movement (with a radical programme) is desirable, splits in the trade union movement, for whatever reason do not necessarily amount to weakening of the working class.

The politics behind splits and how these could positively or negatively affect deepening of ideological clarity and organisation within the labour movement constitute the context for adequate appraisal of developments such as this, and a basis for perspectives on what is to be done.

The current situation has to be properly situated within the broad and contemporary history of the labour movement and the tasks at hand, for activists to be properly equipped with the needed strategies and tactics for raising working class consciousness and advancing the unity of workers in struggle.

The Nigerian trade union movement was split for 27 years from 1948, between moderates and radicals who constituted different trade union centres. There were several efforts to bridge this divide and come together under one federative banner. These included the formation of the first Nigeria Labour Congress in 1950, the All-Nigeria Trade Union Federation in 1953 and the United Labour Congress of Nigeria in 1963.

The turning point towards lasting unity was made in 1975-1978. The first step in this direction was taken on September 21, 1975, at Apena Cemetery. There were then four trade union centres. These were the radical Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and the Labour Unity Front (LUF), which had radical traditions on one hand and the United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC) which were moderates. Leaders from all the centres came to pay their last respects to S.O Oduleye, National Treasurer of the ULC.

Incidentally, it was based on a call for unity drafted by Okon Eshiet of the ULC and which has come to be known as the Apena Declaration, on that fateful day that the process towards forming the Nigeria Labour Congress as a united federation for the roughly 1,000 unions affiliated to the different federations was flagged off. It is quite ironic that the new labour centre, which claims to have radical roots, has appropriated the name of the moderate federation which called for the movement’s unity, even as it splits the ranks of the trade union movement, drawing in about 6 of the erstwhile 44 affiliates of the NLC as well as some affiliates of the TUC.

But, even before the divisive fallouts of the 11th NLC delegates conference two years back, organisational unity of the centre had not automatically led to political and ideological unity. After the eventual formation of today’s NLC on February 28, 1978, the moderates who lost out at the founding and three subsequent Conferences continued to operate within Congress as a shadowy “Committee of Democratic Trade Unionists”. Known as the “democrats” in opposition to the “progressives” whom they described as Communists, they moved ever further to the conservative arms of the government.

In 1988, realising that they would lose at the 4th NLC Delegates Conference, properly summoned, they held a parallel Conference, with financial support from the IBB-led military government. They were led by Mr. Shamang of the same electricity workers’ union which now provides leadership for the new ULC. But they failed to realise that the bosses’ state has no love for the working class as a whole. It merely utilises those naïve or treacherous sections of the trade union movement that allow themselves to be used, with the intent of smashing the working class.

The Ibrahim Babangida junta capitalised on the holding of two parallel Conferences to proscribe the NLC, claiming it was in the “national interest”! Almost a year later, when the ban would be lifted, the “progressives” resolved to bury the hatchet of ideological contestation. This actually meant surrendering the socialist traditions which had been the driving force of the NLC, drawing from the political dominance of the radical elements within the movement. This compromise, which it was hoped would help prevent further state intervention in the organisational life of Congress, produced Paschal Bafyau and marked the beginning of a departure from the founding principles of the movement.

It is important to note that this was generally a turning point worldwide. The state capitalist experiment at building “socialism” from above was collapsing in Russia and its empire. The Berlin Wall was being brought down. Most of the progressives in the trade union movement were socialists who accepted the authoritarian monstrosity of Stalinism in Russia as an exemplar of the march towards Communism. They had thus become politically bereaved without adequately understanding what was happening, and thus were more ready to surrender ideologically.

This surrender could not dam the tide of further attacks from the bosses and their state. On the contrary, it left the trade union movement more ill-prepared when the NLC was once again banned in 1994. When this ban was lifted in 1998 and Adams Oshiomhole emerged as President in 1999, a new beginning commenced. It however would turn out to be one with plenty heated motion and little lasting movement.

The labour-led mass movements of that period which included half a dozen massive general strikes and mass protests were not a result of any radical perspective of the leadership, as we could see with Mr. Oshiomhole as a state governor, shortly after. On the contrary, Oshiomhole who had traditionally been on the conservative side in the movement, but with the gift of the garb as a demagogic orator was thrust forward by the winds of the times, which he seized as best as he could, partly in the service of his own personal agenda.

Globally, working class people had started the rebellion against neoliberalism, marked by the November 1999 Battle of Seattle and the Social Forum’s cry of “another world is possible.” In Nigeria, after a dozen years of military dictatorship, the working masses expected a lot from civil rule and mass discontent against the little they got while the bosses fed fat, fanned the embers of revolts.

But, the key concrete steps proposed in the agenda-setting process for labour’s new beginning were either jettisoned or implemented in malnourished ways. These were: the need for building a working people’s party with a socialist programme and proper constitution of the Labour Civil Society Coalition.

The limited victories won with labour at the helms of the popular movement were however enough cause for concern for the bosses. The Olusegun Obasanjo-led PDP government actually claimed the NLC stood out as an alternative government in the course of the 2003, 8-day general strike. This was not far from the truth, as workers’ power rose in stature, contending with the bosses’ state as the power that be much to the consternation of even the labour leaders, who scurried to call off the strike as soon as they could!

Within months, the federal government initiated a Trade Union (Amendment) Bill. The essence of this law which was passed in 2005 was to curtail the powers of the trade unions in general and the NLC in particular. Under the guise of democratising the trade unions, the designation of NLC as the sole Central Labour Organisation by law, was withdrawn. Room was thus made for other trade unions (with 12 or more affiliates) to register as federations.

This allowed the Trade Union Congress to register as a labour centre, and rightly so. But, there are two important lessons in this regards. Frightened by the efforts of trade unions to constitute themselves as one federation in the wake of the Apena Declaration, the state had stepped in, in 1976, with a “New National Labour Policy” hinged on “limited intervention” and “guided democracy.”

Along these lines it barred unions of “senior staff” from being considered as unions in the true sense of the word (with rights to collective bargaining and check-off deductions of dues) and also from affiliating to the NLC. But these “senior staff associations”, as they were designated, many of which had wanted to be part of the single federation, organised in 1980 as the Federation of Senior Staff Associations of Nigeria (FESSAN). This later became the Senior Staff Consultative Association of Nigeria (SESCAN).

With the spirit of rebirth generalised after the exit of the military, SESCAN asserted its essence as being a trade union federation. It reconstituted as the Trade Union Congress (TUC). Amongst other things, it won as fact, the rights to collective bargaining and automatic check-off dues deduction before its recognition by law in August 2005. Thus it is important to note that it is not the law but rather our organising power as workers, that is primary in defining workers’ combinations as trade unions.

Secondly, instead of fragmenting what could be a unified approach to struggle, collaboration between the NLC and TUC actually deepened after the recognition of TUC by law. Except for the 2016 General Strike where the TUC stayed off at the last minute, the two centres have stood together with even greater unity than before 2005 in providing leadership to mass actions. And we must as well add – in ignominiously calling some of these off, as was the case during the January 2012 Uprising. Thus, multiplicity of trade union centres does not equate to “dis-unity” in action.

This lesson can actually be drawn from earlier history of the trade union movement. The first post-Independence General Strike, in 1964 was prosecuted by the Joint Action Committee of the multiple labour centres. Similarly, in November 1970, they constituted a United Committee of Central Labour Organisations (UCCLO), to pursue the struggle for wages increment.

History is however nothing but a guide, albeit a very important one, as we try our best as activists to navigate the way forward. While personal interests played their own roles in earlier splits in the trade union movement, the primary lines of divide were ideological and political. This is not the case with the current situation. Despite a long drawn attempt to distort the facts, the truth remains that, the central figures in the new ULC disrupted the 11th National Delegates Conference when it was summoned in February 2016, realising they would lose. Attempts to do likewise at the reconvened Conference a month later failed. It was only subsequent to this, that they constituted themselves as a faction.

Probably one of the things that makes this glaring is the turn around by founding fathers of the NLC like Comrade Hassan Summonu, and other former leaders like Adams Oshiomhole. It was no secret that they favoured the emergence of Joe Ajaero over Ayuba Wabba as President. If there had been any foul play, they would have spoken loudly against this.

As members of the reconciliation committee, they were frustrated by the intransigence of the splinter group, which tried to claim what it lost at the polls, through “negotiations”, failing to put the interest of the Congress over and above the personal interests of a few union officers.

While the splinter group’s formation of a new centre might leave a rancid taste in the mouth of NLC officials and many a working class activist, it should be recognised that, this action is really much better for the trade union movement as a whole than the diversionary presentation of NLC to the rank and file of working people as a divided house, with two factions.

This would not be the first time such is happening in our recent history. When the TUC pulled out of the 2003 General Strike after its first four days, a number of its affiliates considered this a betrayal of the working class. They disaffiliated and with a few other unions, formed the Congress of Free Trade Unions (CFTU). At the 8th NLC delegates conference in 2007, the CFTU dissolved, and its affiliates joined the ranks of the NLC.

The issue at stake should thus not be one of the formation of the new ULC. Rather, we should be concerned about the impact of this on internal democracy within the unions, and our capacity as the labour movement to fight at a perilous period of gloom for the mass of working people.

It is strange that the formation of the ULC with substantive officers was announced, without reference to a founding congress. It also appears that its affiliates did not hold congresses to seek memberships’ mandates for such a fundamental action. These are significant drawbacks to the claim that ULC is “concerned with uniting Nigerian workers with the traditions and Ideology upon which the trade union movement is founded.”

Its formation might however signal a wakeup call to the NLC and TUC. With workers in two thirds of the states being owed salaries for between three and ten months in a period of recession, redundancies being declared by scores of companies who are retrenching workers in their droves, and cost of living skyrocketing making life unbearable for even the few whose salaries are being paid as and when due, rank and file workers are definitely convinced that enough is not being done to fightback by the trade union movement.

This is the time for concerted action, rather than leaving Councils of the trade union centres in different states to their own devices on how best to fight. A nationwide warning General Strike in the first instance, and mass campaign would be more decisive in forcing the bosses who have no problem sourcing funds for their own ostentatious lifestyles to find monies to pay the backlogs of salaries.

It would equally not be enough to wage a defensive struggle. Returning the trade union movement to its founding principles as envisioned by the NLC leadership must of necessity place class back at the centre of the movement’s politics and mobilisation. This is impossible without presenting a working class economic and political alternative to the morass of capitalist brigandage and obsolesce which is the order of the day. Doing this requires organised labour’s building a working people’s party with a socialist programme as resolved upon by 8th NLC delegates conference 14 years ago.

Collaboration between the NLC and TUC on one hand and the ULC on the other hand might be difficult to even imagine, considering the circumstances in which the latter emerged, particularly in the immediate instance. But, this should not be ruled out. Tactical alliances, such as the JACs or UCCLOs utilised by trade union centres with sharper differences at earlier periods in our history, might be needed at some point in time or the other, to draw all working class forces into battle with the bosses.

But while organisational unity of trade unions in whatever forms, and of these with other social movements and radical civil society groups is important, the most essential task of activists in the labour movement must be the building of virile radical rank and file activism, which holds leaderships to account and advances the self-emancipatory struggle of the working class.

by Baba Aye