The return of unions under the aegis of the United Labour Congress (ULC) to the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) was announced at a media briefing on Thursday 16 July. Speaking at the briefing, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, the NLC President said, “with this reconciliation, the leadership and structures of the United Labour Congress have been reintegrated into the Nigeria Labour Congress”.
A memorandum of understanding to this effect was signed by him on behalf of NLC and Joe Ajaero on behalf of the now defunct ULC. The MoU also includes the re-integration of Ajaero into his old office as a deputy president of NLC
SWL welcomes this development as we would any sign of enhanced unity of the trade union movement, because these could potentially strengthen the working-class in its struggle for improved working and living conditions, as well as for system change.
ULC was declared into existence on 17 December 2016 by unions which felt aggrieved with the democratic outcome of the 11th NLC National Delegates Conference held in 2015. They initially constituted themselves as a splinter NLC body. This division contributed to the failure of the May 2016 anti-fuel pump price hike general strike.
The reunification is expected to make NLC stronger and thus better positioned to champion the cause of workers. And there is a lot to fight for now. Workers are facing a barrage of attacks in the wake of economic recession along with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In several sectors of the economy, including aviation, maritime and hospitality services, tens of thousands of workers have been laid off. And a significant number of those still with jobs in the private sector have had drastic reductions in their wages.
Almost a year after the national minimum wage was signed into law, a dozen states and many private employers are yet to start implementation. And some of those that already started paying the new minimum wage (with awkward variants of associated upward review of salaries), have slashed salaries. These include Kaduna state which unilaterally introduced a 20% cut in wages for a Covid-19 fund and Kano which did not announce cuts only for workers to realise that upwards of 24% of their salaries had been deducted in May.
As if this situation is not bad enough, the federal government has indicated its commitment to make working-class people bear the brunt of the economic crisis. A clear sign of this is the 15% increase in pump price of petrol. This runs against even the bankrupt liberalisation policy of the government, because oil prices have crashed worldwide and what we pay for petrol should have actually reduced and not increase. Similarly, electricity tariffs are set to increase drastically by January – if we don’t resist. Indeed, this was supposed to come into effect in July, but was postponed as a result of mass outcry.
How the rejuvenated NLC (and TUC) respond to these attacks on poor working-class people is what will give this reconciliation any meaning to the working masses. We thus welcome Comrade Ayuba’s restatement of the NLC’s demand for reversal of the fuel pump price hike, four days after the reconciliation. This has to be backed up with mass action including a general strike, if government fails to fully reverse this increment.
Similarly, this is the time to commence full-scale mobilisation for full implementation of the national minimum wage and demands for opening negotiations for a new living wage as national minimum wage. The claims of governments and billionaire corporations that they lack funds to pay workers living wages must be unequivocally countered.
The problem is not lack of resources to fund decent lives for the poor masses. The problem is that a few people are living off our collective sweat and toil. Just the five richest billionaires in the country alone have enough wealth to make poverty history. We have to make the rich pay and we must be unapologetic about it. We have also seen how billions of naira are stolen on a regular basis, even by anti-graft czars like Mr Magu and developmental commissions supposedly meant to ameliorate the lives of poor people in the Niger delta.
The arguments of the trade union movement must make the connections between workers’ exploitation and suffering on one hand and the ostentatious wealth of the super-rich on the other hand, very explicit. The secret of all that wealth they are sharing, as an Adams Oshiomhole who appeared to be on the side of worker at a time pointed out, lies in the pauperisation of workers.
Just as the connections are made in our arguments, so must they be made in our struggle. The trade unions in Nigeria have not been limited to collective bargaining. While not so clearly defined, the labour centres have pursued some form of social movement unionism or the other as reflected in series of mass mobilisations on broadly social-economic issues, such as the wave of protests they led against increases in the pump price of petrol, particularly over the last twenty years.
Now more than ever, the class character of our struggle as one for system change, has to be more categorically clearly spelt out, with deeds. At this moment of reconciliation of the union leaders, rank and file workers face a battle of historic proportions. We are in a literal sense a battle of life or death.
There is no way that workers will not be made to bear the brunt of a painful and long drawn economic recovery, marked by job losses and cuts in wages as the order of the day – except we change the nature of the system which has brought about this crisis. There is no way the earth itself, and with-it Nigeria of course, will not end up destroyed as climate crisis worsens – if we continue on the pathway of business as usual with capitalism and social dialogue as the norm.
As we pointed out in the January-February 2017 edition of the Socialist Worker after ULC emerged:
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
This remains our tasks as socialists within the trade unions, even as we welcome reconciliation within the trade union bureaucracy.
by Baba AYE