On Monday 12 September, aviation sector workers protested in large numbers in airports across the country. The nationwide demonstration was to demand the removal of anti-labor clauses in the legislative bills currently before the National Assembly.
The mass action was called by the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), National Union of Air Transport Employees of Nigeria (NUATE), National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Association of Aviation Professionals (ANAP) and Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations, Civil Service Technical and Recreational Services Employees (AUPCTRE).
The trade unions equally issued a 14-day ultimatum to the federal government for the clauses they have issues with to be removed, failing which they will go on strike.
The clauses which the unions are challenging whittle down the collective powers of workers as a union in the sector. Speaking with Socialist Worker Frances Akinjole, Deputy General Secretary and Head of Secretariat of ATSSSAN, said, “we are workers and not slaves. We will resist all attempts of the government to stop us from taking industrial action when they fail in their responsibilities as employers. They cannot eat their cake and have it.”
The government is using a bankrupt tactic that it has used repeatedly, and has often been challenged by workers in strategic sectors of the economy or social service delivery. This involves declaring the services provided as “essential services” and ruling that workers can therefore not take certain steps as industrial action.
For example, one of the contentious clauses reads thus:
“All services which facilitate and maintain the smooth, orderly and safe take-off, flight and landing of aircraft, embarkation and disembarkation and evacuation of passengers and cargo respectively in all aerodromes in Nigeria are hereby designated as essential services pursuant to the provisions of Section 11(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as altered).”
It further says:
“The minister may, by regulations, prohibit all or such class or classes of workers, officers, and other employees or persons, whether corporate or natural, engaged in the provision of services specified in subsection (1) of this section from taking part in a strike or other industrial action.
Ochem Aba, Secretary General of NUATE is reported as saying that “it is absolutely clear that the contentious clauses smuggled into the aviation agencies’ bills have no moral or legal basis for being there. The lame reference to section 11(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Public Order and Public Security) is poignantly pretentious”.
Comrade Aba further added that “the intended laws must be prevented from breathing any air of acceptance” because they represent a “bold assault on the rights of trade unions and hapless workers.
He goes on to note that the inclusion of the vexatious clauses in the bill is an “attempt to enable the minister of aviation to usurp the powers of the minister of labor” which is “diabolically disingenuous.”
The protest has led to some response from the National Assembly. (NASS) Socialist Worker has been made aware that the unions have been invited for a meeting by NASS officials at Abuja on Monday 19 September.
SWL fully supports aviation workers and their unions in this struggle. And we urge them not to relent or accept any agreement short of expunging the draconian clauses from the sectoral bills. We also note that this fight throws up important questions regarding collective the grievance handling process, trade dispute procedures, workers’ power, and tripartism.
It is important to put the inclusion of the bills, and quick call for talks by the NASS leadership in perspective.
The primary aim of capitalists, including their representatives in government (NASS, executives, and judiciary) is to keep us, as working people, exploited for them to keep getting richer by appropriating the social wealth that our labor creates.
But we are many, and they are few. So, for the few elites to get away with our exploitation successfully, they need two things: laws and state apparatus (e.g., police, military, and prisons) to keep us repressed; and ideological dominance used to make us accept what benefits them as the natural state of affairs so that they keep us in mental slavery.
Workers established trade unions to fight back against exploitation and oppression by curtailing the unilateral powers of the employer in the labor process. Because we are the heart and soul of the process of producing goods and delivering services, we hit the capitalists badly, when we exercise our greatest industrial power, which is strike action.
The big bosses in parliament and business cannot do without the aviation sector. Even before the roads got as dangerous as they are now for traveling, the politicians and captains of corporations have been frequent flyers.
That is why, they always run helter-skelter to find a “resolution” to the problem, even if halfheartedly, whenever aviation unions threaten to go on strike, as in February 2016. It is not out of concern for workers in the sector. It is all about ensuring that they keep flying.
That is why they equally ran helter-skelter to address the concerns of either national or international airline operators whenever these concerns could lead to flights being grounded.
For example, they were quick to bail out domestic airlines with N4 billion in 2020, as part of the COVID-19 response. They also moved quickly to an agreement with airline operators to subsidize aviation fuel in May 2022. And they did not bat an eye when they released $265 million to settle foreign airlines that threatened to stop operating in the country.
This is in utter contrast to the responses of our elites to the situation in the social sector. Despite waves of strikes in the health sector over the years, the government’s interventions have at best been lukewarm. And they have allowed the ASUU strike to linger for seven months.
Our rulers have nothing to lose from the collapse of public health and education. They access quality healthcare abroad, and in well-equipped private hospitals. And their children school abroad or in very expensive private universities in Nigeria.
So, the new bill is all about ensuring that “ordinary workers” do not hinder the bosses’ very much cherished flying privileges. By empowering the Minister of Aviation to nip strikes and protests in the sector in the bud, aviation workers and their unions will only be able to bark. They will not be able to bite the flying asses of the bosses.
If the National Assembly gets away with this, indeed “diabolically disingenuous” tactic in the aviation sector, we will see more of such bills used to curtail industrial action by workers in other strategic sectors of the economy and society. The “essential services” strike gag will be brought to bear on the social sectors like health and education, as well as in energy, including the power, and oil and gas sectors.
This struggle is thus not just one for aviation unions. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), and all their affiliates, need to fully support the aviation sector unions to win.
However, it is also important to note that we should have no illusion of the neutrality of the Minster of Labour. It is not enough to stand up against switching the power to curtail industrial action from the Minister of Labour to the Minister of Aviation or any other line ministry.
Time and again, including with the recent dragging of ASUU to court, the partisanship of the ministry of labor as an organ of the bosses and their state has been revealed.
Indeed, labor laws are meant to whittle down the organizing might of the working class with the concessions of some institutionalization of rights won through organizing in the first place. This is one of the ideological elements of maintaining the dominance of the bosses; reducing the multifaceted tactics of workers’ class struggle to formal waters of industrial relations, which the bosses’ state defines.
Workers have to defend the primacy of our organizing powers, including the right to strike, and as well expand the institutionalization of these rights. One step to take in this direction is to remove the unilateral power of the Minister of Labour to apprehend strikes by referring disputes for conciliation or arbitration.
The time is ripe for the trade unions to demand that this power be exercised within the ambit of tripartism. A concrete approach to this would be setting up and vesting such power in a tripartite body of the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC).
by Baba AYE