Air transport workers have had to wage a series of struggles over the past few months, shutting down the airport thrice in seven months. There are lessons to learn from these struggles as the working class enters 2023, and workers in the sector face renewed challenges.
The first in this series of fightbacks was a warning strike in May. It was called by two of the unions in the sector; the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and the Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations, Civil Service Technical and Recreational Employees (AUPCTRE) for the approval and implementation of new Conditions of Service (CoS).
The unions had reached collective agreements for upward reviews of the CoS of their members with the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the Nigerian meteorological Agency (NiMet) and the Nigeria College of Aviation Technology (NCAT).
This was after the unions forced these agencies to negotiate with a series of protests between 2018 and 2019. Before then, there had been no review of the CoS for eight years. But despite all these, the agencies refused to implement the agreements reached.
The agencies had also refused to make consequential adjustments on the salaries of workers in the aviation sector after the upward review of the National Minimum Wage in 2019.
The unions declared a 2-day warning strike to press home their demands for implementing the collective agreements and consequential adjustment. The strike started on 9 May but was called off by the unions’ leaderships after just one day, based on promises by government officials.
Rank-and-file workers, which included SWL members, were very disappointed. They realized they could win expedited response if they kept up the strike momentum.
It took the government several months after the strike to approve the CoS and start implementing the consequential salary adjustment. But a significant number of workers are yet to benefit from the salary adjustment.
The second mass action took place across airports nationwide on 12 September. The unions had gotten a hint that the National Assembly intended to include clauses in a new Aviation Sector Bill that would impede their right to organize, by designating air transport services as “essential services.”
All the five unions in the sector took part in this action. They are the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Association of Nigeria Aviation Professionals (ANAP) and the Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations, Civil Service Technical and Recreational Services Employees (AUPCTRE).
The protest recorded a resounding success. The National Assembly ate its own vomit, claiming that it had no such intent, even though the unions had laid their hands on authentic copies of the Bill, which was at the incipient stage of first reading in the Assembly.
The last of the three major struggles waged in the sector this year was in November. ATSSSAN went on strike to demand reinstatement of 34 members of the union whom the Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL), which manages MMA2 (the second domestic terminal) asked to go home for two weeks (without pay) as part of a restructuring exercise.
The union could see through the antics of management. The workers affected included some of the most fervent unionists in MM2, amongst which were four of the seven ATSSSAN branch officers. BASL had done all it could to prevent union organizing. It took the perseverance of these workers to win union rights for almost 300 workers in MM2, who are all ATSSSAN members today.
The unrequested and unpaid leave was a prelude to declaring the workers concerned as redundant staff. They all worked in the security department of BASL, where there was the most union militancy. And BASL had earlier argued that they were thus not essential staff.
It was in this light that ATSSSAN shut down the airport with full mobilization and strike action. The strike was supposed to be indefinite until they won an unambiguous victory. However, once again, the trade union bureaucracy called off the strike after just one day.
The workers were not wholly satisfied with the agreement reached. But they won at least a partial victory. Management reinstated the 34 workers to their schedules of duty. But BASL was merely bidding its time.
A few weeks later, it posted the workers out of the airport to other BASL desks outside the aviation sector. The workers refused, pointing out that this runs against the terms of their contracts of employment. And BASL immediately responded with queries to all of them.
The workers faced the disciplinary panel constituted by BASL on the matter with their heads unbowed. As they await the result of management’s decision, the union and the workers must realize that there is no justice for cockroaches in a court of chickens, as an axiom goes.
They must prepare for the worst. And they must prepare to fight. All the concessions that aviation workers have won is because they dared to fight. The rank-and-file workers must also realize that the power of the union lies in their hands. They must build a solidarity network of shop stewards drawn from all the unions in the sector to win this and other impending struggles for their rights from management, and to keep their unions alive to the responsibility of being genuinely responsive to the interests of the workers they represent.
by Lionel AKPOYIVO