Expanding frontiers of labour beyond activism
The historical preoccupation of labour movement is to protect the interests of the working class within the workplace.
Indeed, the pursuance of these work-related interests within the larger society often time requires the movement to delve into the economic, social and political spheres to achieve its aims.
Since labour is not present on the political table where decisions are made, they are left at the mercies of the political class manipulation in search for a better living condition for the workers. But is this self-fulfilling? Is labour equipped to participate more in the political turf? Does labour have the resources to compete? What are the requirements needed for labour participation in politics? These were the posers that formed the fulcrum of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) annual Rain School, which took place in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom capital recently.
Delivering the lead paper, Nkoyo Toyo submitted that a major question that has faced trade unions in Nigeria from the early beginnings of the trade union movement has been what their attitude should be to partisan politics.
She argued that this dilemma is not limited to unions in this Nigeria alone, but worldwide.
She explained that this scenario emanated because while trade unions are primarily organisations for the economic struggles of workers, objective reality often forces the fact on the working class that even such limited economic aims as the trade unions might set themselves can hardly be met without some form of partisan political engagement or the other.
Her explanation: “It would appear that the Nigerian trade unions have eventually taken the view that trade unions have to be involved in partisan politicking. This is demonstrated by the Nigeria Labour Congress’ formation of the Labour Party in 2002. It was then called the Party for Social Democracy, but changed its name to the Labour Party (LP). Clearly showing that it was uncomfortable with building partnerships right from the beginning.
This tendency is not unique to Nigeria. South Africa’s COSATU in similar circumstances as Nigeria’s labour is looking at the disjoint between the demise of COSATU and the rise of a new movement. This means when labour retreats, new actors taking advantage of labour’s failure to appropriately bargain and get peoples’ issues into the scheme of things fill the vacuum. There have been complaints that the Labour Party’s leadership crisis is due to the insertion of NLC and some of these developments have revealed both the moral corruption of its political leaders as well as their failure to find where the real source of the new mass politics locates. As a result, there appears to be a disconnect between a restructured working-class (after nearly 25 years of neoliberalism) and the shifting demographics of Nigeria. NLC was restructured on the basis of working-class, which takes to the road of mass struggle.”
She then submitted that expanding the frontiers of labour participation may in fact be about finding groups that offer the potential for marrying liberal concerns about liberty, equality and rights with a vision of a diverse, engaged, politically literate citizenry who do more than passively accepted state-endowed entitlements.
On his part, President of NLC, Ayuba Wabba declared that the Congress would continue to pursue its goal of ensuring labour participation in politics using its structures and programmes.
While stressing the need for labour activists to boost their knowledge through continued education, Wabba explained that apart from the Rain and Harmattan Schools, the Nigeria Labour Congress has other educational programmes like the State Level Schools and Study Circle.
“While the State Level Schools are meant to inculcate in the state level officials of the NLC and activists in each of the 37 state councils of the NLC on how to attend to the challenges of trade unionism in their states, the Study Circle on the other hand is intended to prepare the shop level officials and activists on how to face the challenges of the world of work and that of the larger society. The State Level Schools are held simultaneously once in a week for ten weeks in all the 37 state councils of the NLC,” he stated.
He also hinted that arrangements are underway to revive the certificate programme in Labour Laws and Labour Relations, which was run in collaboration with the University of Jos before the end of 2019.
Wabba added: “Our trainings are meant to prepare our members to have the required knowledge, skills and competencies to handle trade union work in order to defend the rights and interests of the working people in Nigeria.”
Underscoring the need for political education of labour activists especially women, the Project Manager of Friedrich Ebert Foundation Nigeria Office, Remi Ihejirika opined that politics affect every aspect of human life and should not be treated with levity.
She said: “Politics affects women even much more because half of our population are women. So, any decision taken by government that does not consider how it affects women would be contrary to their interests. As women, we must be involved, know the processes, participate in the processes, speak out, and bring our issues to the table. This is because issues affect women and men differently. Women can no longer come to political gathering to sing and dance, they must actively participate, pick up nomination forms, identify women who represent women interests, we must also identify men who have sympathy for women and speak for women. We must identify such people and support them.”
Head, education department of the NLC, Maureen Onyia-Ekwuasi explained that ‘Labour, politics and national unity: expanding the frontiers of workers’ participation’ was deliberately chosen as the theme of the school to prepare labour activists for the 2019 Congress election as well as the national election both slated for early next year.
“The theme of this year’s rain school, which is ‘Labour, politics and national unity: expanding the frontiers of workers’ participation’ was informed by fact that next year Nigeria will be going into elections, there is the need for us to sensitise our members on how to get involved in politics.
“It is not enough to tell governments at various levels that they are doing well or not; there is need for all of us to become involved in politics so that this nation will move forward. Not only are we electing people into government, next year the NLC election will also be coming up in February. So, for us at the NLC, next year is an election year all round hence the need for all of us to prepare very well for them,” she explained.
Onyia-Ekwuasi also faulted claim that most labour leaders are not educationally equipped to dabble into the murky political waters, saying, “it is not true that labour activists are not highly educated. If most of us are not highly educated, how come we are involved in every aspect of our national lives? Labour remains the only political struggle that concerns itself with very happenings in the nation such as national development architecture, health, and social mobilisation of women amongst other issues. Hardly is there any labour activist that does not understand the issues. Labour has produced credible people in government today. We can mention the National Chairman of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole as our member, Peter Akpatason who is in the House of Representatives, and many others who are in government.”
While stressing that labour activists are ready for the 2019 election, Onyia-Ekwuasi urged Nigerians to do away with money politics and rather focus on those that are sincere and credible enough to serve them.
“Nigerians should do away with money politics because that has not been beneficial to us so far. It should not be how many people are given money, but how we can get the right people into government. Playing money politic will continually stop us from attracting quality people into government. Because people in government already amass huge resources, they are at advantage but Nigerians reserve the ultimate power to say who comes into government and who do not. With all the challenges, I am convinced that labour is ready and women are equally ready for the election,” she stated.
She stressed that no labour body will force anybody to join any particular party.
She noted further: “We are determined to sensitise the voters to know and identify people that are committed to serve Nigeria. It is very important that people understand what is happening in the polity. They should be wary of the kind of fight they join whenever the political elites are fighting themselves. For us, we will encourage the political elite to allow a woman be the Vice President of the country in 2019 to see the difference she will make.”
The deputy General Secretary of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity in Accra, Ghana Valentine Udeh, who was the immediate past Head, education department of the NLC, observed that the theme was apt considering the season Nigeria is in currently.
He said: “Every human being is a political animal and politics is played at different levels. The place of labour in politics should be complimentary because the government and political parties cannot function effectively without the labour union members.”
He posited that for labour to remain relevant to reigning issues, its leadership and members must constantly seek knowledge through labour education apparatus.
His words: “There is this saying that knowledge is power. Labour education is very critical and very paramount in the agenda of labour movement because well-trained workers improve the organisational productivity and it also leads to an increment in awareness of political developments around them. The most distinct feature of labour education is that its themes are always centred on contemporary issues that labour activists can relate to. Like the theme of this year’s edition, which is on politics, labour unionists would be exposed to issues that are emerging in the political space and how to participate effectively when the processes begin and how to get involved both at the individual level as well as a labour body.”
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