‘We demanded our workers be trained and retrained’
Comrade Agnes Olufunmilayo Sessi, a trade unionist, is the Chairman Political Committee, Lagos State Chapter of the Nigerian Labour Congress. She tells OZO MORDI about her life as a woman activist and how she’s been able to wade through the murky waters of trade unionism.
Some are made while others are born; this is a common saying that one may ascribe to Comrade Agnes Olufunmilayo Sessi, a trade unionist -she was born to be a woman activist.
On this day in which we met up at the Ojo Campus of the Lagos State University (LASU), she wore jeans trousers and a grey T-shirt with the logo of the Nigerian Labour Congress embossed on it. Comrade Sessi has a strong and reassuring presence, which is given emphasis by her robust figure. Her confident stride makes one think of a fighter and not at all surprised at her achievements in the labour union.
So, how did she become the Chairman Political Committee, Lagos State Chapter of the Nigerian Labour Congress?
She tells The Guardian: “It started when I was a student of Catholic School of Midwifery, Lantoro, Abeokuta, in Ogun State. The Missionaries are known for discipline and uprightness, but some practices strange to the Nursing profession went on while I was there. The nurses, for example, were the cleaners. There was the condition that Nursing students would be paid on salary Grade Level Four.
“The food was poor and the students were developing ulcer because the soup was prepared with pepper only most of the time. We complained about it among ourselves but nobody was ready to bell the cat. When we decided to meet the authorities about it, some of us backed down at the last minute but I went ahead and revolted; everybody knew me then.
“I discovered that the Bishop and the white matrons knew nothing about what was happening, the Nigerians at the helm of affairs were the ones cheating the students. Instead of paying the level four salaries, they decided to cook for us and to take the money. But they served soup made of pepper and used tin tomato only occasionally.
“I was demoted for six months but the salary was reinstalled.”
When she left school, she was employed at the Health Services Department of LASU; this opened her eyes to workers’ plight, she says, adding: “Welfare was poor, workers were owed so much in arrears, she reveals. I took my time to study the situation and to know what was happening.”
After eight years of working in the university, it was time for her union, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), LASU chapter to produce a chairman and she declared her intention to lead the union.
“From the beginning, I wanted to be the chairperson, I did not want to work with anybody who would tarnish my name. I had no intention of joining up with mediocrity either; I wanted to do it my way.”
There were challenges from the men, she recalls: “Some of them told me that a woman leading a labour union was unheard of. ‘Do you understand the murky waters of trade unionism?’ they asked. Some invited me to be their treasurer; some would say that I would do well as a Public Relations Officer or Secretary.
“I defeated the five male contestants. The woman who contested for Treasurer won, too, and 60 per cent of the executive committee were women.”
That was how Comrade Sessi became Chairman, SSANU in the year 2006 and made a difference, she observes in retrospect. At the time, the university owed workers 36 months salary arrears.
“We put pressure on them and they paid it.”
“In 2009, the Federal Government made an agreement with the unions, but LASU Vice- Chancellor said that as we were a state university, that the agreement did not concern us. First, we reminded him that the word university means universal and besides, Nigerian universities were governed by only one body, be it private or government-owned. The decision of the National Universities Commission (NUC) affects all of them. When the V-C refused to listen to us, the issue turned LASU to a battle-ground for eight months.
“There is no need to open old wounds; we are on the path of progress now. But it was in 2006 that we left the comfort of our campus to compare notes and discovered that we have been cheated. So we demanded that our workers be trained and retrained at work.
“There is a LASU Housing Scheme in place now; we have Scheme 1, 2, 3 and 4. It all happened in my term and workers are now proud owners of their own homes.”
The challenges were there, she says; “You may step on toes because some people may not like what you do. They prefer people who are permanently blindfolded to their practices. It is only in Nigeria that you could find people who are not qualified climb the ladder fast. When you find a worker who enters the service on salary Grade Level 4 and climbs to level 9 in four years, you have to speak out.
“Don’t promote me if I do not merit a promotion, I don’t like cheating.”
Comrade Sessi has held the positions of Treasurer of SSANU, Western Zone, made up universities in the former Western Region; she was a member of the executive of NLC, Lagos State.
In 2015, she became the Chairman, Political Committee, NLC, Lagos State. Her job should be the go-between of workers and government, she says but adds that the role of the Joint Negotiation Council makes her powerless sometimes; “We can only play advisory role or come in when negotiation breaks down.”
And NLC is not fond of going on strike she says: “We took that action because it looks like the government only understands the use of force. We would have written letters and when they refuse to come to the negotiation table, we downed tools.”
“The current political situation is a pain in my heart. When I was growing up, my father bought the biggest size of Milo and milk for the family. When you receive salary these days, it is difficult to put food on the table. After paying school fees, there is nothing left, it is difficult to save; life is hard. The worse is that some people have too much while some live in abject poverty. Without apology, one should say that the political class is taking things too far.
“How can a governor have N4.7 billion in his account when workers are owed salaries? Our leaders should tell us how they spend our money; they should be sympathetic and show that they have a conscience.
“Look at the state of the hospitals in the country; when they have minor ailments, they look for treatment abroad. Their children travel first class.”
On the NLC planned protest over increase in fuel price that died at birth, Comrade Sessi explained that it was lack of planning by the union: “If you don’t want to fail, plan. I was disappointed in the labour unions, I was one of the people who suffered the consequences; I almost lost my life.
On the day of the protest, we moved from Tejuosho to Maryland where we met with the Police. When we left them to carry on to the airport, we met these fearsome Police who were armed to the teeth; around Customs I have never encountered that type of Force, but we were ready and determined that those of us who where still left after the encounter should go on to the International Airport.
“But would you believe that it was the labour union that stopped us from going further? That protest was a waste of time; they told us that they had paralyzed activities at the airport but I counted four planes taking off.
“ Workers are not being paid and some states have misplaced priority with their white elephant projects. In Osun State, for example, I think that agriculture should be the priority instead of overhead bridge and 10- lane road. Ekiti State will run into trouble because the government will settle the stomach infrastructure project with government fund.
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