Friday, 1st December 2023

Nationwide strike: Government dangles carrot, stick to weaken Labour’s resolve

By Terhemba Daka, Collins Olayinka (Abuja) and Gloria Nwafor (Lagos)
29 September 2023   |   4:15 am
Several organs of government yesterday dangled the carrot and stick approach in a bid to stop Organised Labour’s plan for an indefinite strike beginning on Tuesday. 

Vice President Kashim Shettima PHOTO: Twitter

• Industrial action will further hurt fragile economy, NEC begs Labour, sues for patience
• AGF writes Falana, warns labour unions against contempt of court
• Labour insists no agreement with govt to suspend strike 
• Fuel scarcity looms as NUPENG, civil activists direct members on full mobilisation 

Several organs of government yesterday dangled the carrot and stick approach in a bid to stop Organised Labour’s plan for an indefinite strike beginning on Tuesday. 

While the National Economic Council (NEC), presided over by Vice President Kashim Shettima, appealed to Labour to stay action on their planned indefinite nationwide strike, the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Lateef Fagbemi, cautioned labour unions against the strike, saying such action would amount to a gross violation of subsisting court injunction, with unintended consequences.
But sounding defiant, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) said it does not have any agreement with the Federal Government to suspend its planned nationwide strike.
Governor of Plateau State, Caleb Mutfwang, who disclosed NEC’s resolution on the matter to newsmen at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, said Council also requested Labour leaders to resume negotiations at the states’ level.
Recall that NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) had directed their affiliate bodies to commence the nationwide industrial action from October 3, saying it would be a total shutdown of the system, until the government takes steps to attend to their demands.
However, conveying NEC’s appeal, Mutfwang said Council was of the opinion that continuing on the path of dialogue would be the best option for the economy, especially at the states’ level.
“Council noted the notice by the NLC leadership to proceed on an indefinite strike from October 3. The Council noted further the implication of this strike for the economy and the nation and thus urged members to continue to engage with the leadership of their respective states and to appeal to them to shelve the action and continue on the path of dialogue with the Federal Government. This is the appeal of the Council,” the governor said.
Explaining the grounds for NEC’s appeal, Mutfwang described the situation of most of the states when the various governors took off on May 29, saying that many of them were just coming out of prolonged industrial strikes, while enforcing a new strike at this time would further damage the economy.
He, however, sought more time for the government to work on all the concerns of Labour, even as he noted that there are feelers indicating that leadership at every level genuinely wants the issues raised by the Labour addressed once and for all.
“It is therefore important that as a federation, whatever happens, Labour is represented in all the 36 states and the FCT and NEC is appealing that discussions should continue at the state level because there will be peculiarities as to the issues to be addressed concerning the demands of Labour, therefore dialogue is the way to go.”
But adopting the stick approach, the Federal Government asked Labour to shelve their plan to embark on a nationwide indefinite strike, stressing that issues bordering on fuel subsidy removal, which informed the decision of NLC and TUC to declare the strike action, are already pending before the National Industrial Court (NIC).
According to the AGF, it was due to the willingness of the unions to enter into a negotiation over the issue that FG was persuaded to withdraw a contempt proceeding that it initially instituted against them.
The government, through the AGF, who doubles as the Minister of Justice, wrote to the head of the legal team of the two unions, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), urging him to persuade his clients to abort the planned strike action.
The letter, dated September 26, but made public on Thursday by Modupe Ogundoro, Director of Press at the Federal Ministry of Justice, read: “The attention of the Ministry has been drawn to media reports on the proposed nationwide strike action. You are kindly invited to recall the antecedence of previous steps/actions on this matter, particularly the exchange of correspondence between this office and your firm, before and after the nationwide ‘action/protest’ declared by NLC on August 2, 2023.
“Whilst your clients had maintained that the nationwide protest by NLC is in furtherance of its constitutional right to embark on protests, the Ministry has repeatedly advised on the need to advise your clients to refrain from resorting to self-help and taking actions capable of undermining subsisting orders of a court of competent jurisdiction.”
The minister reminded the labour unions of a subsisting court order issued in a pending suit at the industrial court concerning the dispute. Fagbemi said the proposed strike “is in clear violation of the pending interim injunctive order granted on June 5, 2023, restraining both NLC and TUC from embarking on any industrial action.”
The labour unions had been battling with the government since President Bola Tinubu announced the removal of the petrol subsidy at his inauguration on May 29 and next Tuesday’s call out would be its fourth strike action since then though one was suspended.
A judge of the National Industrial Court in Abuja, Olufunke Anuwe, at the instance of the Federal Ministry of Justice, issued an order on June 5, two days before the NLC and TUC planned to embark on a nationwide strike on June 7. The judge reaffirmed the order on June 19, further restraining the labour unions from going on strike.
In August, the Federal Government filed a contempt suit at the National Industrial Court in Abuja after a protest the union leaders organised to further press the government to address the negative impacts of the fuel subsidy removal. The government said the protest was in violation of the June 5 order of the court.
But the justice ministry later withdrew the contempt suit, citing the intervention of President Tinubu to give room for further negotiation with the union leaders.

But negotiations have failed to yield the desired results, prompting the unions to declare on Tuesday another plan to embark on strike. Fagbemi, in his communication to the unions’ lawyer, Falana, urged them to shelve the planned strike to afford “parties more room for further mutual engagements, for a holistic and sustainable resolution of all outstanding issues on this matter in the overall national interest.”
He further urged Falana, also a SAN, to advise the labour unions on the need to “protect the integrity of courts and observe the sanctity of court orders.”

MEANWHILE, a statement by the NLC Head of Information and Public Affairs, Benson Upah, yesterday, faulted the statement credited to the Director of Press, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Olajide Oshundun on its proposed strike action and illegal occupation of the secretariat of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) that labour already had an agreement with the Federal Government to suspend the planned strike action. 
According to Upah, “we do not have any agreement with the government to suspend the planned strike action. Neither do we have any date for a meeting with the government that may lead to the suspension of the proposed strike. 
“While we do not intend to demean or minimise the office of the Minister of Labour and Employment, this matter is beyond the Ministry. This should have been obvious to them during our most recent meeting.”
The NLC also faulted the position of the Ministry of Labour and Employment on the leadership of NURTW, saying “they were lawfully elected into office. We still find it necessary to advise the police and those elements behind their travails to desist from this despicable and shameful conduct. They are advised to retrace their steps. If democracy is to be of meaning to us, then we should resist the urge or temptation for impunity.”
Already, the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) has directed its members to commence full mobilisation and ensure unwavering compliance with the directive of the two Labour centres to embark on a nationwide industrial action from midnight of October 3.
A statement from the union’s National President, Williams Akporeha, and General Secretary, Afolabi Olawale, yesterday, said the leadership of NUPENG “finds it disturbing and unfortunate that the Federal Government and other tiers of government are insensitive to the excruciating and debilitating socioeconomic pains Nigerians are passing through as a result of very harsh and sudden economic policies taken by this administration without any accompanying socioeconomic policies to ameliorate and cushion the immediate effects and impacts those difficult and harsh policies are having on the citizenry.”

The statement explained that it appeared the current administration was arrogantly taking the goodwill and the tolerance level of the workers and Nigerians in general for granted, saying that the arrogance was demonstrated clearly and loudly by the ways and manners of meetings with organised labour and outcomes of such meetings were taken with levity and disrespect.
Noting that the union was aware of the huge impacts a 24-hour industrial action by organised labour could have on businesses and socioeconomic lives of the nation, however, it said government’s actions and inactions were inextricably forcing the organised labour to take the very hard and painful route of last resort to demand for needful socioeconomic policies to ameliorate and cushion the debilitating and dehumanising living conditions of Nigerians generally.
To this end, it said NUPENG as a responsive and responsible affiliate union of the NLC would fully comply with the resolution of the joint National Executive Council (NEC) meeting and “we hereby direct the leaders in the four zonal councils of our great union to mobilise all our members in the formal and informal sectors to shut down services effective October 3, 2023.
“All NUPENG members, including the Petroleum Tanker Drivers (PTD), Petrol Stations Workers (PSW), Liquefied Petroleum Gas Retailers (LPGAR), and all other allied workers in the value chain of petroleum products distribution must comply with this directive from midnight of Tuesday.
“All branches and units of our union are to take note and ensure full compliance by setting up compliance and monitoring teams in all operational locations.”
Similarly, the United Action Front of Civil Society (UAFCS), the organised platform of civil society groups and activists on matters of governance and democracy in Nigeria, in solidarity, has fully endorsed the indefinite strike. 
Its Head, National Coordinating Centre, Olawale Okunniyi, yesterday, said the support was over the failure of the Tinubu-led administration to demonstrate commitment to implementing a series of agreements and pledges, which the government reneged upon.
Okunniyi lamented that it was unfortunate that while the arbitrary fuel price hike in the name of subsidy removal on premium motor spirit (PMS) has pushed most Nigerians below poverty line, the government continues to play the Ostrich despite the promises made to labour leaders on the need for upward review of workers’ wages, inclusive palliatives to citizens, among others.
He said the inhuman policy of arbitrary hike in fuel price has further impoverished and pauperised millions of households, who were hitherto merely coping with meagre wages and incomes for their livelihoods. 
According to him, it is evident that the present government lacks the requisite wherewithal to fix the rots perpetrated by the immediate past government of the same party and may eventually end up worsening the situation. 
He said it was more disturbing that the government appeared determined to subject the citizens to more hardship with the prevailing abysmal exchange rate with consequences for higher inflation in the country. He called on the NLC and the TUC to remain resolute in defending the country against all forms of anti-masses policies that have foisted unmitigated poverty on millions of Nigerians and unprecedented unemployment and hardship in both the urban and rural communities.  
“The leadership of the United Action Front of Civil Society wishes to enjoin all civil society leaders, activists, working people in the private and public sectors as well as all well-meaning Nigerians in general to team up with us in rallying support for the success of the indefinite strike action declared by Labour by making out time to be part of the civil society coordinating centre charged to enforce citizens sit-at- home during the nationwide strike action called to save Nigeria; push for living wages for the working people and better welfare conditions for Nigerians in the face of excruciating consequences of the exploitative and wrongheaded policies of government.”