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The warning strikes by non-teaching university staffers

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[FILES] NASU and SSANU during a meeting.

As public universities gear up for full academic activities nationwide, the recent warning strike embarked upon by the Joint Action Committee of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff of Universities (NASU), barely a month after the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) suspended its own nine-month strike, is an ominous signal that should be taken seriously.

It is another tell-tale sign of the increasing decadence that has befallen university education in the country. Despite appearing as a huge and costly joke played on tertiary education, this unfortunate situation created by breaches of agreements must bother stakeholders in the educational system.

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The warning strike, which was observed by the union chapters of universities in the Southwest zone and a sprinkle of others in the country, centres on demands for improved welfare of staff, better funding for universities and disagreements over policies in university administration. The highpoints of their demands are the request for a N40 billion payment as was allegedly given to ASUU and call for government to address issues in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by both parties.

In addition, the two unions are protesting against the non-constitution of visitation panels for universities, inconsistencies in the IPPIS payment, non-payment of earned allowances, and non-payment of arrears of minimum wage. They also protest against the headship of non-teaching units of the university by university teachers, non-payment of due retirement benefits to members, the neglect and poor funding of government-owned universities.

These are legitimate grievances because the productivity, livelihood, and social well-being of employees who bear the brunt of maladministration in government establishments are grossly affected by the dynamics of the working environment. If the truism, ‘every labourer deserves his wage’ underscores the fact that the identity of worker is also constituted by his labour, then it is a right for workers to protest when their legitimate livelihood is unjustifiably threatened.

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However, both parties should be guided by the state of tertiary education. What premium do they place on education in general? Concerning its relationship with other parties in terms of industrial disputes, what integrity quotient does the government bring to the agreement table? And does the JAC of SSANU/NASU view the Nigerian university as a citadel of learning and human resource institution in which they are able auxiliaries? Or just as another bureaucratic establishment in which they must compete for prestige and power with academic staff? Are the administrative units remodeling resources for national benefit? Even with the resources at its disposal, is there any training or transmission of values going on in the universities?

The unions certainly have some moral grounds for their actions. However, given the economic situation of the country at the moment, won’t a strike by any university union be inappropriate and ineffective in addressing all the union’s demands? Clearly, the predicament of non-academic staff of universities, who have been receiving their salaries unlike their academic counterparts, is no different from that of other Nigerians. Consequently, to insist that government meets all their demands, at this critical time may not be sufficiently caring.

Considerations ought to be given to students, parents and university lecturers who are just recovering from the mental trauma and high-level anxiety which ASUU’s nine-month strike had caused. Should students be subjected to another excruciating round of stay-at-home and disengagement from studies? Every strike action in tertiary institutions has the capacity to emasculate and devalue public tertiary institutions.

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On its part, the Federal Government should have re-negotiated agreements it cannot meet long before a strike threatens. This country cannot afford another nationwide university strike. Unfortunately, government is notorious for its wanton breaches of agreements it freely entered into with unions; and seems also to lack credible officials with the finesse and locution for respectable negotiations. From the Presidency down to the different ministries, many spokespersons for the government on matters in disputes have carried on with shocking discourtesy. They are often self-conceit and indecorous in the way they address disputes, which then become intractable.

To avert undue complications to the dispute, both governments and the non-teaching staffers should imbibe a spirit of give and take, rather than being rigid. The unions should not condescend to the level of rampaging hirelings; rather, they should invoke the civility of the knowledge industry in which they are to articulate their positions before the court of public opinion. This is necessary to enable the public deeply appreciate their grievances.

Government must avoid their usual procrastination until the industrial harmony is totally truncated. It must do all to prevent another strike. This is the least it can do now to salvage the battered reputation of public tertiary institutions. The government must do this not by a blatant show of power or cheap blackmail, but by entering into negotiation with trade unions with sincerity of purpose. It is bad enough that it failed to take proactive action to avert the unpleasant situation, and negligently put itself in a moral quagmire. It is time to engage the unions in meaningful dialogue and make up for its self-inflicted predicament.

Government needs to work hard to rejuvenate the university system to reflect the excellence, work ethics and labour relations consistent with citadel of learning principles, the administration of university system in the 21st century, and global best practice.

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