Labour pangs as workers’ unions part ways
Since metamorphosing to ULC, an opportunity to make a bold statement presented itself two weeks ago when it issued a September 15 ultimatum to the government to meet its demands.
Years back, governments, both at the state and federal levels dreaded having any confrontation with the organised labour. This was because the labour movement was not known to be petty, or brook indiscipline among its leadership/membership, neither was it out to trivialise itself with issues that were not worth escalating.
Today, the leadership of labour movement at all levels, appears to have become so glamorous that the issue of workers’ welfare has become secondary. With allegations of labour leaders taking bribes to whittle down the wishes of their comrades, to using top union offices as status symbols, labour unionism is indeed going through a rough patch.
At the national level, the inability of the Nigerian Labour Congress to organise a simple, transparent election has also contributed immensely to fragmenting the labour movement, which is now partitioned, with the NLC and the United Labour Congress (ULC) being the two major groups.
Before 1978, the ULC was a labour centre in the country, but it ended up becoming one of the four centres that dissolved to form the NLC. The other labour centres that also dissolved into the NLC were Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Forum (LUF), and the Nigeria Workers Council (NWU).
The fusion of these centres led to the restructuring of the over 1, 000 trade unions that existed into only 42 industrial unions. Those 42 unions were then affiliated to the NLC in 1978. Be that as it may, the resurrection of ULC 30 years after it announced its dissolution and fusion into the NLC alongside others, is on the verge of quaking the labour movement in the country to its foundation.
ULC’s resurrection began after the 2015 Delegates’ Conference of the NLC in Abuja, which was disputed by three notable leaders in the NLC. They are General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Joseph Ajaero, then a first-term deputy president, but contesting for the office of the president. President of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG), Igwe Achese, also contested for the same office, while the General Secretary of the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring of Nigeria (NUTGTWN), Isa Aremu, contested for the post of deputy president.
In 2015, there were two delegates’ conferences. The first, which took place at the International Conference Centre (ICC), on February 12, 2015, caused a constitutional crisis, as the tenure of Abdulwahed Omar, was expiring and an extension was out of the question.That day, some members of NUEE raised the alarm over irregularities and consequently disrupted the voting process, a development that truncated the exercise.
Shortly after that, accusations and counter-accusations rent the air and immediate past Governor of Edo (who is equally a former NLC president), Adams Oshiomhole, was accused by Wabba and Ajaero of supporting either of the candidates.Indeed, there were also insinuations at that conference that the embers of disaffection may have further been fanned by the general elections, which were scheduled for March 28, 2015.
Even though the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was in power at that time, the party was not unmindful of Oshiomhole’s influence, as a member of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC).
Unconfirmed report in Abuja indicated that there may have been meetings between some power blocs in the NLC with either the PDP or APC, with the sole purpose of getting labour’s backing in the general elections, which were only weeks away.
However, signs of impending trouble in the NLC election started cropping up when the National President of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Najeem Yasin, was cleared to contest as one of the deputy presidents.
The Credentials Committee, headed by the immediate past President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Nasir Fagge, with Emma Ugboaja, serving as secretary, had earlier disqualified Yasin on the ground of improper filling of nomination form.
This clearance also opened the door for Achese to step down for Ajaero, who was vying for the post of the president. Such withdrawal was seen as a violation of the constitution of the congress, but was allowed to be because of the earlier waiver granted Yasin. Igwe was therefore cleared to contest for the post of deputy president.
It was, however, widely believed that NUEE members, who raised the alarm over irregularities and consequently disrupted the voting process, thereby scuttling the process, did so when it was obvious that their candidate was not going to win the election.Some delegates also blamed the secretariat for not making watertight security arrangements, especially in the face of petitions that were sent to the Department of State Security (DSS), by one of the contestants.
Just before this time, Aremu had protested the waiver granted Yasin, and led his union to stage a walkout during that conference.Nonetheless, many see that 11TH National Delegates’ Conference, which ended in a fiasco, after angry delegates disrupted the voting process, as the beginning of the tearing apart of a hitherto united NLC.
After aggrieved delegates besieged the ICC venue of the conference and carted away/destroyed ballot boxes and other materials, thereby stalling further proceedings, the National Administrative Council meeting of the congress was convened immediately after the crisis, and the body expressed regrets at the “error” committed by the Credential Committee, which effectively gave birth to the impasse.
At the meeting, the union, according to its General Secretary, Peter Ozo-Eson resolved to swiftly work out ways of holding fresh polls as soon as possible. Insiders say that it was also resolved at the meeting that even if it would take something akin to the “Doctrine of Necessity” that the National Assembly adopted to the resolve the political crisis in the country in 2010, it would do so all in a bid to ensure that the crisis was resolved before the expiration of the legal tenure of Abdulwaheed Omar.
Apart from the Credential Committee’s blunder, Ozo-Eson had also blamed the entire crisis on “a printing error” spotted on some ballot papers, in which serial numbers and names of some candidate were duplicated. The degree of the error, which he said affected only four candidates (two each from opposing camps), was so insignificant that it could have been resolved amicably by way of vote invalidation, without the aggrieved delegates disrupting the entire poll.
However, those who thought that the March 13, 2015 re-scheduled election was the soothing balm the congress needed to regain composure were thoroughly disappointed. That election turned out to be the commencement of a factionalised NLC.After Wabba, of the Medical and Health Workers Union (MHWN) was elected new national president of the NLC, Ajaero, who lost out kicked and declared his intention to contest the outcome of the election.
That election also saw the emergence of Peters Adeyemi, Yasin and Kiri Mohammed as deputy presidents, while the three vice presidents are Asugbuni Amaechi, Dusunma Lawal and Oyelekan Lateef. That election did not end without its fair share of intrigues as the two camps fought to secure the support of the 3, 119 delegates from the 43 affiliate industrial unions. At the election where a total of 3, 119 delegates were qualified to participate Wabba polled 1, 695 votes, while Mr. Ajaero garnered 1, 140 votes.
The election polarised members of the unions along two main camps – the Redemption Group, led by Wabba, and the Restoration Group led by Ajaero.In rejecting the result, Ajaero, backed heavily by delegates from NUEE, the all-important NUPENG, oil and gas workers and textile workers, alleged that the process was not transparent and the outcome unacceptable.
Apart from the organisation of the rescheduled election being different from the botched exercise in February, a battery of security operatives, including officers from the Department of State Services, the Nigerian Police and the National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), were on ground to maintain law and order.
Shortly after Wabba’s emergence, the Ajaero group scheduled what it termed a “Special Delegates Conference of the NLC,” for Friday, March 13 and Saturday March 14, 2015 in Lagos. Peter Balogun of the Civil Service Secretary and Stenographic Workers was named chairman of the conference’s organising committee.
As the date for the Lagos event drew nigh, Wabba warned members to stay away from it. That notwithstanding, Ajaero was returned unopposed as the president of a faction of the NLC, while Achese and Aremu also emerged deputy presidents.Kasumu Kadiri also emerged vice president, while the search for a third Deputy President as stipulated by the NLC’s constitution continued.
Conspicuously absent from that “special delegates’ conference” were returning officer, Registrar of Trade Unions, representatives of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, labour veterans and total absence of NLC’s Secretariat staffers.
Since this development showed that the factionalised group was no longer something that could be wished away, it then dawned on the NLC and its leaders that something must be done urgently to bring back estranged members. This is what led to the inauguration of ‘Labour Veterans,’ which was saddled with the responsibilities of finding a lasting truce.
The group, which was led by the first President of the NLC, Hassan Sunmomu, with other six veterans as members, toiled for 15 months without much success. With the negotiation not going its way, the Ajaero Group opted out of the NLC altogether, and resurrected a labour centre that ceased to exist in December 1977, when it surrendered its certificate of registration, alongside three others in order to form what is today known as the NLC, in 1978.
Although Aremu has since pulled out of the ULC and teamed up with the NLC along a couple of other unions, both Ajaero and Achese insisted that the formation of the new trade centre was for the good of labour movement.
Months after the controversial election, some of the newly elected officers still believe that peace would return to the labour movement.One of those that spoke along this line is deputy president of the congress and NURTW boss, Yasin, who said even though the election was held under a peaceful atmosphere, the leadership of the congress believes that everyone should come together and speak with one voice in the general interest of Nigerian workers.
He expressed the hope that the Sumonu-led Reconciliation Committee would speedily resolve the situation so that the labour union would come out stronger.Yasin and others, who believed that the Reconciliation Committee would bring them succour through the resolution of the crisis were deeply disappointed after it failed to resolve the impasse.
But before the Sumonu committee backed off, Ajaero, had in a letter he addressed to Summonu, expressed disappointment over what he described as the uncommitted attitude of some members towards the reconciliation.
We had believed that all of us were genuinely committed to speedily working through the process to reach acceptable compromise,” he wrote, adding, “the reconciliation is expected to assist the aggrieved parties build a new and vibrant movement and not pseudo outcomes that might further undermine Nigerian workers and weaken the NLC.’’
In the letter, Ajaero said, “We re-emphasise that we may no longer be found available at the table any longer if these meetings continue beyond the end of January 2016,’’ adding that it was regrettable that the prolonged reconciliation and lack of cohesion by the congress had affected workers in getting their right during privatisation of the electricity sector.
Ajaero Camp, which had opted out of the NLC, alongside over 20 affiliates unions formally announced the birth of the ULC in December 2016, at its inaugural delegates’ conference held in Lagos.At the event, which witnessed the disaffiliation of the bodies from the NLC, the motion for adoption of the ULC’s national constitution was moved by Comrade Titus Olaniran, the General Secretary of Iron and Steel Union of Nigeria.
Comrade Achese, who chaired the conference said: “It is sad to know that workers at the local government level, the state and federal levels were being owed for several months and government goes a borrowing to pay…”
Ajaero, who also appraised the historical trends of labour unions in the country at the event, said the ULC was out to address biases existing between workers in the public and private sectors, stressing that, “we are out to harmonise them with formidable front, we will be able to ask questions about the budget and the foreign exchange policy of the government.
“The labour union has stayed inert for two years, we were being undermined, now with ULC Nigerian workers are at liberty to chose who serves them,” he said.Since coming into being, the ULC sort of lied low and kept on strategising quietly. But one of its most important moments as a factional NLC was when the Federal Government had to reach an agreement with it to set up a committee to resolve agitations over the new pump price of petrol.
The committee among other things was expected to address the downward review of the pump price of fuel, determine new minimum wage and consult with the PPPRA for effective price regulation of petroleum products.
The Federal Government was also meeting with the Wabba-led faction of the NLC simultaneously, even though that meeting ended abruptly and the Wabba faction strike went on barely effective. It, however, became clear from that point that with electricity workers, aviation workers, NUPENG and sundry affiliates in the Ajaero’s camp, it had a reasonably major role to play in how effective a strike turns out to be.
Since metamorphosing to ULC, an opportunity to make a bold statement presented itself two weeks ago when it issued a September 15 ultimatum to the government to meet its demands.
Part of ULC’s demands were that the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment set up a task force immediately to carry out factory inspection; that government should review the privatisation of Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN); that the army and police should withdraw their men from different offices, where they are currently stationed as they intimidate and harass workers in such establishments.
It also demanded the immediate release of its “Registration Certificate.”Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, effectively dismissed the ultimatum, insisting that ULC was not yet a registered and recognised federation of trade unions in the country.
Ngige, who claimed that ULC’s scribe, Didi Adodo, gave false impression that the association is a government recognised federation of trade unions said, “Our immediate reaction is to remind the promoters of this association that they are not yet a Federal Government recognised federation of trade unions and hence cannot speak on behalf of any trade union.
“The Trade Union Act. CAP T14, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN) 2004, is explicitly clear on how a group of Trade Unions can coalesce to form a federation of trade unions.
“Section 35(1)(b) states inter alia “A federation of trade unions may be registered by the registrar if it is made up of 12 or more trade unions none of which shall have been a member of another registered federation of the trade unions. Promoters of ULC should fulfill this requirement to qualify to be registered.
“To call out workers on essential services for a national strike without any major trade dispute with their direct employers will be tantamount to blatant violation of our extant labour laws and international standards, Ngige said, adding that, “For the avoidance of doubt, the government will not fold her hands and allow any group of persons take the law into their hands. That is by brazenly threatening to commit economic sabotage by shutting down essential services in the oil and gas, power, and the aviation sectors as threatened by the promoters of ULC.”
Pronto, the deputy president of ULC, Achese, said contrary to Ngige’s claim, that the ULC is not recognised by the Federal Government, the union is registered under the Trade Union Act.Achese, who spoke while appearing on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily said: “We have gone through the process of registration, the act is very clear when you talk about the issues of labour movement.”
He added that the amendment of the Trade Union Act by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 1977/78 as a military head of government, and in 2004 as a democratically elected president changed the face of labour unionism in the country.Nevertheless, with government still unsure of how to relate with the ULC, the union on Monday, September 18, commenced a nation-wide strike, but not without accusing Ngige of applying double-standards in dealing with labour union matters.
On Thursday, September 21, the ULC called off its three-day-old strike following a meeting with Ngige, in Abuja.In calling off the strike, Ajaero, said the union would negotiate with the Federal Government and seek ways of reaching an agreement on its demands. He added that the “the major reason for the strike was the refusal of the government to recognise the ULC. Even the resident doctors have not told us who registered them, let alone over 12 registered industrial unions, which have indicated interest to be part of the ULC and met all the conditions.
Even though his committee failed to resolve the crisis in the NLC, Sumonu said it was out of place for the Ajaero and his group to resurrect the ULC, which had submitted its certificate of registration and dissolved into the NLC.According to him, “If this has not happened in the political arena where anything and everything can happen, why would it happen in the labour movement? Why would anybody among the trade union leaders of today say they are now United Labour Congress? They can bear any other name but not ULC.”