Watching the Watchers (2): The Strike that Unravelled the NLC


People2People…with Oke Epia, Email: Telephone (sms only): 07059850016, Twitter: @resourceme

The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labour – Thomas Donahue

The above quote aptly captures the ideological essence of the universal labour movement: the embodiment of Marxist-socialist preachments in contradistinction to the neo-liberal posturing of Capitalist systems. Knowing that Donahue is regarded as one of the most influential leaders of the post-World War II American trade union movement, according to Wikipedia, gives further validation to the statement.

The kind the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) appears to have thrown to the winds by several acts of omission and commission. Buffeted by a stifled protest and a stillborn mass action, the labour union is obviously having one of its worst seasons in history. The issue of petrol price hike that should have ordinarily earned it mass appeal and automatic leadership in national socio-political activism has ironically become its albatross. Things have fallen apart and the underbelly of the once vibrant labour force has been exposed leaving entrails drooling out in a shameful mess of hara-kiri.

While the disemboweling act of the Japanese signals strength and honour, there is nothing close to that in this suicide mission of the labour Congress, the formerly famous Leftist bulwark of the common man. Neither is there much accolade for the NLC’s cowardly gallantry in proceeding with what not a few have regarded as a needless strike action. A combination of forces marshalled by the All Progressives Congress (APC) government of the day had conspired together to take the wind out of the sail of Labour. And like a falcon that had become deafened to the customized call of the falconer, the NLC jumped into the ring with a bloodied nose even before the fight started. Whatever gains that may be credited to the controversial strike action eventually, a more enduring verdict would be that there was no way the union could sustain a win in a battle with government on deregulation. This is because Congress had long lost the war and either did not know that or chose like the ostrich, to bury its head in the sands of pretense. A public commentator, Steve Aborisade, captures the public mood succinctly in a post on his Facebook wall thus: “Labour cleanse thyself! And see what much can be achieved for the Nigerian masses in the company of integrity.”

But when and how did the NLC lose the war for the hearts and minds of the people; the very mass of workers it claims to represent? This question is not difficult to answer especially for an objective observer of events in the polity. Let us begin the search for answers with certain circumstances surrounding the strike action called to protest the ‘deregulation’ of the price of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) which went up from N86.50 to a cap of N145 per litre. Like millions of Nigerians, the NLC was jolted by the government’s sudden announcement that it had raised the petrol price because the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the nation’s oil behemoth, could no longer continue as sole importer of fuel. That the policy (which have been described in various terms like subsidy removal, partial deregulation or as cynically put by some, the capitulation of government to the cabal of oil traders) and its justifications as espoused by administration officials have remained opaque and unconvincing to a broad spectrum of Nigerians should have been enough ground to submit to Labour’s lead in mass disquiet. That did not happen. Not even the excruciating escalation of hardship the petrol price hike has unleashed on already impoverished citizens has proved a valid ground for the union to launch from. In short, there was substantial, if not overwhelming public opinion against the strike. If Nigerians whose interests Labour claim to represent and for which it called a mass action are not favourably disposed then there can be no greater sign that the union had disconnected with the masses. And if that is the case then what is really the motivation for union leaders to call out workers unto the streets in a protest they are indifferent about if not totally opposed to?

Even within the Labour Union itself, the centre could no longer hold as some affiliates had openly opposed the strike and instructed their members not to participate. Prominent in this dissenting group are the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN); two key umbrella bodies of workers in the oil and gas industry without which any strike action by labour would be impotent. The fact that both affiliate unions which are the operators in the sector deregulated by government, pulled out of the NLC strike was indication enough that the action was devoid of consensus within the ranks of the Congress.

But something worse was coming for the NLC. On the eve of commencement of the strike, an otherwise latent faction of the NLC, led by Joe Ajaero of the Electricity Workers group, gained sudden recognition from government and announced that Labour had suspended the proposed action following a meeting brokered by Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole. Comments by Mr. Ajaero suggesting deep underhand practices by the mainstream Congress led by Mr. Ayuba Wabba, could very well provide some insight into the fate that has befallen organized labour in contemporary times. And expectedly, the statements border on tales of corruption and sell-out over a N2billion loan Congress had procured from government in the past.

Hear him: “When you are coming to say that the loan that was given to you in 2012, which you have not paid back, should be written off, we see it as if the action has already been sold out before it takes off.

“So, we will wait for our group to meet. But, definitely, it appears that by ideology and every other thing, we can no longer meet. We thought we should have managed this in the interest of Nigerians but from the look of things, it appears we have to go our different ways.

“We have condemned the increase and called for negotiation and reversal and it was on the basis of our calls that this meeting was summoned for us to meet and find the way forward.”

Ajaero was not done as he picked issues with Congress’ methodology of the strike. Hear him again: “If we wanted to be serious about an action, you can’t call for an action on Wednesday. It is only an action that is sold out that is called for Wednesday so that by Friday, you say you have strike lethargy and you call it off. Popular Trade union actions commence on Mondays and by the time you drag it for five days, it would have had an impact. In fact, you would have taken one week to mobilize and sensitize. As of today, apart from holding a NEC meeting and calling an action for two or three days, remember that the people you are mobilizing have not been paid for about six months. Will it take a newspaper mobilization for them to come out? We need to do a serious work if the action is to work. The action is called at the wrong time and with the wrong motive.”

Incidentally, Mr. Ajaero had an additional burden to discharge: he had to clarify the nomenclature of his cluster in apparent response to suggestions from those in the meeting with them that they were breakaway groups of the NLC. He said: “I want to correct an impression. We are not here as individual unions, but as a faction of the NLC. Unions make up the NLC. The NLC is not a union in itself. By our own historical accident, we found ourselves operating in two groups.” Of course, that clarification whatever it was worth told another part of the contradictions that have consumed the Congress. Having played the role of the spoiler, Joe Ajaero could very well be the proverbial kettle calling the pot black. Indeed before the start of the strike on Wednesday, it was obvious that organized labour had been emasculated as far as the petrol price issue hike was concerned. Ambushed by government; distrusted by the populace; and distracted by internal divisions, Labour found itself in the lurch of lost credibility.
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