Labour, Boundaries and Appetites


Dafe Otobo

I am not hesitant to pass a few remarks on current state of labour unity and trade union governance and the challenges of Boundaries and Appetites.
I think I should begin straightaway by drawing attention to the obvious fact that trade union governance substantially has involved a few persons representing the interests of trade union members and, as some might add, of working people generally.

But it is important, however, to point out that institutional representation itself was not invented by organised working people and their leaders.
Why so? Indeed and arguably, central to human existence is what we nowadays call “representation”, an inevitable social invention and device once each person realised he or she could not meet personal physical and other needs and requirements alone. Starting with the family unit, however defined and composed, parenting itself always embodied a representation function, representation phenomenon assumed greater significance and more widespread as social interaction, human societies and social organisations became more complex with each succeeding generation and century.

Representation has thus always dominated social, economic and political affairs and whichever historical period in question, it defined and created several processes, but we shall here focus on the following: i) leadership; 2) level and degree of participation in discussions leading to decisions which apply to clearly defined constituency; 3) decision-recording and implementing persons or the bureaucracy; and 4) decision-enforcing persons or bodies.

One thing that is common to these four areas of focus, namely leadership, level and degree of participation in discussion leading to decisions, decision-recording and implementing bureaucracy and decision-enforcing persons or bodies, is the establishment of Boundaries
. Such boundaries may be internal or external or both but the boundaries are created via custom and tradition or practice or precedent, or via deliberately and clearly stipulated and defined rules, processes and procedures, or more usually through a combination of all.

Boundaries themselves are not End Products but Means by which objectives, goals, aspirations are met legitimately. The boundaries proclaim or not whether correct procedures, rules and other prescribed norms have been followed in achieving a stated objective, or any objective for that matter. When boundaries are not duly followed, obviously the end-results of such deliberations or actions may not be regarded as legitimate and likely to cause confusion, ambiguities and conflicts. In other words, boundaries, as described here, insist that you do the right thing when you are doing what you are doing on behalf of others and for yourself too; the procedure is no less important than the goal or objective.

All persons, including trade union members and trade union leaders, are genetically and psychologically different, as nature thrives on and reflects differentiation and diversity, in plants and animals alike. Social-psychologically and sociologically, we all also behave differently even where we hold similar or same beliefs and share a belief in certain cultural practices. What do I mean? Some persons are more aggressive, more laid back, more intelligent, more stupid, less accommodating, more argumentative, more intense, and so on. Many of such differences I have here labelled “Appetites”.

Appetites involve conscious, and sometimes unconscious, preferences, or actions by and overt behaviour of any person. So, each person’s appetite for food generally, types of food, alcohol, sex, power, religious practices, social and political visibility or ambitions, status, money and material wealth, speaking the truth, and like-conditions, is different and appetites, I suggest, impact on pattern of social interaction, and the evolution and sustenance of Boundaries. Equally important, is the connection between Appetites and Strategies and Tactics, which we allude to below.

Labour Unity
One common wisdom or, historically, long-standing approach to Labour Unity, from the days of Karl Marx in the eighteenth century to more recent times, is that of all working people in one country and in all countries forming and belonging to one organisation or body. This has been difficult to achieve for many reasons, mostly due to employers and state policies and the structure of local, foreign and international economies, the stratified nature of economic organisations but with some failure on the part of workers and their organisations to form only one or fewer organisations. From this perspective, the existence of multiple workers’ organisations – whether along “junior” and “senior” lines as in Nigeria, or “public sector” as against “private sector” unions, or “white collar” or “blue collar” or multiple central labour bodies or organisations – have tended to be taken to mean and or described as less labour unity.

In this sense, therefore, less Labour Unity, or lack of unity in the Nigerian labour movement is not new, as old as the labour movement itself. From the Railway Workers Union and Marine Workers and National Union of Teachers breaking away from the Civil Service Union in the 1930s, then the breakaway factions from the TUC after the 1945 General Strike, temporary truce in the first NLC of 1948-9, then factionalisation after the UNAMAG strike in 1949-50, and temporary merger in the 1956 ANTUF (All Nigeria Trade Union Federation), to further factionalisation and reconciliation in the 1959-60 TUC (Trade Union Congress), and 1962 Ibadan Conference where the hotly contested emergent central body broke into two and later four central bodies (ULC, IULC-NTUC, NWC, LUF), to the formation of the second NLC in December 1975 which the military regime refused to recognise and “restructured” in 1978 to include 43 so-called Industrial Unions as its affiliates, and some 19 senior staff associations denied affiliation to a central body, and the 2005 formal registration of the Trades Union Congress with senior staff associations as its affiliates, bouts of formation of all-embracing central labour organisations were short-lived indeed. So, the current attempt by some largely private sector-based trade unions to form another central labour organisation follows a well-worn route!

So, what about Labour Unity! I believe, in terms of organisational politics, it is possible for the NLC to achieve wider membership if the dictates of Boundaries and Appetites are reconciled in favour of Boundaries. Without going into details, of which few are in public domain, it is fairly certain were all boundaries – especially processes and procedures – faithfully followed at the last NLC elections, subsequent schisms and acrimony would have been largely avoided. In this wise, an arbitrator or mediator, whether in the form of experts/consultant or Labour Veterans, is only as effective as boundaries are seen to be maintained and thus accepted by everyone as such. As all evidence from Nigerian labour history indicates, it is just that more difficult for factions to emerge and to sustain such division in a great length of time when everyone agrees that due process has been followed.

The second evidence from Nigerian labour history is that even when hostile factions exist, at several critical times (like the 1964 General Strike), the exigencies compel a unity of approach despite erstwhile different tactics and political alliances.

Part of the reason is that trade union bureaucracy is not homogeneous, given a typical structure of any of the trade unions. Unforeseen changes in tactics and positions have sometimes been pushed along by the expressed preferences of union members and younger, mostly branch and zonal, officials who are closer, at it were, to the “war front”.

It further suggests that these levels of union bureaucrats and leaders may not only checkmate national officers and national bureaucracy but also effect changes in the composition of the latter and relevant organs of the trade union.
The other aspect of this is that dissensions at the national level over tactics and strategies tend to increase the chances or probability of branch and zonal union officials reaching mutually beneficial decisions, and sometimes not, with employers at those levels, sometimes rending them more vulnerable to all manner of pressures and inducements. This is particularly the case where two or more trade unions see themselves as the main drivers at the central level, which are themselves quarrelling, as it were, and require more resources for that purpose.

Union Bureaucracy, Boundaries and Appetites
The last thirty years in particular have witnessed the growth and development of trade union bureaucracies, their earlier predecessors referred to “non-elected” union officers or leaders. The creation and elaboration of union bureaucracies and structures have gone hand-in-hand with more systematic attempts at growing union assets, since more effective nationwide union governance consume more financial and other resources, aside from a growing number of union pensioners as they metamorphosed into small to medium scale employers of labour. Union employees see no reason not to have competitive compensation packages and families have similar aspirations and social expectations, standard of living and cost of living like those of other salaried worker in all sectors of the economy. The point is that union bureaucracies would tend to systematise growth of assets, depletion rates of assets, influence appetites and thus choice of tactics and strategies that have enormous consequences for Boundaries-maintenance since they are the decision-recording and implementing groups.

Union Politicians, Union Leaders and Labour Unity
Of course, one can be a union or labour leader without being a union politician. Leadership has to do with position of authority and responsibility, and this occurs at all levels of the organisation or trade union. Union politicians, however, tend to have larger appetites for power, positions and material comforts, drawing on ethnicity, religion, political party affiliations or sympathies, friends in all manner of high places, half-truths, conflict situations and rationalisation of improbables.

Labour Unity lies in Unity of Purpose, that is ameliorating workers plight, a constant goal and which expending increasing union assets on the creation of multiple labour centres and occupying positions within them have not been remarkably successful at doing since 1945. Such political positions are transient and personal, while successful negotiation of national minimum wage, for example, affects millions of workers and millions of others, and making leadership collective. Labour Unity is not having unanimous views on everything. That is not even possible given differences in innate intellect, formal education, experience and other competencies. Indeed dissent and opposing views sharpen the intellect and increase the number of most cost-effective methods, which enrich experience and outcomes.

Labour Unity is very easily achieved when all comply with rules and procedures, these crucial boundaries, which protect you from yourself because of your certain uncontrollable appetites, and protect you from others because of their own potentially boundaries-subverting appetites. No society, no organisation, no labour organisation depends on self-control alone. I look forward to increased Labour Unity.
–– Prof. Otobo is of the Industrial Relations & Personnel Management Department, University of Lagos.