A Worsening Legislative Workers’ Strike in the Week of Budget Presentation

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The 2019 Appropriation Bill was presented last Wednesday to a joint sitting of the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari in a week Characterised by the lingering warning strike embarked upon by workers at the federal legislature, report Deji Elumoye and Shola Oyeyipo

For some time now, the atmosphere at the National Assembly in Abuja appears charged with the restiveness of the workers, who seize every opportunity to discuss their predicament in the hands of the management of the legislature. Aggrieved workers usually gather in groups at the Assembly lobby and other places to discuss in hushed tones the issue of their unpaid salaries and outstanding allowances as well as the management’s failure to address these issues.

The workers eventually began a four-day warning strike last Tuesday to drive home their point. Before this, however, two weeks ago, the workers did picket the National Assembly for some days.

In a very effective picketing of the National Assembly, the workers did not only down tools, they equally prevented lawmakers from accessing the legislative chambers. Their grouse against the management was well specified. They demanded a review of their condition of service, particularly payment of their Consolidated Salary Structure (CONLESS), which had been approved since 2010 but which they have only been paid paltry 28 per cent.

They also demanded the release of promotions for worker, ending issue of ‘no vacancy,’ to allow people due for retirement go and new workers employed. The protest started gradually with workers carrying placards with various inscriptions, demanding for the immediate release of their salaries and vowing not to allow legislative functions to be carried out that Tuesday. “No alert, no sitting’ was their sing song.

The protesting workers chanted anti-Clerk of the National Assembly songs and bandied placards with inscriptions such as: ‘Executive, fund National Assembly now’; ‘Omolori Must Go’; ‘CONLESS Has Been Approved Since 2010’; ‘Promotion is our right’; ‘Say No to Consultancy’; ‘No Welfare Incentives for staff since 18 years now’; ‘We Need Alert’; Release Our Promotion Letters Now’; and Contract Inflation is a Crime’.

PASAN chairman, Comrade Bature Musa, said the intention of the protesting workers was not to have a face-off with the lawmakers. Though he said lawmakers would not be prevented from accessing the red and the green chambers, when they arrive, however, as the protest gathered momentum, protesting workers, who were increasing in number blocked the entrances of the two chambers of the National Assembly and effectively prevented legislative activities that Tuesday.

The Clerk to the National Assembly (CNA), Mr. Mohammed Sani-Omolori, blamed the picketing of the National Assembly by members of the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN) on the non-release of the 2018 budget.

Omolori, who spoke with newsmen while the picketing was on, said it was not in the powers of the legislative arm to facilitate the payment the workers were agitating for, saying, “I still insist that they need to be a bit patient with the system. Like I said in my reply to them, in an unprecedented manner, the presiding officers acceded, without hesitation to their requests for this increment. It was bargained with them and they captured it in the budget.

“So, how is it in their (lawmakers) powers, if the money is not released? And in any case, the reality on the ground is that it is not only the National Assembly that is suffering from non-release of funds. That is the reality of the Nigerian situation. So, I think we all have to be patient.

“It is a matter that has been on for some time now and we have tried to explain to them; we approved salary increase for them, which was captured in 2018 budget but as it is today, it is common knowledge that the level of implementation of the 2018 budget, especially the new addition to the National Assembly, which has not been implemented – that is where we had hoped that the addition would be paid. So, to the extent that the money has not been released, there is no way we can make the payment.

“We told them it is wrong and we tried to prevail on them to try to see through things in the correct way. As a matter of fact, I wrote a letter to them and I also had series of formal and informal consultations with their leadership up till yesterday (Monday) to make them back out of what is clearly an act that is not in tune with their own rules.”

The Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Abdulrazak Namdas, also said though workers’ grievance is not against the legislators and as such, appealed to them to see reasons why their strike action was not the best option particularly, as there were efforts to table their issues before both chambers for speedy consideration.

Obviously, workers were not pacified. Few days after their first picketing they issued another statement that legislative activities would again be paralysed the following week if their demands were not met at the resumption of plenary Tuesday.

Bature told newsmen that workers were ready to ground legislative businesses at the National Assembly between Monday, December 17 and Thursday, December 20, if their demands were not met.

The implication was that it was capable of disrupting the presentation of the 2019 budget by President Buhari since that was billed to take place on Wednesday, December 19.

In the midst of the proposed strike, however, the workers still acknowledged efforts by the leadership of the National Assembly to address their needs, because Bature had noted that “the leadership of national body of PASAN as well as zonal leadership and members of the two chapters that make up FCT will still go ahead with industrial actions if our demands are not met as promised.

“It is based on assurances by political leadership that the union in its emergency congress held last Wednesday, December 5, resolved to suspend the picketing for two days as a mark of respect for the Senate President and Speaker of the House.

“The picketing and pending strike action is predicated on Consolidated Salary Structure, which was approved for NASS staff since July 2010 and only 28 per cent was approved till date. Also the condition of service and promotion, conversion and upgrading are in the kitty for negotiations. We have tabled the issue of training for legislative staff as this is pivotal if our democracy must advance,” he said.

Efforts by National Assembly leadership to avert the proposed industrial action by urging them to reconsider their stand and let the engagement continue for a quick resolution failed.

Bature told THISDAY that the strike action would go on as proposed saying no member of the National Assembly leadership had called to prevail on them not to proceed on the strike.

“I have not been contacted by anybody as far as the leadership is concerned, so the strike will still continue as planned.”

He however assured Nigerians that unlike the December 4 picketing, where they prevented lawmakers from accessing the legislative chambers, the lawmakers would have access to the chambers. He also affirmed that workers had already been mobilised to stay off duty between December 17 and 20.

On whether or not the strike would affect the proposed presentation of the 2019 budget, Bature had noted that, “It is the members of PASAN, who are not working. Our members will not be around to work. They will not work for the legislators and they will not work for the management, and legislators can come. And I am sure the President is not coming to lay the budget before staff, he is coming to lay the budget before the legislators.

“It may partly affect budget presentation, because some of our workers who carry the maze may not be readily available to do that and if that happens, that may impact their sitting arrangements. Sitting will be illegitimate as far as we are concerned, so, invariably it will affect their activities definitely. Unless if those staff that are the Sergeants-at-Arm want to come.”

True to their words, PASAN, Monday, December 17, morning, made good their threat to embark on strike to press home their demands for payment of their outstanding salaries.

Though Namdas told THISDAY that efforts were on to appeal to workers not to embark on industrial action that seemed to have yielded no result as workers blocked the main entrance to the National Assembly that morning.

Also, contrary to Bature’s promise that the industrial action would not prevent workers who wish to work from working, aggrieved members mounted road block at the gate preventing their colleagues from gaining access to the National Assembly complex.

Thus, the strike was equally effective last Tuesday, as only 41 members of the House of Representatives were present to adopt a motion to receive President Muhammadu Buhari to present the 2019 budget before a joint session of the National Assembly on Wednesday, December 19.

The lawmakers trickled into the House of Representatives chambers at exactly 12:09pm Tuesday after the industrial action by workers almost paralysed legislative activities for second time.

The plenary was presided over by the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Lasun Yusuf, and the motion moved by the Leader, House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, was unanimously adopted by lawmakers irrespective of party affiliation. That paved the way for President Buhari to present the 2019 appropriation bill before a joint session of the National Assembly the following day.

Apparently to prevent the aggrieved workers from causing any crisis, all entrances leading to the complex were taken over by men of the Nigeria Police and the Department of State Security (DSS), who manned the gates and thoroughly screened those coming in on Wednesday, when President Buhari presented the budget.

But last Thursday, which was the last day of the warning strike, National Assembly workers said they deliberately suspended their four-day warning strike Wednesday to allow Buhari present the 2019 budget.

Bature said workers resolved that the budget was a national issue, which supersedes the interest of PASAN members.

So, President Buhari eventually presented the N8.8trn budget for 2019 to a joint session of the National Assembly on Wednesday.

But in reviewing what transpired during the week, workers who converged on the main entrance to the National Assembly complex Thursday morning were excited that their industrial action had been successful, noting that both chambers of the National Assembly had taken actions to address the situation.

Following the sustained industrial action by legislative workers and the need to address the grievances of workers which nearly crippled legislative activities during the week, the House of Representatives Thursday received a report of its Committee on Finance on the need to address the demand of the agitating workers.

The Chairman, House Committee on Finance, Hon. Babangida Ibrahim, laid the report tagged ‘Need to Ensure Implementation of the National Assembly Budget Particularly, on Staff Matters’ during Thursday’s plenary.

According to Bature, “As you will recall, the National Assembly chapter of the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria and its sister chapter in the Commission had embarked on the four-day warning strike commencing from Monday, 17th December, 2018.

“Today being December 20, 2018 marks the end of the warning strike,” adding that some of the demands are “28 per cent increment in the Consolidated Legislative Salary Structure (CONLESS); as a result of discussions with the management, they have offered that implementation of the increase will commence from January 2019 and promised to source for the arrears and pay in installments.”

“Review of the condition of service: the management has confirmed that both houses of the National Assembly have passed the document and the process of harmonisation has commenced. They promised that the conditions of service would be passed as soon as the house can sit.

“Release of promotions: we engaged management vigorously and agreed that the outstanding letters will be released as soon as work resumes.

Also, as regards the issue of no vacancy, a committee was set up to work with the union to identify available vacancies before the end of the year 2018.

“On the constitution of the commission, it is already in the public domain that the list of nominees has been sent to the President of the Federal Republic for appointment into the commission,” he said.

So, as it stands, even where the workers were unable to receive their entitlements this December as they wish, it is clear that the money would be paid to them any time soon and this is partly due to their resilience is demanding for what is due to them.

Meanwhile, the National Industrial Court has restrained the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria, PASAN, from engaging in acts that may lead to the closure of the National Assembly.

Justice Sanusi Kado, who gave the order in Abuja, also restrained the leadership and members of the Parliamentary Staff Association from embarking on total strike action.

Saraki and Dogara had dragged the PASAN members to the National Industrial Court seeking an order to restrain the workers from closing down the National Assembly. The two leaders in their motion exparte filed on December 18, sought the order of the court to restrain PASAN members from proceeding on strike, pending the determination of the motion on notice before it.

A lawyer in the office of the Senate President, Mr. Sambo Ndahi deposed to an affidavit in support of the motion on notice. The motion on notice sought for “an order of interim injunction restraining all the defendants/respondents, particularly their agents, provides, servants, however called from taking steps to proceed or proceeding on strike, pending the determination of the motion.

“An interim injunction restraining PASAN, their agents, privies, servants from giving directives to their members to proceed or proceeding on strike.”

After reading the affidavit and the submission of the counsel to the defendants, A.P Ameh, Justice Kado, in his “order of interim injunction”, on suit: NICN/ABJ/360/2018, directed the leadership of PASAN and their agents to refrain from proceeding on strike.

The judge also warned the striking workers against embarking on any action that could lead to the closure of the National Assembly complex. He, however, cautioned the management of the National Assembly against embarking on any action that could disrupt the ongoing negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute.

Justice Kado consequently warned the PASAN leadership against embarking on any action that could lead to a shutdown of the National Assembly complex. The order further restrained PASAN leadership against blocking access to the gate leading to National Assembly complex or prevent their members, who desire to perform their lawful duties from doing so.