IN PRAISE OF NEW LABOUR UNITY

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Guest Columnist: ISSA AREMU

The reconciliation between NLC and ULC is good for trade unionism, writes Issa Aremu

There is a Yoruba saying that “A ki dupe ara eni”(meaning self praise is not praise worthy). And that’s precisely why this singular self praise is significant! As an active participant in the five-year long “strain within the ranks of Organized Labour in Nigeria” I bear witness that the renewed unity is in the fullest of time and commendable! Better late! NLC’s Press Release aptly sums up the imperative and desirability of the new united labour movement: “The leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the United Labour Congress wish to announce to the world that the strain within the ranks of Organized Labour in Nigeria has been resolved. The Nigeria Labour Congress led by Comrade Ayuba Wabba, mni has Fully Reconciled with the United Labour Congress (ULC) led by Comrade Joe Ajaero. Nigerians would recall that after the conduct of leadership election in the NLC at the 10th National Delegates Conference in 2015, some misunderstanding arose between some affiliates of Congress. Efforts by labour veterans such as the pioneer President of the NLC, Comrade Hassan Sunmonu and a former President of the NLC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole to resolve the issue were inconclusive. The outcome of this quiet but sustained effort at making the peace is the fruit of the reconciliation that we are celebrating today has been resolved.

Unity is the cardinal principle of trade unionism. This has been a recurring theme in my written reflections on “Labour and Trade Unions” as well as active praxis in the past four decades. As the General Secretary of National Union of Textile, Garment Textile Union (NUTGTWN ) between March 10, 2000 – March 30, 2020, I bear witness that a cohesive indivisible movement is an indispensable precondition for the Union’s acknowledged achievements in wage improvements, defense of workers’ rights and advocacy for industrial renewal over the past four decades. Indeed the motto of textile union is “Unity, Justice and Diligence”. No motto of any union resonates without alluding to unity first. Unity ultimately builds unions while disunity imperils and undermines its capacity for collective action. Unity does not preclude diversity and multiplicity of unions. Affiliate unions are as many as the industries and workplaces. Unity means an aggregation of this diversity into a collective voice to improve on the welfare of members. NLC marked 40th anniversary of the present structure/formation in 2018. As a pioneer Head Economics/Research Department of NLC ( 1987 – 1989), two terms elected Vice President, Nigeria NLC, 2007 – 2015 and many years CWC and NEC member of NLC, I bear witness that the landmark negotiated five national minimum wages since 1981(among many other achievements!) are dividends of a United labour movement. It is refreshing that the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the United Labour Congress had agreed to close ranks under a new indivisible NLC, following the rift after the controversial 11th Delegates Conference of 2015. It’s gratifying to note that “the leadership and structures of the United Labour Congress have been reintegrated into the Nigeria Labour Congress” to the satisfaction of both parties. More than ever organized labour has moral authority to pronounce on organizational anomie that has afflicted Nigeria’s ruling class.

The importance of a strong organized labour movement not just for the welfare of worker-members but for the growth of the enterprises/workplaces and development of the nation cannot be overstated. Only united labour creates wealth unhindered. It’s has always been a long and challenging road to union formation and union unity in Nigeria. But once comrades demonstrated the will, there would always be ways leading to unity through shared positions with shared burdens and responsibilities. The NLC itself emerged out of the controversial unique 1975-1978 state intervention and restructuring of the hitherto independent four labour centers under Murtala/Obasanjo military regime. Just as capital, employers and owners of means of production are concentrating power and efforts aimed at maximizing profits so also workers and their unions have seen the urgent need to form national and international organizations aimed at maximizing labour’s welfare and curtail exploitation under capitalism. To this end under British colonialism, the first generation of unionists saw the need not only to form trade based/house unions but also central national labour organizations that could confront colonial capital with its exploitation and oppressions. The first Nigeria Labour Congress was formed in 1950.

The inaugural conference of the second NLC was on December 18th, 1975 at the Banquet Hall of the Lagos City Council. The second NLC was formed on the ashes of the then existing four labour centers, namely – United Labour Congress (ULC), Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Nigeria Workers’ Council (NWC) and Labour Unity Front (LUF). The independent efforts at one indivisible labour centre were propelled by great veteran unionists like Alhaji H.P. Adebola, late Wahab Goodluck, S.U. Bassey, J.O. James, N.F. Pepple, A.I. Okwese, Chief E.A.O Odeyemi, M.A. Imoudu, J.U. Akpan, R.A. Ramos, Okon Esshiett and Vincent Igwe Jack. The second NLC was inspired by the great oration delivered by late Mr. Okon Eshiett then Director of Trade Union Institute (TUI), at the burial of the late Chief J.A. Oduleye at Apena Cemetry, Lagos in 1975, known as Apena Declaration. It’s a quotable quote: “Today, we are conscious of the necessity for the workers of Nigeria to come together and to remain under one umbrella”.

I suggest that the enlarged strong NLC leadership should make that historic oration a compulsory read for all labour leaders and worker-members alike if we must sustain the historic efforts at one strong united labour centre. The efforts at one new NLC were successful until the then Federal Commissioner for Labour, under the Administration of General Murtala Mohammed, Major General Henry Adefowope announced new Federal military Government’s “Labour Policy of limited Government Intervention and Guided Democracy in Trade Union matters” which eventually led to wholesale restructuring of the then existing hundreds of the so- called house unions into national industrials union. The 2015 ruptures during the 11th Delegates conference are now part of the movement’s rich history of disagreements and agreements. But what makes the new unity significant is that it was a product of dialogue and compromises between comrades, not state imposition and court judgement (far from justice!). It was also good that veterans were allowed to rest well in deserved retirement. The new NLC is indeed in fullest of time of a global Coronavirus pandemic which has claimed 800 lives including frontline health working people. The new normal makes millions of jobs precarious. This tasks the unity of purpose of labour to struggle to defend lives and livelihoods. A united and strong labour voice is based on the strength of its members, through union organising, negotiations, campaigns and other forms of action. Nigerians therefore look to a new reenergized labour/ civil society Situation Room.

Aremu mni is former Vice President, Nigeria Labour Congress