Leonard Karshima Shilgba
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is one of the trade unions operating in many public universities in Nigeria. It comprises of voluntarily registered members who have been offered appointments in the universities which classify them as “academic staff”. According to the Trade Union Act (2005), membership of trade unions in Nigeria is voluntary, and no staff shall be victimized for refusing to join, or for pulling out of a trade union.
Public universities consist of teaching /research staff, non-teaching staff, and students (who are the reason for the employment of university staff, and who, being the primary customers of the universities, should remain the focus of the activities of the staff). No single trade union in the public universities should act in a way that suggests, or gives the impression that they are representatives of the “university system”, or champions of the “interests” of those universities.
Without any doubt, the Trade Union Act of Nigeria (2005) provides a clear definition of “Trade Union”:
Section 1(1) of the Trade Union Act defines a trade union as “any combination of workers or employers whether temporary or permanent, the purpose of which is to regulate the terms and conditions of employment of workers, whether the combination in question would or would not, apart from this Act (i.e. if this Act had not been enacted) be an unlawful combination by reason of any of its purposes being in restraint of trade, and whether its purposes do or do not include the provision of benefits for its member.”
In plain English and rational interpretation, a trade union in Nigeria is registered for the purpose of protecting the “terms and conditions of employment” of its members, which, except for the registration (with the Registrar of Trade Unions) would render such trade union ineffective in this regard. In fact, Section 2 of the Trade Union Act agrees with this position:
(1) A trade union shall not perform any act in furtherance of the purposes for which it has been formed unless it has been registered under this Act:
Provided that nothing in this subsection shall prevent a trade union from taking any steps (including the collection of subscription or dues} which may be necessary for the purpose of getting the union registered.
(2) Where a trade union registered under this Act ceases to be so registered, it shall not thereafter perform any act in furtherance of its purposes:
Provided that nothing in this subsection shall prevent a trade union from taking steps which may be necessary for the purpose of dissolving the union.
(3) If any act that is prohibited by subsection (1) or (2) of this section, is performed by a trade union, then—
(a) the union and every official thereof; and
(b) any member thereof who, not being an official thereof, took any active part in the performance of that act, shall be guilty of an offence against this Act.
Taking into account all of the above provisions of section 2 of the Trade Union Act, whether or not ASUU displays in the public its certificate of subsisting registration, we may assume that ASUU is a trade union, whose activities are regulated by the Trade Union Act, otherwise, it would be unthinkable that the Federal Government of Nigeria would allow ASUU to operate.
Having established that ASUU, as a registered trade union, exists to “regulate the terms and conditions of employment” of its members, let us consider the legal definition of the phrase “terms and conditions of employment”:
As published on Investopedia by Carol M. Kopp (2021), reviewed by Thomas J. Catalano, and fact-checked by Katrina Munichiello, “Terms of employment refer to the responsibilities and benefits associated with a job as agreed upon by an employer and employee at the time of hiring. These terms, which may also be referred to as conditions of employment, generally include job responsibilities, work hours, dress code, time off the job, and starting salary. This may also include benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, and retirement plans.” (Emphasis is mine)
There is no employment law I have seen which contradicts the definition of “terms of employment” above, and it would be interesting if ASUU could provide a contradictory definition.
The terms and conditions of employment were clearly set out in the appointment letters of each member of ASUU, and each of them provided a written letter of acceptance before commencement of work at their universities. If their employer violates those terms and conditions, as a trade union, ASUU would be doing the right thing in taking legal steps to protect those terms and conditions. I must point out that in the appointment letters issued to ASUU members at the time of hiring, no provision was made regarding by what payment means or technology their salaries would be paid; and it is trite that an employee cannot dictate to the employer those means.
Furthermore, in the appointment letters issued members of ASUU, it is not stated that any of them would be engaged or consulted in the funding of their universities. Is it not bizarre that ASUU would take seriously any university funding “agreements” it has purportedly signed with the Federal Government when ASUU has no legal standing to assume a negotiator role on behalf of federal universities, which consist of many employees who are not members of ASUU?
In fact, there are many staff of federal universities who belong to no trade union at all! How were such staff members represented when those “agreements” were forged and signed? Who negotiated and signed on behalf of this class of university employees? How binding are such “agreements” then? It is indubitable that ASUU does not have the mandate to negotiate on behalf of Nigerian public universities (federal or state). And if ASUU members think otherwise, they should provide the documented evidence.
ASUU, as a trade union was not registered as a Governing Arm or Superintendent of public universities, nor as the Chief Negotiator with the owner of federal universities for the funding of those universities in Nigeria. ASUU members may provide contrary information, and also cite provisions in the Trade Union Act of Nigeria which empower trade unions to negotiate with their employers the funding or financing of the companies, industries, or organizations they work for.
Can you imagine employees of Dangote Cement Company, for instance, negotiating with the company’s management on how many billions of naira the company must set aside every year to fund the company, and going on strike, shutting down the company for several months, and claiming they are doing this to “save the company’s operating system”? ASUU needs to re-examine its constitution side-by-side with the Trade Union Act, to see if its actions are for the advancement of the socio-economic and cultural interests of Nigeria.
One of the objects of ASUU is “protection and advancement of the socio-economic and cultural interests of the nation.” In view of this, I pose the following questions:
How does ASUU keeping Nigerian students out of their classrooms, laboratories, workshops, studios, and libraries for about one full academic session (and still counting) protect and advance the socio-economic and cultural interests of the nation?
The Nigerian economy is presently in dire straits, with a budget deficit of over N3 trillion in the current financial year (no thanks to the naira-guzzling fuel subsidy, for which more than N4 trillion has been budgeted), reduced foreign exchange earnings, and dwindling real incomes of Nigerians in both public and private sectors. Yet, the federal government has offered ASUU salary increases as follows: 35% salary increase for the professorial cadre and 23.5% for other ranks, which, for instance, would make a professor at the bar (CONUASS 7/10), whose present monthly gross salary is above N550, 000, to earn above N550, 000 x 1.35 =N742,500 as monthly gross salary. ASUU calls this “peanuts”, and, unapologetically and without empathy for their students (whom they claim to be “fighting for”), keeps the universities indefinitely shut.
How does this action by ASUU protect and advance the socio-economic and cultural interests of the nation, while students, parents, landlords, and other businesses which rely on university operations for survival are groaning, even as workers are being laid off by such businesses? Let us also consider that the Federal Government, while offering these salary increases to ASUU, has not said anything yet about her other civil servants, whose children ASUU has forced to stay out of the campuses, with withering financial consequences upon them. Where is ASUU’s respect for its published Object (viii)?
ASUU tells the Federal Government, “You must pay us for all the months we have been on strike.” In response, the Federal Government refers ASUU to section 43 (1) (a) of the Trade Dispute Act (TDA), which states as follows: “Where any worker takes part in a strike, he shall not be entitled to any wage or other remunerations for the period of the strike, and any such period shall not count for the purpose of reckoning the period of continuous employment, and all rights dependent on the continuity of employment shall be prejudicially affected accordingly.”
Yet, ASUU, which often cites its “agreements signed freely (as if ASUU doesn’t, metaphorically, put a gun to the head of the Federal Government with crushing strikes) by the Federal Government”, disrespects, ignores, and mocks this provision, and insists that the Federal Government break the law in order to pay them for work not done.
Do ASUU members give scores to students for academic work not done (Maybe some do for some untoward reasons)? ASUU is telling the Federal Government to take our taxpayers’ money and give to certain workers for service not rendered to the taxpayers. How should the Federal Government give account to us who faithfully pay our taxes; and how would such violation of the law protect and advance the socio-economic and cultural interests of the nation?
ASUU objects include “such other objects as are lawful and are not inconsistent with the spirit and practice of trade unionism. “(Emphases are mine) [Object (ix)] Is ASUU compelling the Federal Government to violate a provision of the TDA lawful? What is the “spirit of unionism”; is it disrespect for the laws of the land? The “spirit of trade unionism” (at least in Nigeria) cannot possess and incite members of trade unions to act outside the purpose of trade unions, clearly set forth in section 1(1) of the Trade Union Act of Nigeria.
The ASUU has increasingly taken up roles not defined either in the Trade Union Act of Nigeria or its constitution. Its members assume the latitude of boundless interpretations of its roles; and seeing that no strong challenges have come against them, and thereby becoming increasingly emboldened by this festival of silence, ASUU has arrogated to itself variegated responsibilities, including Dictators of funding of public universities and General Superintendents of public universities.
The Federal Government has allowed ASUU to transform itself into a chimera that has become an obstacle to the growth of Nigeria’s public university system. ASUU, having unabashedly departed from its objects, which formed part of its registration with the Registrar of Trade Unions, has become part of the problem with Nigeria’s public university system.
It has become too militarized, and this reflects in the language of ASUU members. It is time for the Federal Government to give full expression to the implementation of the laws setting up each of its universities. The governing council of each federal university is its employer, and the Federal Government must hands off and let the real governing work of federal universities begin. Until this is done, federal universities, instead of operating as centers of teaching, learning, and research, shall continue on the ruinous path as battlegrounds of trade unionism, where academic staff compete for national prominence, not on account of intellectual dexterity, but on vocal leadership of trade unions.