The Return of NLC

The Return of NLC

The unresolved challenges of cash and fuel shortages, the tainted electoral process, and the planned removal of fuel subsidy may be the vehicle being banked upon by the new leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress to return the name of the union into the consciousness of Nigerians, reports Festus Akanbi 

In what many observers described as a mission largely driven by the quest to test the waters, the new leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) last week gave a seven-day warning strike to the federal government.

Its long list of grievances includes the “surreptitious increase in electricity tariff without notice and improvement in the quality of service.” 

Also on the list is the twin problem of the country’s current Naira and fuel scarcity.

The union’s position is contained in a communiqué issued at the end of the congress’ Central Working Committee (CWC) meeting held last week. It was jointly signed by its president, Joe Ajaero, and its General Secretary, Emmanuel Ugboaja, on Tuesday.

According to the statement, the three major issues deliberated were the presidential/National Assembly elections; scarcity of petrol, and the redesigning of the naira notes and its aftermath.

“Accordingly, CWC resolved to give the government seven working days from Tuesday, March 14, to make Naira notes available to the people, or the congress would be compelled to direct its members to withdraw their services.

“Similarly, the CWC-in-session, after reviewing the fuel supply situation in the country and the arbitrary attendant costs at filling stations, expressed dismay at the disregard of the NNPC and Government. It accordingly resolved to ask the NNPC/ FGN to normalise the fuel supply situation,” the statement said.

Last month, the NLC, at its 13th Quadrennial National Delegates Conference in Abuja, settled for a consensus candidate in the person of Ajaero, who succeeded Comrade Ayuba Wabba. 

Wabba, who served out two terms of four years each, became NLC president in 2015 and recently bowed out of office as president of the apex labour union in the country. His tenure was largely characterised by docility and compromise.

Although recent developments in the nation’s financial sector pointed to a gradual resolution of the current naira scarcity issue, there are concerns that last week’s decision of the Central Bank to re-legitimise old naira notes openly may not be sufficient to avert the impending labour strike. 

Observers also believe that neither the issue of fuel scarcity, which has been with us for months, nor the poor handling of the presidential and the National Assembly elections could be resolved within seven days.

Show of Force

Analysts believe the latest strike notice by the NLC is intended to serve purposes other than compel President Muhammadu Buhari’s outgoing government to resolve the cash and fuel crises. It is believed in certain quarters that the new leadership might be rebuilding its militant image as opposed to the use of negotiation and media campaigns during the period of the immediate past leadership.

Analysts in the labour sector pointed out that, given President-elect, Bola Tinubu’s pledge to end the contentious fuel subsidy when his administration takes office, the planned seven-day notice could be interpreted as a show of force by the new leadership of organised labour. 

“The labour union’s position on removing the fuel subsidy is not in doubt. Nothing will stop the NLC from calling Nigerian workers out on a nationwide strike as soon as the new administration settles in,” a Lagos-based analyst told our correspondent.

He believed the anticipated industrial action would be one of the measures the new leadership would like to stamp its authority in the Nigerian space.

Fighting for the Nigerian Workers

Shortly after his emergence as the new NLC President, Ajaero had warned employers of labour of the resolve of its leadership to tackle those infringing the rights of the Nigerian workers. Having expressed zero tolerance for issues like casualisation, staff outsourcing, and other unfavourable labour policies in public and private organisations, one is not surprised that Ajaero and his committee might be planning to test their might by confronting the government over some unpopular issues.  

According to NLC and Trade Union Congress (TUC) representatives, the federal government has not done enough to bring the situation under control. Indeed, labour leaders in the country had alleged that multinationals regularly import ‘expatriates’ to take full-time employment, leaving qualified Nigerians as ‘casuals or contract’ workers with no legal status or employment benefit.

Ajaero stated this during a recent familiarisation visit to labour unions in Lagos and Ogun states, where he lamented the challenges of outsourcing, casualisation, and contract staffing of workers. 

He promised to bring back the anti-casualisation committee of the NLC, stating that workers should not be at the receiving end of the flawed system. He also noted a new world of work where contract staffers could be unionised. He urged the unions to pencil down defaulting companies, which disallowed workers to be unionised, stressing the need to create a Private Sector Negotiating Council (PSNC).

Ajaero said that congress is also ready to fight anti-labour governors for neglecting their welfare.

“This is not an era where any governor will insult us. Any governor or anybody that wants to punish workers should be ready for war because we will not allow it. We are out for serious business. All inhuman working conditions or anti-labour activities, especially from the governors, will no longer be acceptable.

“Many organisations have been destroyed as a result of anti-labour policies. Workers are always at the receiving end. Workers create wealth, and it is time for us to enjoy it,” he stated.

Ajaero said the congress is ready to engage the incoming government. He said the workers are ready to be involved in governance.

“We will engage any government to come up, and the era of sitting down and looking is over. No time for patience or laziness again. We are ready to take our rightful place, which is why we will engage any government that takes over,” he said.

Change of Approach

According to Executive Vice Chairman of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, Prof Tunji Olaopa, Ajaero’s small stature is inversely proportional to the immense strength he brings to the able defence of matters affecting workers’ conditions and welfare. 

Olaopa, a professor of public policy, said that Ajaero demonstrates the new generation essence of a self-effacing, civilised, humane, humble, and cosmopolitan leader, the type that Nigeria’s democratic experiment needs at a time when it becomes imperative that the Nigerian state must compellingly self-discover and redirect her development agenda.

He maintains that it becomes imperative to take seriously Ajaero’s commencement speech and the ideological signature that connects his labour objective with the plights of Nigerians. He said, “Ajaero’s insistence on reconnecting Nigerians to the core objectives of labour movements signals to me the willingness of this new leadership to take on the debilitations of elite bargains that disconnect Nigerians from the benefits of, say, developmental democracy that the elite could achieve for them.”

Olaopa maintained that If Ajaero could subvert this elite bargain and bet on development, he would have procured a very solid legacy that would write his name and that of the NLC in the annals of Nigerian history. 

The professor believed that “Ajaero’s determination to “reconnect more strongly to build greater solidarities with the people of Nigeria’” contains a huge historical content that locates him already in the trajectory of the labour unions’ role in Nigeria’s fight for independence and democratic governance. From the Nigerian Civil Service Union to the Railway Workers Union, trade unions were forceful in their nationalistic contentions for Nigeria’s freedom.”

But are Ajaero and his colleagues in the labour movement aware of the bloody nature of the fight they are about to start? Analysts said the struggle against the establishment would be long and dreary. The Imo State government has already described the recent strike called by the labour in the state as a proxy war by the new labour leader. 

The state claims to have classified information indicating that the President of NLC, Comrade Joe Ajaero, is in a secret political agreement with some collaborators to use his office to actualise the governorship ambition of his relative.

The NLC was formally constituted as the country’s only national federation of trade unions in 1978. Before then, four labour centres existed. These are Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC). The emergence of the NLC ended decades of rivalry and animosity involving the four centres and unions affiliated with them. The unions, numbering over 1,000, were also restructured into 42 industrial unions. Previous NLC presidents included Wahab Goodluck (1978); Hassan Sunmonu (1979); Ali Chiroma (1984); Paschal Bafyau (1988); Adams Oshiomhole (1999); Abdulwaheed Omar (2007-2011); Ayuba Wabba (2015-2023).

Whether the NLC eventually activates the strike or not, both the outgoing administration and the incoming ones have certainly got the message that the current NLC leadership will have to be courted and carried along in the scheme of things for the sake of industrial harmony. 

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