The upsurge of authoritarian and demigod-like attitudes of unions’ president where general secretaries are being reduced to errand boys and “yes-men” has continued to have negative and telling effects on unions and their capacity to even perform the primary function of fighting, defending and protecting workers’ interests and rights.
Former General Secretary of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, Chief Frank Ovie Kokori in this interview, shares his thoughts on this and others. Excerpts:
By Victor Ahiuma-Young
INcreasingly, labour leaders are moving far
ther from workers and many labour leaders now use trade unions as a vehicle to secure their futures rather than fight for the workers. Why is this happening?
The reason is simple, the Nigerian space and system has actually corrupted every institution in the country. That is, labour, judiciary, the media, the church, they have all been corrupted.
There is something we do in our own days. When you go for National Executive Council, NEC, meeting of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, or any industrial union, nearly everybody has his own independent opinion. He does not have to be tele-guided and there was no terrorism. These days, presidents of unions and their caucuses have become so powerful and dictatorial; anybody that challenges them loses his or her job and position.
That is not all; the other executive council members don’t have the nerves to challenge their presidents. There is much to lose these days if you lose your seat in the labour executive council, just like the political executive council. In the olden days, there is nothing for you to lose; you can even be happier and more powerful as an opposition person outside the national executive or the branch executive because you will be popular.
There were no monetary gains but these days, there are economic gains. In other words, if they remove you from the position you occupy, you lose both your position and economic gains. These days, there is so much money to gain as a member of the executive just like any political party.
So they are all afraid of losing their positions, especially in unions where the president has all the powers. In other words, the president has the knife and the bread so everybody plays to the president’s line of action to be his friend.
In those days, it was not like that. They hold their branch executives responsible for bad leadership and go to any length to remove them from the office they occupy.
Today, the private and public sector employers collaborate to emasculate the union by grabbing the leadership of the union and making them comfortable.
So, you see the job is so important to any family and no one wants to lose his job. It is not easy like before where when you lose your job today, tomorrow you will pick another one. But because of the present economic situation, people don’t revolt against their leaders anymore.
How can workers reclaim the union from these self-seeking labour leaders?
The solution is enlightenment. It is the workers who will galvanize the masses. Take for instance, my contributions in the labour movement have made people to respect me and whenever I speak they hear me. So, I urge unionists to still speak the truth irrespective of what they stand to lose.
But the problem is that every institution in Nigeria thrives on corruption; even the judiciary which is the last hope of the masses has become a cash-and-carry institution. So if the pinnacle of temple of justice is like that, what do you think of other institutions?
What role has globalisation played in this pathetic situation of Nigerian trade unions?
Globalisation which is supposed to be an advantage to us has become a disadvantage. We are now in a situation where unionism is losing relevance and losing power as a result of globalisation.
In those days, the blue collar workers were very powerful. NUPENG, through people like us radicalised PENGASSAN. When you read my book, you will see the great union struggle NUPENG started. I don’t see that kind of struggle today. What I now see, is the decline of labour unions as a result of globalisation. In those days, labour was life, labour was everything and people were proud to be unionists. People were proud to be leaders of trade unions.
But all that is different now because the unions are declining with digitalisation of the work place. Now, IT is actually reducing the power of labour. In those days, workers so cherished their meetings, that when you call a meeting of Chevron workers by 2 pm, by 1:30 pm everybody is already seated. No management or managing director will see his workers going out and shout at them.
He won’t dare to stop them especially when he sees some of us coming from the secretariat and driving into the company’s premises. But these days, the workers are so afraid because their union leaders have so much reduced their powers because of some extraneous forces that have compromised them.
They cannot even talk to their management the way it is. So the labour centres were made powerful by strong industrial unions. But today, the trade unions are weak and that is why ASUU, NUT, and civil service unions can go on strike for weeks, even months and nobody listens. Why it is that NUPENG was so effective in those days?
It is because the founders of the union made so much sacrifices. My sacrifice for NUPENG cannot be quantified. I have fought for workers in Shell to get good retirement benefits, maternity leave, leave bonus, good salaries, yet my salary in NUPENG was very poor. I negotiated salaries for drivers on the rig, in the operational area in Warri with overtime. At that time, drivers were earning more than N50,000, but my salary was about N30,000. Even at that, I was not bothered because I see NUPENG as my life.
There were certain things I gained which they did not. Today anytime I move out, people recognise and appreciate me. When I go to the airport, people respect me and I appreciate these more than monetary gains. So, there is no way you can build an organization without sacrifice and honour.
That is why NUPENG workers, particularly the tanker drivers hold me in high esteem. When I was the secretary of NUPENG, the workers in NNPC were earning salaries of workers with the federal ministry. It was NUPENG effort that made the federal government to change the salary structure and today the workers in NNPC are paid the same salary with their counterparts in Shell and Chevron.
Also, the workers in the Petroleum Training Institute (PTI) were earning salaries of university lecturers and staff. NUPENG fought a 12-year battle to ensure that the PTI workers earn the same salary with workers in Chevron. These were some of the things we did in those days.
Then government and employers could not buy the unions but today all that have changed. Today casualisation and contract staffing are the effects of compromise by trade unions and this has brought about unfair labour practices in the country.
What is your take on the rising youth unemployment in Nigeria?
In our own days, we had some basic things we enjoyed like free education. When you graduate, there is job waiting for you but today, there are no social security, no social amenities, no jobs. So there are so many temptations because the government itself does not care for the youth and that is why we have all these problems we are facing today.
If our resources is spent on education, social security, health, everybody will know where the money is going but what you see is security vote — a situation where a governor will be given N2 billion as security vote. This he will spend on his family and close friends while the masses go hungry.
What type of country is this? Those of us here are living in silence; we are elder statesmen who have made our contributions. I cannot go and revolt now at my age. I cannot go and organise any revolution. Everybody needs to be committed in this fight. The newspapers, the television, the judiciary and every stakeholder have to be committed in making Nigeria a better place to live.