By Victor Ahiuma-Young
â€œUnions without unionism: Towards trade union relevance In Nigeriaâ€™s industrial relations system and polityâ€, was theme of an inaugural Lecture delivered recently, Professor Funmi Adewunmi, at Crawford University, Ota, Ogun State, where the erudite scholar chronicled the emergence of trade unions and unionism, the relevance of unionism in the present day reality and the challenges facing trade unionism of today.
Professor Adewunmi, who is also the Dean, College of Business and Social Sciences of the institution, in his summation, declared that a labour summit should be convened by members of the labour movement to discuss the plight of the working people in Nigeria with a view to drawing up a pan-working class agenda to secure a fair deal for the masses of the Nigerian people.
According to the University don, in spite of sustained hostility from employers, state repression, passive membership and indifference of the consuming public, trade unions remain an enduring institution in the employment relationship.
He said: â€œA major challenge to the capacity of unions to live up to membersâ€™ aspirations and remain relevant is the ascendancy of market forces as the determinant of macro-economic development.This in itself is a fall-out of the emergence of a unipolar world dominated by American and Western interests as well as the globalization of economic relations as dictated by the interests of international finance capital.
The practical implication of this is that unions are operating in a hostile terrain where relations are guided by the interests of employers, irrespective of the feelings of workers.Â The extent to which this will go, depend on the response of the unions, which again depends on the quality and commitment of the leadership as well as the vigilance of the followership.
It is against this background that we shall consider a few options. In spite of the disenchantment of the rank-and-file members with the performance of their leaders, they still believe that the union has a role to play in the employer-employee relationship. If workers still find the union very relevant to their needs, efforts should be geared towards making them more responsive.
The major issue then is; â€œIf workers create collective organizations in which they invest an area of control over their own action; how can they ensure that this control is used in their own collective interests rather than to serve the ends of those in charge of the union organization, or even some external interest?. In other words, how do members ensure that their interests are well protected through the union machinery and this is a crucial issue if the unions are to remain relevant in the years ahead?â€
â€œThere is the need to take the unions back to the members. This is necessary for any membership organization, as the members constitute the strength. Union programmes and strategies should be jointly determined by the members and leaders and should not just be the imposition of the leaders, no matter how altruistic.
A membership organisation such as the trade union thrives on internal democracy, with popular consultation and participation in the affairs of the union, constituting major components. Once private employers and governments are aware that the members are actively involved in union matters and that union leaders are prosecuting the agenda of their members, they are not likely to treat them with levity.
Efforts at encouraging active membership involvement should start at the branch level through regular attendance at meetings and involvement in other activities of the union. Attendance at meetings, for instance, would allow members make inputs into policies and programmes of the union. Such involvem
ent will put the leaders/officials on their toes and make it difficult (not necessarily impossible) for them to mortgage the interests of members.
This also calls for a strict monitoring of the activities of union officials as well as avoiding situations in which â€œpolicies to be adopted or agreements (are) signed without any involvement of the mass of union membership or perhaps without their knowledgeâ€ . This is exactly what presently obtains in many unions, thus making it easy for union executive members to freely issue threats of industrial actions and call off same without achieving any results. Membership involvement should also take into account diversity in union membership.â€
Drawing a pan-working class agenda
According to prof Adewunmi: â€œPart of the efforts to make the unions more responsive and relevant include strengthening the union organization and make them rise up to the challenges of the time, including threats from government and employers.Â The most important way by which the union can deal with the challenges of government-employers and the workers is to become more efficient and to use means that correspond to those at the disposal of the other parties.
They must outline professional plans of actions and not limit themselves to reacting to the activities of others. In response to this, there is the need for the unions to have functional departments manned by competent hands. Effective links must be established between the various branches or units of the unions and their national headquarters.
Regular communication must be maintained between the two in order to keep members abreast of developments within their unions while their inputs/opinions should be sought especially in respect of important and volatile issues. The union secretariat should serve as a resource centre for constituent units, especially in terms of information needed to strengthen their hands when dealing with managements. Along this line, the department of organization should be staffed with dedicated organizing/field secretaries.â€
Continuing, the university do posited that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common because â€œthere can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth In other words, ideological undertones cannot be removed from trade union activities if they are to be meaningful.
In the context of a neo -colonial dependent satellite economy, in so far as the capitalist relations of production prevail, ideology would still be relevant in defining the responses and programmes of trade unions to developments not just within the employment relationship but also within the polity as a whole. Class interests dictate most government policies.
As such, workers â€œshould realise the political and cl
ass character of the various economic policies (of government and respond appropriately).Â Given the reality of the employment relationship, the trade union organization remains relevant and is the only hope of workers, nay humanity, for a decent existence.
The very circumstances that necessitated their formation in those dark days are still very much with us. Workers are still as vulnerable as ever, if not more. The relevance of trade unions especially in dependencies like Nigeria has been made more compelling by unfolding developments within the world economy. There is no greater force than the collectivity of the workers themselves that can mitigate the adverse consequences of the employment relationship and the capitalist political economy.â€
â€œIt is, therefore, necessary to re-invent trade unionism in Nigeria as a necessary step in ensuring the relevance of trade unions within the Nigerian social formation. This requires a rigorous programme of workersâ€™ education designed to develop both trade union and working class consciousness among Nigerian workers.
The content of such education programme should embrace issues affecting the employment relationship as well as broader issues of wider socio-political importance. Such an approach would allow a holistic and comprehensive view of the challenges confronting them and the complexity of the struggle for a better society.
The process of re-invention cannot be entrusted into the hands of the present leadership of the trade union movement in Nigeria. The larger labour movement must drive the process. This should be done out of enlightened self-interest at least.
This is because the trade unions are the â€œorganizing centres of the working class. A virile labour movement may make up for the shortcomings and inadequacies of the trade union movement and possibly save the trade unions from themselves and their official leaders.
Finally, a labour summit should be convened by members of the labour movement to discuss the plight of the working people in Nigeria today and this should be with a view to drawing up a pan-working class agenda to secure a fair deal for the masses of the Nigerian people. We should take this as the beginning of the process of re-birth of the Nigerian Trade Union Movement. The trade union movement remains the only hope of the working people and all those who live on non-exploitative income.â€