RECENTLY, Kolagbodi Memorial Foundation , KMF held it 17th annual memorial lecture in Lagos. It was a gathering of who is who in the labour movement. Students were not left out. All were there to hear the Secretary General  of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity , OATUU, Owei Lakemfa speak on “ A centenary of Trade Unionism in Nigeria and the Challenges of International Trends”.
Owei Lakemfa, the OATUU scribe, was a student activist, former Acting General secretary of Nigeria Labour Congress and the pioneer Labour Editor of Vanguard .
The KMF annual lecture has been sponsored solely by Friedrich Ebert Stifftung for 17 years.
This edition of Labour Vanguard presents excerpts from his paper which can be described as a well documented history of the Nigerian labour movement.

By Funmi Komolafe

THE Secretary General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity, Owei Lakemfa took his audience down memory lane when he spoke of how the trade unions evolved, the anti – union posture of the colonialists, alliance with politicians and how the militant union leaders and workers influenced the political destiny of Nigeria.

He reminded all of the 1945 general strike which was to agitate for a cost of living allowance to “cushion the inflation set off by the Second World War” which began on June 1945 and lasted 45 days.
Lakemfa made the point that the labour movement has long been in the struggle for improved living standards for all Nigerians.

Students movement

It was therefore no surprise that trade unions under the auspices of the Nigeria Labour Congress and working with others in the students movement and other focused non- governmental organisations led the struggle against the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, by the military government of General Babangida.

SAP itself was introduced to developing countries including Nigeria by the Bretton Woods organisations ; the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. His paper analysed extensively  the impact of the policies of these institutions on African countries and the role of the trade unions.

Africans getting poorer
Lakemfa made a critical reivew of the economic policies of West which he stated, “includes cuts in social spending, withdrawal of subsidies, trade liberalization, currency devaluation, enthronement of the private sector as the so called engine room of the economy ,less government and placement of profit over human lives. Like in Ghana, the so called growth has no positive effect on the lives of the people; the prosperity of the country does not translate to more jobs, better and wider social protection. In all these, the people are mere figures, just objects with no life of their own”.

The situation in Ghana he noted is typical of what it is in many African countries. He noted that although Ghana in about a decade has recorded a growth rate of over seven per cent with high Foreign Direct Investment , FDI, the people of Ghana are getting poorer by the day.

How? He explained, “ In my first eight months in Ghana, the cost of petrol (PMS) was increased at least six times making it virtually impossible for manufacturers and the people to make any long term planning or projections. This is more so when transportation is primarily by road with no mass transit options. Within the same period, the Ghana Cedi which was GHC 1.85 to the Dollar, has climbed to GHC2.17. So there is a marked currency devaluation in Ghana. I also noticed, that the fastest growing sector in the country is the Forex Bureau!

On September 25, 2013, electricity tariff was increased by 78.9 per cent, and water by 52 per cent. When the people protested, the Information Minister explained that the increases were done because the government does not want to continue subsidizing the rich. In a globalised world where electricity is basic for existence and development and should therefore be available, accessible and affordable, an African minister says it is for the rich only! Water is basic for sanitation and good health, it is also for the rich!”.

Owei Lakemfa
Owei Lakemfa

Mr. Lakemfa said trade  unions have basic responsibilities to workers which include:
– Workers right to unionize which is being observed in the breach in a number of cases. If the NLC can make institutions like First Bank, AIRTEL and Union Bank to recognize and respect workers basic rights, then it can get others to do same. There should be no business without union business.

Enforcing the right to Collective Bargaining and ensuring that Collective Agreements are implemented. If this is not done, the whole concept of Social Dialogue would be compromised.

Combating Child labour and Discrimination at the work place whether on the basis of gender, health status or for whatever reasons etc.

The role of the unionist
For the trade unionist, OATUU scribe  suggested  ” *The world is ruled by ideas while vision propels institutions; therefore, any trade unionist with no ideas or vision, is a danger to the Labour Movement.

Trade unions cannot just disagree with government or protest against given policies; they must posit an alternative thought process or development agenda. They should popularize their alternative and struggle for its implementation.

*Trade unionism is a call; the unionist must choose who to serve for he cannot serve the worker and the employer equally.

While in the overall interest of the work place, the trade unionist must work with employers to promote industrial peace and harmony, he must never forget that workers and employers have fundamentally divergent interests. .

*Principles and values rule the Labour Movement; to hold a leadership position, is service. A trade unionist with no commitment to the cause of the working class is like a one-armed bandit, and obviously, the trade union is not the place for him.

For me, a labour leader without moral authority, is like a carpenter passing off as a surgeon. Let the labour leader be said to be stubborn or uncompromising, but never that he is a sellout, or be on the pay role of any government or employer.

Trade unionism is a collective, it is basically about unity and solidarity, therefore, unions should build a culture of collective leadership. They should not sink into the morass of individualism or the cult of a strong leader as world politics has become. They need to deepen internal democracy which should include respect for union constitution and rules, holding regular organ meetings, conferences, elections and respecting terms in office as constitutionally stipulated.

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.