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Thoughts of a Unionist as NLC turns forty

By Owei Lakemfa

THE Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC,  turns forty on Wednesday, February 28. As I ruminate over this, I came to a painful realisation; the pinnacle  it attained, was under Alhaji Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu  its founding President. Since then, the  quality of Congress leadership seems to diminish with each succeeding administration including the two I served in; this is to the extent that  today,  forty years later, the difference in leadership quality is like  viewing a mountain top from the valley.

My thoughts on this occasion, are not different from those I expressed at the Dr. Kolagbodi Memorial Lecture I delivered on November 7, 2013.


My position is that 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. Such a unionist is  an unguided missile; a fake drug merchant who will ultimately harm those he professes to serve.  Also, trade unions cannot just disagree with government or protest against given policies; they must posit an alternative.

To me, trade unionism is a call; the unionist must choose who to serve for he cannot serve the worker and the employer (including government) equally. He must always be loyal to the worker.

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. The primary interest of the worker is to sell his physical  and mental labour as high a price as is possible, while the basic interest of the employer is to make as much profit as possible even if as in most  cases, he has to undercut labour.

I hold that principles and values should rule the Labour Movement; to hold a leadership position, is service. A labour leader with no commitment to the cause of the Working Class is no better than a one-armed bandit, and obviously, the trade union is not the place for him.

My tutelage under unionists like Comrade Wahab Goodluck and Dr. Lasisi Osunde taught me that a  unionist must have moral authority. Mobutu Seseseko, former life President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC,  was one of the richest men in the world. But he died unsung in Rabat, Morocco, and even his corpse could not be interred   in the country he ruled for decades. In contrast, Mother Theresa was not wealthy, but when she died, the world mourned her. There was even a tussle between countries in Europe and Asia over who should have the honour of  burying  her.

Again, take Nelson Mandela; his power was  not based on  material wealth, but his moral authority. In the Movement, we also had a legend, Michael Imoudu who despite having led Nigerian workers in one form or another from 1940 to 1976,   could not afford to build a house; his only house in  the  village, was built by the Nigeria Union Of Railwaymen.

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 sell-out, or is on the payroll of any government or employer. That was why when I was a labour leader, I could hold my head high, and look any employer or anybody in   government, straight in the eye without blinking. For me, there was no doubt who my principals were  or to whom I owed my loyalty.

Trade unionism is a collective, it is basically about unity and solidarity, therefore, the  culture of collective leadership should be a given. Unionists have  no basis  sinking  into the  morass of individualism or the cult of a strong leader.

Trade unionism is  voluntary and intrinsically democratic, therefore, unions  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. They must be transparent and accountable  to the members.  In all cases, members, not labour leaders,  should have supreme authority over unions.

Unions must ensure workers’ right to unionise which is being observed in the breach  in a number of cases. There should be no business without union business. They need to enforce  the right to Collective Bargaining and ensure that Collective Agreements are implemented. If this is not done, the whole concept of Social Dialogue is compromised.

They need to combat Child Labour  and Discrimination at the work place whether on the basis of gender, health  status or   for whatever reason.

Trade unions are also a social movement for development, so they need to agitate for the right of all Nigerians to education, full employment or unemployment benefits, pension and social security.

There can be no true  democracy without the democracy of the stomach, so food should be a right, as should shelter.  They should fight for Nigerians’  right to water and good sanitation so they can live healthy lives.

Today, Labour is  negotiating a new National Minimum Wage and general wage increase, but these will be meaningless if the worker spends 40 per cent or more of his income on transportation. So there should be mass, accessible and cheap transportation.

The formalisation of the Informal Economy where over 60 per cent of the working people make a living, is an urgent task. That sector needs protection and unionisation.

Nigerians have  been subjected to all manner of economic manipulations, exploitation and maladjustment, to survive, the unions need to return to the culture of organising especially as more workers lose their jobs in the formal economy.

There were  lots of challenges in what many perceive as the good old days. In the colonial, and immediate post-colonial period, trade unionism was a risky business. Also, there was no compulsory  recognition  of unions by employers, no automatic check off deductions, no GSM that could aid organising and communication, no e-mail that could transmit messages in seconds, no Facebook, twitter or internet chat rooms where conversations can flow, yet there is a general consensus that they were far better unionists than those of the present generation.

Today’s unionists need to link up with the trade union traditions of the past. Such traditions include labour leaders demonstrable and clear commitment to members and workers’ cause and  strong connection between leaders and members  rather  than the  prevailing atmosphere of alienation. Unions also need to return to the old culture of mass meetings, mass mobilisation and mass rallies,  continuous and permanent organising.  The unions also need to adopt the old tradition  of mass workers education based on trade union values and ideology. The next forty years should be different.



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