Says COVID-19 changing face of unionism
Stories by Victor Ahiuma-Young
The Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung, FES, is a non-profit German foundation funded by the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, with headquarters in Bonn and Berlin
FES began its operations in Nigeria in 1976 collaborating with human rights and pro-democracy groups, the labour movement, researchers and many civil society organisations and focusing mainly on good governance and democracy promotion; trade union cooperation and social justice transformation. It operates in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and more than 100 countries worldwide.
In a chat with Vanguard, the new Resident Representative in Nigeria, Dr Daniel Mann, speaks among others, on the impact of Covid-19 on its activities, the Nigerian trade union, among others.
Impact of COVID-19
The Covid-19 pandemic delayed my coming to Nigeria as we had to shut down our offices completely last year. Slowly, from May we started mainly online programmes/e-classes. You are aware of our young workers programme which we started about two years ago in Lagos. Last year, we had to do almost all our classes online. From May to October we had online courses and classes which were effective in all of those areas but most of our people on the ground were unable to connect with the change. For them to connect online was a challenge because of network issues, unavailability of devices and so on. Since October, we have been able to hold seminars again, trainings and workshops. We keep to 50 persons maximum to follow the National Centre for Disease Control, NCDC guidelines, wearing masks and other protocols. It was challenging.
Globally, I would say, it really depends on the extent of the crisis. In Germany, there is no opportunity to hold any programme whatsoever because we are hit much harder by the pandemic than in Nigeria. In other African countries, we are doing mostly the same. In South Africa, obviously it’s much worse. In Asia It was quite hard from the beginning but we are managing.
We are trying our best to stay on the side of our brothers especially, the trade Union.
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Nigeria’s trade unions
The comrades I met so far, some of them are the most inspiring individuals I have seen. If you look at the Educational Department of industrial unions, the NLC, those people are trying to create class consciousness, but also trying to make a change. Those “young workers” are very inspiring individuals. They are also trying to challenge not only Nigeria as a country, but they are trying to challenge their own union leadership at times. I am also impressed about the unions and they are still powerful. When you attend the unions’ meetings, you hear their solidarity songs; you can see the power in the union which is very inspiring. See the big picture and ways they could be used in other areas. The way they fight fuel price hikes, or any other utility, how can they use such power more in other areas? I would say the power of Nigeria’s trade unions is a force to reckon with if it is used for a good cause. I think there are enough individuals in the Trade Unions in Nigeria to spearhead this.
Trade Union in Nigeria, Germany
In Nigeria, you have very political trade unions which are not connected to any particular party. If you look around us in Francophone countries, there are communist and socialist movements, Nigeria, on the other hand, is very similar to Germany. Post-World War, we have one union principle. These unions, all of them, came together to form the DGB, the German Trade Union Federation. The difference is that in Nigeria, you have white-collar and Blue-collar unions, NLC, TUC. We do not have this kind of division in Germany. But the idea of we the workers doing politics independently from political parties, brings us together. It is not that we stay out of politics, but we are not attached to any one party.
The difference is that in Germany, the union members have to learn that the union does not have to grow out of themselves. You have to actively organise. You have to go to not only places where you are well organised, for instance, where almost 95 per cent are formal workers, you have to go to individual settings like Uber, new ventures, where you have individual workers, to organise them.
The German Trade Union is changing. The structure of economy is changing. The big factories are closing, service industry are rising up not munch of blue-collar. How do we now organise those members? How do we organise the journalists, how do we organise the computer ITs? They are still struggling especially in the service sector and the public sector. To organise factory workers is easier because they are part of the unions. If you go to German Car industry, 95 to 99 per cent of the people are in the union. But to instill hunger for new members is difficult.
We are working with FIWON (Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria), an umbrella body of informal sector workers in Nigeria. There is no much competition in Nigeria. If there is, it is a friendly competition. There are less of poaching of union members. That is common in other countries across the globe. The pandemic is a big challenge globally, because it is much easier to organise when you see each other. In a big set up, in a textile factory, you will always see your co-workers. You can talk about union membership. The challenge is for all of us to find new ways of organising and connecting to potential members. Nigeria has the potential and the know-how to do so. Nigerians are very smart. They know their way around any form of new technologies. It is amazing; the speed of Nigeria is very amazing for anybody that is arriving in the country for the first time. So, the trade union should harness those ideas, the new technology and confront the challenges.
I am not here for personal achievements so if I am remembered by colleagues as approachable, honest and responsible manager, not only by the trade unions, but other partners as a reliable partner and also brother in arms, then I would have achieved something. I’m not doing this for myself, but the Foundation. I hope I am doing it for the Trade Union Movement because we consider ourselves as one, though it is still early to talk about. What we always like to do is to focus on trade unions, young trade unionists’ education and women education, women empowerment, within the union, together with the union, and outside of the union.
Those are two sides of the coin. Also, obviously, anything that will help our comrades stay connected to their membership base for the improvement of Nigerian workers on the shop floor or ground level.
Secondly, if I can improve the relevance of Nigeria’s trade unions in the German political camp, that will also be an achievement. A lot of people don’t know much about Africa but talk more of Nigeria. If we can achieve a little more in that direction, it will make me proud.