Sobowale On Business

June 3, 2024

Labour leaders should quit honorably


By Dele Sobowale

“Leadership is the ability to define the issues without aggravating the problems.”

— Warren Bennis, 1980, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ p 125.

When Edo State workers started jubilations over the offer of N70,000 Minimum Wage offered by out-going Governor Obaseki, it was clear that the last nail on the coffin of Organised Labour’s ambitions regarding the matter had been hammered in.

Obaseki, acting alone, made the offer, undoubtedly for political reasons, but, knowing instinctively that with May as commencement for payment, the rank and file will desert their leaders. Labour leaders, who obviously have never heard the adage – “a bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush” – probably expected the workers to reject the offer and stand on their own mirage of N615,000 per month. In fact, by coincidence, on the day of Obaseki’s announcement, one of the leaders was being interviewed by a television station. During the interview, he had repeated over again how Labour arrived at its unrealistic figure; which was brought to the bargaining table. I immediately switched to another channel. It was obvious to me that all Labour leaders have lost grasp of reality. They were talking just to raise false hopes among workers and to aggravate problems be-devilling the Nigerian economy.

The most important question is: Why did  they fail?

“Failures are divided into two classes: those who thought and never did; and those who did and never thought.” — John Charles Salak, VBQ p 54.

Nigerian Labour leaders, individually and collectively, fall into the second group. They went public with their demands without taking into consideration all the relevant quantitative variables which will help arrive at a just and feasible settlement. The most fundamental of all the factors remains the ability of the FG and states to pay. Readers who might have had some training in Chemistry understand the concept of limiting factor. If three or four elements are required to produce a compound, how much of the compound you can expect is limited by the element in smallest supply.  The FG (despite the rascality of the Buhari administration) does not possess infinite powers to print cash and pay its staff any amount it wants. The states are even worse. Most of them are so heavily in debt, they can hardly pay the current minimum wage. Professor Zulum of Borno State pays primary school teachers N6,000-8,000 per month; and Labour has turned a blind eye. Several states are not paying regularly.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to understand how Organised Labour could seriously expect any government to pay N615,000.

For, I hope, the last time, Labour had been warned about the embarrassing situation in which the leadership finds itself. But, like most organisations gripped by Group-think mentality, they suffered from two maladies — the illusion of invincibility and the illusion of unanimity. Unfortunately for them, most illusions are invariably broken by the facts which a self-delusive group chooses to ignore. No government in Nigeria can pay N615,000 and last more than a month. Labour leaders exercised their rights to talk; but, they forgot that “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.”    (US VP Hubert Humphrey, 1911-1978). It is doubtful if President Tinubu took them seriously. I never did. History would record that they failed miserably in their quest. There is absolutely no way the Labour leaders can present the outcome of the negotiations as anything but total defeat.

A disaster foretold

The gap between N615,000 and whatever will be agreed by the states represents the difference between reality and fantasy. On at least two previous occasions, writing in two articles, Labour leaders were warned to be realistic in their demands and their public utterances. Nowhere in the history of the world, since collective bargaining through unions began, has an increase 20.5 times over the previous level been granted. Even Nigeria’s Udoji Awards, under General Gowon in 1975, which set a new world record for financial recklessness, was nowhere near the expectations by Labour in 2024. At least Gowon had the excuse that “money is not our problem, but, how to spend it” – because dollars were flowing into Nigeria’s external reserves faster that government could dream of how to utilise it. The ultimate result starting in 1975 was colossal waste and unprecedented corruption; now surpassed. Gowon’s Nigeria was rich.

By contrast, Emilokan’s government is the poorest government in Nigerian history. Money is actually its major problem; getting enough of it has become a Herculean task. Gowon went around the world donating Nigerian money – including $100 million to the African Development Bank. Tinubu inherited a begging bowl from Buhari and has been going round the world with it. Any promise of $100 million is trumpeted as a great achievement. Those are the facts of our economic predicament which Labour leaders ignored.

 One of them, who could not have read Economics, even proclaimed that increasing minimum wages by twenty times will have no impact on inflation. How on earth can any government take such a negotiator seriously? As far as I am concerned, Tinubu treated them with the contempt they deserve.

Disunity among the Labour leaders was another cause for concern. A house divided, inevitably, cannot stand the assault of a united opponent. The state governments had wisely lined up behind the FG – irrespective of the party in office. Meanwhile, the NLC, wearing two caps – labour organisation and political party – quickly became the cog in the wheel. It made it easy for Tinubu to ignore them. No ruling party wants to succumb to the opposition on an important national matter. The outcome was predictable.

Where do we go from here?

Because this article is being written before May 29, it is impossible to determine the actual minimum wage which Tinubu might announce. But, one thing is certain. It will be less than N100,000. The President of Nigeria, basing his decision on the more solid ground of economic reality, will not allow sentiments to becloud his judgment. He must, and can, only announce a figure which the poorest states can reasonably hope to pay.

The ball shifts to Labour’s court. Threats or promises had been made about national strike before the FG announced N48,000; which has been increased to N54,000. Will Labour go on strike? Should Labour go on strike? Let me answer the second question first. As attractive as the strike option might be, it will probably not be the wise step to take. Predictably, governments will counter with two threats: “no work; no pay” and massive retrenchment of public workers. More than ever in the history of Nigeria, most workers can ill-afford not to receive their wages at the end of the month – however inadequate they might be. The threat of layoff is even more potent. There are simply no jobs out there waiting for those rendered jobless on account of strike called by Labour. The strike might fail miserably; and organised Labour would have been humiliated.

Under the circumstances, there is only one honourable thing left to do. All the Labour leaders should quit; and allow better educated people to take over.