Nigeria’s organised labour’s protests and strike victories

Keywords : Human and trade union rights Nigeria Reports

In September 2020, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) had their hands full with industrial relations issues that demanded their responses. Their responses to the issues were swift and effective. In the analyses of the actions, it was manifest that unity and cohesion will always aid and benefit a focused struggle. What were the issues? What actions did the organised labour deploy and how did they go about it?

The issues
The first issue involved the crass abuse of the rights of workers and pensioners by the Government of Rivers State (South-South Nigeria). The agents of the government of Rivers State on the 2nd of February 2020, invaded and sealed off the secretariat of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Rivers State Council at D -Line, Port Harcourt. The premise for the forced take-over was that the government claimed it wanted to do a structural integrity test on the building. This same building was only recently constructed and commissioned by the Rivers State Government. The Rivers State government only realized that the building it built and commissioned needed structural test immediately workers started making strident demands for their rightful entitlements to salary adjustment based on the new national minimum wage, the release of withheld salaries, promotion, payment of arrears of owed pension and gratuity and remittance of check-off dues to unions.

The Rivers State Government was waging a campaign of intimidation and terror against organised workers in the state for simply refusing to be cowed and muzzled in the face a despicable industrial ordeal. The Governor (Mr Nyesome Wike) had despotic inclinations and aversion for the rule of law. Pieces of evidence of these authoritarian dispositions included the invasion of the sealed NLC Rivers State Council secretariat on the night of Tuesday, 21st July 2020 by suspected hoodlums working for the state government. Equipment and installations worth millions of naira were vandalized. Till today, no single arrest has been made. Also, on August 27, 2020, thugs numbering over one hundred attacked and disrupted a meeting of NLC Rivers State Executive Council meeting at the secretariat of Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria, Road 19, Pipeline, Rumuagholu, Port Harcourt.

The summary of the issues involving the Rivers State Government is:
1. Act of Lawlessness by sealing off the NLC Rivers State Council Secretariat
2. Witch-hunting, Persecution and Prosecution of trade union leaders on trumped-up charges
3. Non-payment of gratuity and pensions to pensioners since 2015
4. Non-payment of promotion arrears since 2015
5. Withholding of workers’ salaries - The Rivers State government is owing some workers in the state up to 7-month salaries. The February and March 2016 salaries of teachers in Rivers state were not paid due to the biometric test ordered by the State Government. Health workers in Rivers State were denied their October 2017 salary due to their participation in the National JOHESU strike.
6. Refusal to negotiate with workers’ organizations on salary adjustments consequent on the new national minimum wage - Since the enactment of the new national minimum wage of N30, 000, there has been no collective bargaining agreement and enabling circular for the implementation of the new national minimum wage in Rivers State. The state government has also refused to conclude negotiations on consequential salary adjustments with workers’ in Rivers State and has also excluded all the tertiary institutions in Rivers State from benefitting from any consequential salary adjustment.
7. Use of Hired Thugs - The Rivers state government deployed hired thugs to attack workers both individually and as a group. The attack of trade union leaders and violent disruption of the Rivers State Executive Council meeting on August 27, 2020, was only icing on the cake of Wike’s malfeasance.
8. Refusal to remit statutory check-off dues to trade unions - By refusing to remit statutory check-off dues to unions and the labour centres, the Rivers State government is projecting an overt agenda of suffocating trade unions in Rivers State to death in clear violation of Section 17 of Nigeria’s Trade Union Act.

The second issue was the unilateral hike in the fuel pump and electricity tariffs. Barely a week after the successful action to defeat the despotic actions of the Governor of Rivers State, the Federal Government announced increases in the fuel and electricity prices. Nigeria’s organised labour voiced its concerns stating that the increases were ill-timed and insensitive to the sufferings that Nigerians are going through at the moment, especially in the wake of the socio-economic dislocations occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. They also pointed out that the increase in energy cost has automatically upped the cost of doing business in Nigeria resulting in hyper-inflation. These effects can also wipe out the gains made by the increase in the national minimum wage. It will also threaten and force many local businesses to either close shop or relocate to friendlier business climes. The Nigerian organised labour counseled the government to reverse these increases.

There was also the demand for government to consider tangible palliatives to ease the existing poverty and the COVID-19-induced hardship that the Nigerian people are facing. The twin increases will exacerbate the plight of the poor and lead to further dispossession of the people. Daily-wage earners and workers in the informal economy, as well as manufacturing enterprises and industrial communities, will be hit the hardest.

The organised labour expressed their readiness to take necessary and legitimate actions to preserve their socio-economic rights if the government refuses to heed their counsel.

Nigeria’s organised labour’s reaction
In the faces of these issues, how did the organised labour reacted? What was clear from inception was that the NLC and TUC came together to prosecute the Rivers State Government’s abuse of workers’ right struggle ditto the fuel and electricity tariff hike. The unity was seen in the media communication, mobilization and the subsequent negotiations that took place. Aside from the conscious use of a united front, one deciphered the utilization of clear, regular and targeted communication that the organised labour deployed. For instance, a communique issued jointly by the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria on the 16th of September 2020 was co-signed by the Presidents of the two labour centres.
Aligned with this strategy is the huge reliance on the media (mainstream and social media). Members of the unions and the general public were informed of the issues and the planned actions.

It was observed that public opinion and sympathy on the unions’ planned protest action in Rivers State and the national strike action to demand the reversal of the fuel pump prices and electricity tariff hike were positive and high.
In the case of the Rivers State Government’s serial infractions against workers’ rights, the organised labour planned a protest action in the River State capital city of Port Harcourt for the 8th of September 2020. The joint statement for the mobilization of the Rivers State struggle stated in part, “Nigerian workers under the aegis of NLC and TUC and our civil society allies in the discharge of our constitutional rights will embark on a peaceful protest in Port Harcourt, Rivers State on September 8, 2020. The protest is to draw the attention of the world to the following infractions on workers and trade union rights in Rivers State”.

For the struggle against the hike in fuel pump price and electricity tariff, Nigeria’s organised labour issued a 2-weeks ultimatum for indefinite strike action and peaceful protest, to take effect from Monday, 28th September 2020, if the government fails to reverse the recent hike in the pump price of petrol and electricity tariff. For both struggles, the mobilization was profound even as members of the general public began to stock up essential commodities in the anticipation of long strike action.

Negotiations to the rescue
On the 7th of September 2020, the eve of the Rivers State action, the government of the state, in a panic mode, called for a negotiation to resolve the dispute. This was after the state government has gone to the National Industrial Court (NIC) to get a restraining order against the NLC and TUC from going on a strike. The trade unions deftly responded that they were not going on a strike but a protest action which is a constitutional right that no court can rule against. The negotiation went into the night and the early morning of the 8th of September 2020 after which a mutually acceptable agreement was reached. The state government acceded to all the demands of the organised labour and implementation timelines were reached.

Concerning the planned national strike against the fuel and electricity tariff hike, the Nigerian Federal Government through the Office of the Secretary to the Federal Government invited the organised labour to a negotiation meeting on Sunday the 27th of September 2020. After a lengthy negotiation, brinkmanship and compromise, the following agreements (as summarized below) were reached:
1. The suspension of the electricity tariff hike for 90 days pending when a justification by the electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs) for an increase in tariff based on efficiency is presented and accepted. It was also agreed that two weeks be used to go round the DISCOs in the country to verify the picture the DISCOs are painting to which most Nigerians differ.
2. To ease the socio-economic hardship on workers by the fuel pump hike, the agreement guaranteed that a percentage of government housing units through the Ministry of Housing be reserved for workers. The Federal Government continues to argue that the fuel pump price hike is based on the government’s desire to move away from fuel subsidy payment, which is bleeding the revenue of the government and hindering it from improving social spending.
3. Also, the Federal Government promised to make available one hundred and thirty-three (133) buses for labour mass transit.
4. On the palliatives to cushion the hardship of the workers and people, the government committed to aiding workers who are interested in farming to access the soft loan by the government. A total of four hundred and twenty thousand workers will benefit from the government-run agricultural soft loan program

Conclusion
September 2020 will remain in the annals of the Nigerian organised labour as one of the symbolic and busy months for mobilization for mass actions in the defence and protection of the rights of workers. It was also symbolic because less than two weeks after suspending the planned nationwide strike, the #EndSars protests organised by Nigerian youth gripped and crippled many major cities of the nation.

The Rivers State action and outcome were lauded as impressive and successful. However, public opinion seems to suggest that the agreement reached between organized labour and the government concerning the fuel pump prices and electricity hike left much to be desired. This is mainly against the backdrop of the high expectations by members of the public to get the fuel pump price increase reversed. For allies of the Nigerian organised labour, most opined that although the agreements were not perfect, they, nevertheless, remain the most viable option for growth and progress for the nation.

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