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Labour retreats to strike another day

... History of labour strikes in Nigeria

ORDINARY Nigerians, who had already braced up for consequences of a showdown between organised labour and the Federal Government over the hike in fuel pump price and electricity tariff, woke up on Monday to see reports that the industrial action planned by labour to force the government to reverse the highly unpopular policies has been called off at the last minute. An agreement reached at a nocturnal meeting between representatives of the government and the labour unions resulted in the suspension of the planned industrial action.

However, while the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress had decided to embark on the strike to force a total reversal of the petrol pump price and electricity tariff hikes, the reason given for the suspension of the strike, as gleaned from a communique issued after the Sunday night and Monday morning meeting, was that the government had agreed to suspend the application of the cost-reflective electricity tariff adjustments for two weeks.

From all indications, labour has already backed down from demanding a reversal of the particular hike which is arguably of greater concern to majority of Nigerians – the increase in fuel pump price brought about by the deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry.

While many Nigerians would feel disappointed at the development, it also serves to illustrate a recurring trend in the history of labour strikes in Nigeria. Even as organised labour would always resort to industrial action as a default reaction to the introduction of perceived ‘unjust’ policies, government, most of the time, ends up having its way. In this sense, it is also not impossible that, at the end of the day, the two-week suspension of the implementation of the application of the cost-reflective tariff would only be a temporary reprieve with the government still going ahead to implement the hike in the cost of electricity.

Despite industrial actions embarked on by organised labour to oppose various episodes of government-determined increment of the fuel pump price, the cost of a litre of petrol had risen steadily, over the years, even during the period the government was implementing the controversial subsidy on petroleum products.

In June 2007, labour went on strike for a total of four days over the increase in the pump price of fuel from N65 to N75 by the administration of Late President Umaru Yar’Adua. The massive industrial action

that trailed the removal of fuel subsidy and increase in pump price from N65 to N138, in January 2012, by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, lasted five days.

Again, for a period of four days in May 2016, labour downed tools in protest after President Muhammadu Buhari hiked the fuel pump price from N86 to N145.

While it had on some instances won the battle in the fight with the government by forcing a suspension of the implementation of the increment in fuel pump prices, labour has ultimately ended up losing the war, as can be inferred from the fact that the cost of a litre of petrol is currently selling between N158 and N162 at filling stations across the country.

Arguably, labour’s biggest victory from industrial actions was forcing the Federal Government to meet its minimum wage demands – a feat that featured a series of strikes over a long period of time. But the minimum wage victory is not yet total, as it was only recorded at the federal level, with most state governments yet to bow to labour’s demands.

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The feeling that labour has been on the losing side in most instances in its chequered negotiations with government is also reinforced by the failure of two highly ‘militant’ professional unions – the Academic Staff Union of Universities and the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors – to actualise longstanding demands despite several strike actions.

Over the years, academic activities had shutdown and undergraduates endured prolonged stays in universities, while patients had been left to their fate, resulting in preventable deaths, as ASUU and NARD embarked on strikes to press home different demands on the government. But so little was achieved, and not much changed – in fact, both labour unions (ASUU and NARD) are on strike at the moment.

The fact that life is daily getting harder for Nigerians, despite numerous strikes embarked on by labour in a bid to force the implementation of ‘more humane’ policies, indicates that somehow, government has a way of getting the better of the labour leaders whenever the two parties meet at the negotiating table.

The government has made promises by promising some palliatives that would cushion the impact of the deregulation-influenced hike in fuel pump price, which labour has already been made to accept. The communique from the meeting between labour and the government said the palliatives would be in the areas of transport, power, housing, agriculture and humanitarian support. Interestingly, a resolution

that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation should expedite the rehabilitation of the nation’s four refineries located in Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna to achieve 50 per cent completion by December 2021 was among the major takeaways from the meeting.

The rehabilitation of the refineries had been on the agenda for several years and it remains to be seen whether the fresh resolution arising from the latest episode of labour-government negotiations, aimed at stopping an industrial action, could do the magic.

But then, observers would be keen to note that government has made similar promises in previous instances when it wants time to avert nationwide industrial actions, which usually come with dismal economic consequences. Palliatives have been rolled out by the government in the past but the impact of the interventions is uncertain, as the measures implemented by the government have not eased the hardship being experienced by Nigerians on a daily basis.

Be that as it may, it appears that the promises made by government at the meeting with labour was a last-minute move. Before the two parties sat down to negotiate, the government had tried to use the judiciary to stop the workers from going on strike, an action which was also in keeping with tradition in the history of government’s response to labour agitations.

Following an ex-parte application by the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, Justice Ibrahim Galadima of the National Industrial Court sitting in Abuja issued a restraining order stopping the NLC and the TUC from proceeding with the strike.

But while the Nigerian labour laws restricts the right to strike and the judiciary goes ahead to declare strike action against general economic and political policies illegal, Nigeria is a member of the International Labour Organisation, which recognises the right to embark on strike as a fundamental human right.

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Legal hurdles placed against industrial actions by the government has over the years have failed to stop labour from playing a role in Nigeria’s political and economic affairs. The first organised labour movement in the country was formed in 1912, when civil servants established a union. Railway workers and teachers followed suit and in 1945, 43,000 workers staged a 40-day strike to protest low wages. By 1950, there were 144 unions, with more than 144,000 members.

However, in 1978, a government decree amendment reorganised more than 1000 unions into 70 registered industrial bodies under the umbrella of the NLC but, despite government interference in union activities, in July 1994, two key unions of oil and gas workers – Nigeria Union of Petroleum and

Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) – went on strike to demand the reversal of the nullification of the June 12, 1993 presidential election believed to have been won by the late Alhaji Moshood Abiola. The then military dictator, General Sani Abacha, moved to suppress the strike by replacing the leaders of the oil workers unions and the NLC with state-appointed administrators, and top union leaders, Frank Kokori and Milton Dabibi, and others, were detained without trial.

The unions regained their independence after General Abdulsalami Abubakar took over from Abacha in June 1998, and when Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999 under President Olusegun Obasanjo, they asserted their powers with a massive strike which forced the government to abandon an attempt to increase the fuel pump price in 2000.

With government resorting to a mixture of court actions, subtle threats and negotiations to avert strikes as democratic governance stabilised in the country, it is becoming increasingly easier for government to have its way at the end of the day.

Before labour suspended the planned strike on Monday, insistence by its leaders on going ahead with the strike was countered by warnings from the police, which, on its part, insisted that it would enforce the National Industrial Court order. The government also weighed in with a subtle threat to workers on its payroll, with a circular issued by the Head of Service, Dr. Folashade Yemi-Esan, ‘advising’ civil servants from level 12 and above, and essential duty officers, to be at work on Monday, the day the strike was meant to commence. The circular insisted that a National Industrial Court had restrained labour from going ahead with the strike.

Labour insisted on going ahead with the strike, and Nigerians prepared for ‘a mother of all strikes’, until the narrative turned into an anti-climax at the last minute – with labour calling off the strike and at the same time giving up its opposition to the fuel pump price hike even as government only halted the implementation of the increment in electricity tariff for two weeks.

What happens after two weeks is unknown at the moment but it would not be unexpected if, by that time, labour once again re-groups for another strike.

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