“People will appreciate unionism when unions become active.” –Thomas Mattig.
By Comrade Seyi Gambo
Time was when International Workers Day held significant meaning for all Nigerian workers. On the first of May every year, Nigerian workers join their comrades around the globe in body, soul and spirit to celebrate heroes of the workers/labour movement who risked their lives for enhanced welfare and conducive working environment. May DAY as the International Worker’s Day is popularly known in Nigeria, was chosen by the Second International (1889-1916), to commemorate the Hay market incident on the fourth of May 1886 in Chicago. In one of the peaceful demonstrations held across America by workers to demand an eight hour work day, Chicago police killed some demonstrators. At yet another rally organised to protest police killings and brutality, a bomb was thrown into the rally and some policemen were killed. Subsequently, eight organisers of the rallies were charged to courts, in spite of the evidence which showed that the labour leaders were nowhere near Chicago at the time of the dastardly act. They were convicted of culpable homicide, four to be hanged; and one was to later die in prison.
Labour unions have sprung up in every sector and subsector of the Nigeria economy. However, for the better part of the last two decades, Nigerian workers have consistently been at the receiving end of job loss especially in the oil and gas sector, compared to their counterparts in other oil producing nations, due to multifaceted factors internally and externally. There is a decline in the quality of visionary and pragmatic labour leadership, to partner with government or employers to set realistic agendas for strategic position of the workforce. A perfect example can be drawn from labours’ inability and political will to get the four national refineries working. As local petroleum consumption is import-driven, jobs are created for foreign refineries while Nigeria’s rot away and workers face job losses in their thousands.
These are not the best of times for Nigerian workers because they have failed to address fundamental or policy issues far too long that things have degenerated with government being allowed to renege on many agreements to fix the economy without sanctions. Industrial actions are going to be very risky in the face faltering oil revenues which typically sustains the economy, with the fact that the populace have gotten lethargic of incessant strike actions which resolves nothing at the end of the day. Meanwhile, there will be a much more vicious demand for increased pay by union members in the face of harsh economic realities and dwindling power of the naira. Employers are changing the way they work as well. Whereas Nigerian jobs are not being out-sourced, there however now exists, a mass of casual and contract workers whose working conditions excludes the typical employee benefits such as medical insurance, paid leave etc
There are discordant voices within the Nigeria labour fraternity today, things are falling apart and the centre can no longer hold. The vultures seems to be having a field day as unions and labour centres engage in one show of shame after the other to the dismay of an already cynical public that has long wondered whether the labour movement contributes anything positive to their lives.
Unionism used to be the bastion of robust debate, intellectual stimulation and cross fertilisation of ideas. However, what many celebrated as the capitulation of the dynamic campus unions, feeder system, is more than any other, the reason for the dearth of qualitative labour leadership outside the Ivory Towers experience.
The narrative has changed as labour metamorphoses into an embodiment of charlatans because emerging leaders have jettisoned basic courtesies of human interaction. unionism is now a farce. Contemporary labour leaders do not appreciate the efforts and time-honoured culture of workers emancipation. Court orders are disregarded at will; corruption and criminality are the order of the day, a united front and national interest has been replaced by divisiveness and narrow group interest, the constitution takes a back burner or at most used to protect a few. Blackmail has replaced intellectual duels where superior arguments, logic should take pre-eminence. It is unfortunate and regrettable that people with clear intellectual challenges are the helms of some union. As sophisticated as union leadership is, the worst of us seem to be lording over the best brains in the unions.
Suddenly, elections are held twice or more because there is no more trust within the fold, all kinds of gimmicks alien to labour movements are deployed including accreditation of none members as delegates to elections. Some leaders now orchestrate the sack of members seen as future stumbling blocks to a political calculation or aspiration. Not a few people aresurprise that there is a union in the Banking industry, and members especially Nigerian daughters, sisters and mothers are being compelled to indulged in uncomplimentary acts to keep their jobs in the face of the sword of targets in a stagnant economy? Honour, agreement, discipline and other characteristics celebrated in the days of Pa Imodu, Pa Sumonu and a host of others is gradually exiting from the union.
We cannot afford to keep what one Minister termed “Limousine Comrades” in place. Leaders who seek their own interest but pretend to be fighting for the masses. There should be better and enlightened leadership at the helm of our unions. Our democracy and economy are exposed today because the watch dog has lost its bark and bite, leaving night marauders to have a field day. The ills of this era cannot be wished away if there is no paradigm shift in the way we elect our leaders. Members of the various unions must as a matter of urgency organise themselves to remove the tyrants of the day – the lanour bourgeois arustrocrats if they don’t want the ship to sink and all the passengers perish. There is a prize to be paid to put an end to impunity and corruption. The constitution should be given its place of reverence on all issues, injustice of any kind must not be allowed even if it’s being meted out to an enemy. Just as the pen is mightier than the sword; a great sword, deserves a great warrior. Nature abhors vacuum, if organised labour fails to give the masses leadership, untrained hands will take the centre stage. Today’s International Workers’ Day commemoration does not call for celebration, but sober reflection over the prostrate and internal damage the movement has been inflicted.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land? Psalm 137:4
* Comrade Seyi Gambo is a labour leader
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