Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beyond Nigerian Labor Strike: What Next?

Beyond Labour’s Strike: What Next

Nigeria ThisDay
Jan. 24, 2012

The decision by the organised labour to suspend the recent nationwide strike and mass protests has raised the need for a strong movement made up of visionary civil society and activists, under one strong national platform, that can keep on with the struggle, Linda Erokewrites

Not a few individuals and groups have expressed displeasure over the decision by the organised labour to suspend the nationwide strike and mass protests against the removal of fuel subsidy by the Federal Government.

Expectedly, many feel let down by the unions for agreeing to call off the strike without the subsidy being fully restored. They believed that the leaders of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) - the organisers of the strike and mass protest - may have compromised the interest of the Nigerian masses in a bid to satisfy their own selfish interest.

They have continued to ask why the organised labour should at a time when the mass action was getting more intense suddenly suspend the strike; contrary to its initial demand for a reversal of fuel price to N65 per litre.

Their scepticism is understandable, given the high level of expectations from the labour leaders who many Nigerians look up to as defender of the rights of the masses. Unfortunately, the labour leaders were not prepared for a long-drawn battle as an indefinite strike ultimately poses the question of power, of who runs the country.

The joint labour and civil society team had been subjected to psychological warfare, and were constantly harassed by government and its agencies while the strike lasted.

Labour’s Stance on Suspension

After series of meeting with the government and its representatives, the organised labour and its civil society allies bowed to pressure from government and suspended the weeklong strike and mass protest which had paralysed both economic and commercial activities across the country.

The suspension of the strike was jointly announced by the NLC and TUC hours after President Goodluck Jonathan reversed the price of fuel to N97 per litre last during a nationwide broadcast, though labour claimed that the new pump price was a unilateral decision by government.

NLC President, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar and his TUC counterpart, Comrade Esele, in a statement said the decision to suspend the strike was taken after due consideration of the President's intervention, at which he cited security issues and willingness to tackle the cabal with Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and review the hard stance on timing and modality for deregulation.

Against popular belief, the labour leaders had explained that the decision to suspend the strike was taken in the interest of the overall economy as they view the suspension as an interim option to save lives and the few organisations from being destroyed. They were told that the security situation had deteriorated and that troops will have to be deployed.

They however hinged the success of the strike to efforts made to get government adopt the policy to drastically reduce the cost of governance, address accountability issues and current lapses in the oil sector, as well as ensure the speedy passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).

“We note the major successes Nigerians scored in these past days in which they rose courageously as a people to take their destiny in their hands. First, the Federal Government that chorused continuously that its decision to increase petrol (PMS) price to N141 is irreversible and irreducible, was forced to announce a price reduction to N97. We however state categorically that this new price was a unilateral one by the Government.

“Secondly, Government has been made to adopt the policy to drastically reduce the cost of governance. A third major success Nigerians recorded was to get the Federal Government to decisively move against the massive and crippling corruption in the oil sector.

“While until now Government has seemed helpless to tackle corruption, the mass action of the people has compelled it to address accountability issues in the sector. In this wise, President Goodluck Jonathan has told the nation that the forensic audit report on the NNPC will be studied and proven acts of corruption will be sanctioned.

“He also promised that accountability issues and current lapses in the oil sector will be speedily addressed including the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB). A related success of the mass action by Nigerians is the vow of Government to bring to justice all those who have contributed in one way or another to the economic adversity of the country. In view of the foregoing, Labour and its allies formally announce the suspension of strikes, mass rallies and protests across the country,” the statement explained.

Opposition against Labour’s Action

However, stakeholders have continued to react to the suspension of the mass action by Labour. Some have argued that the action by the NLC and TUC is not so much about compromise, which is not unconnected, but that the trade union centres lack the programme, strategy and tactics to sustain the struggle, let alone win the struggle.

Others have commended Labour for the peaceful conduct and its doggedness during the strike. They are of the view that the gains from the protest outweighed the grievances people may have against the action of the labour leaders.

Those who have strongly opposed the suspension of the strike include the Joint Action Front (JAF) umbrella body for pro-labour and civil society groups in the country which described the action of labour leaders as a betrayal of the legitimate demand by Nigerians. The group rejected the N97 fuel price and described it as imposition which fell short of N65 being demanded by Nigerians.

In like manner, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) also faulted labour’s decision to suspend the strike stating that the action underscores the deep-seated illusion of the Labour leaders of influencing the capitalist government to act in the interests of working people.

According to the group, while labour leaders want Nigerians to believe that the new price was a unilateral decision of the government, the sequence of events in the 24 hours before the strike was suspended, as well as the statement jointly issued by the two trade union federations calling off the strike, indicates that they had made a rotten deal with the government.

It maintained that if Labour had offered a clear lead, the struggle could not only have forced back the price hike but also laid the basis for a complete transformation of the country.

Also, the Campaign for Democratic Workers’ Right (CDWR) maintained that the decision to suspend the strike was unilaterally taken by the NLC and TUC, noting that civil society organisations which played a major role in the struggle were never consulted before the decision was taken.

The group, in a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Chinedu Bosah, maintained that the announcement by the TUC and NLC respectively, to the effect that they consulted with pro-people organisations/civil society organisations before agreeing to suspend the strike, was a lie.

“The suspension of the strike by the NLC, apparently agreeing to the N97 per litre when the working masses are still struggling for reversal to N65 per litre of fuel is a betrayal. It has shown that the labour leaders, with a historical mandate to lead the suffering working masses of the country out of misery, oppression and dictatorship, is shying away from this responsibility.

“This is simply because they do not have an alternative socio-economic and political agenda different from neo-liberal capitalist policies. That explains why the labour leaders are in strategic partnership with the ruling elite”, it explained.

Also rejecting the new pump price, Save Nigeria Group (SNG) Convener, Pastor Tunde Bakare, faulted the decision of labour to unilaterally accept the new fuel price.

Bakare, in a statement said: “We have equally reviewed the broadcast of President Goodluck Jonathan where he unilaterally offered to reduce the pump price of petrol to N97 per litre. This tokenism shows that the display of people power in the last few days has not been in vain but it is far little to be acceptable.

“We demand a reversal to the pre-Jan 1 pump price of N65 per litre as a basis for a conducive atmosphere for a national conversation on the oil sector and how to deal with the corruption that has brought this needless crisis on the seventh largest producer of crude oil in the world that has been made to depend on import for it’s refined product consumption,” he added.

Also, the Campaign for Democracy (CD) expressed disappointment over labour’s suspension of the strike. In a statement by its President, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, CD said, “By suspending the strike, labour has dealt the hopes and aspirations of Nigerians for affordable fuel, and the movement for accountable and corruption-free governance, a huge blow.”

Stakeholders’ Commendation

Despite the criticisms among some stakeholders, the last general strike and mass protest has been described as quite historic and unprecedented in the history of the nation.

Firstly, it was the first time that the labour and its civil society allies have sustained a general strike for a whole week; secondly, it was the first time the country had experienced a truly nationwide mass action with mass protests taking place right across the country in more than 50 cities and town, which was sustained for over a week.

While analysts acknowledged that some gains had been made in the weeklong struggle, it is a known fact that the people’s resistance had compelled the Federal Government to amend its stance that “there is no going back on the N141”.

As a process too, the Occupy Nigeria protests did a lot to cement national unity, rebuild trust among Nigerians, and contributed more in seven days of joint action on the streets to nation building than government policies have contributed in the last 10 years.

Among the most active participants in the protests were youths and students who in places like Lagos organised street protests and rallies at their own expense.

Indeed, it will not be out of place to state that the one week general strike and the mass protests were the biggest movements of such scale so far in the history of Nigeria. The strike was total even in Northern parts of the country where state of emergencies had been declared as a result of the state of insecurity created by Boko Haram’s terroristic activities.

According to the Financial Times, the protests have emboldened ordinary Nigerians and raised new awareness of wasteful expenditure.

Also, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has aligned with organised labour’s decision to suspend the strike in the hope that normalcy in the nation’s economy, which the suspension will engender, will pave way for genuine negotiations on the issue.

Similarly, the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA) commended Labour for yielding to its call to suspend the strike and dialogue with the Belgore Committee to deliberate and identify further palliative measures that will cushion the impact of the policy on the citizenry.

Director General of the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), Dr. Segun Oshinowo, maintained that national strike or protest cannot effectively resolve the issues on ground.

According to him, the strike and mass protest called by labour and the civil society group had already disrupted economic activities in the country, with the economy losing a staggering N794.5 billion in the last five working days on account of the strike.

Speaking in defence of the organised labour, the Assistant General Secretary of the NLC, Comrade Denja Yaqub, argued that, contrary to the popular belief, labour leaders did not in any way compromise the interest of Nigerians but were blackmailed by government.

He urged Nigerians not to lose hope as the N97 announced by Jonathan was not the outcome of negotiations with labour. He hinted that the NLC and TUC are resuming negotiations to actualise the demand for the return of petrol pump price to N65.

“I want to remind us all that the trade unions in Nigeria are entities created by law and operate strictly, for now, within the operational guides of industrial relations. Under this premise, the unions make demands, which are presented before employers/government; they go into negotiations, and when negotiations fail, the unions proceed on strike. That is the tradition imposed by law on the unions. Here in Nigeria, the unions have tried several times to break out of this legal bondage and on each occasion, the state blackmails them.

“In this recent case, the demand by the unions was just on fuel price increase, and nothing more. And as the strike progressed, the unions were called for dialogue and presented with different price options but the leaderships of both the NLC and TUC consistently said No, government must return to N65 per litre before any negotiation.

“That was praiseworthy and they stood on this point, until the blackmail that the strike has been hijacked by some people for political advantage. The unions certainly faced a strong handicap on this because, for the unions to advance further, they need a strong movement of strongly visioned civil society activists, under one strong national platform that can keep carry on, as massively as possible on all other demands that are unrelated to labour's demands,” he said.

Way Forward

The strike and mass protest have come and gone, however lessons must be learnt by all the groups that have actively participated in the mass action. There is therefore need for labour to strengthen its partnership with other civil society groups in order to build a strong movement of visionary civil society activists, under one strong national platform that can keep on with the struggle.

Denja, who clearly identified the need to build a strong movement that would be able to speak with one voice, said the platform was absent in Nigeria.

According to him, each time attempts were made to build one, it doesn't work because a lot of people, though very angry at the situation in Nigeria, lack organisational discipline to survive within such movements.

“Everyone wants his own organisation. Everyone wants his own platform. Everyone wants his own protests. Everyone wants his own street. And that way, we will lose the much needed common voice. We will lose the common purpose. And that's the problem. No revolution has ever succeeded under such circumstances,” he said.

He maintained that the formation of the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) with three constituents - NLC, TUC, and the JAF, has not fully grown to maturity, even though no one would be willing to wait until then before challenging oppression.

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