Now I am regretting not taking the bet from my friend who huffed and puffed that the strike will go on! Yinka has not stayed too long on top of one of the major labour unions. And as usually happens to rookies, he told us gleefully at one of our watering holes that this time, the government will see pepper.
When I tried to explain to him the usual twists and turns in the negotiation process and the midnight hour call-off, of previous threatened nationwide strikes, the young man almost shouted me down. He had the promise of his president and working committee that this time, nothing will stop the strike. ‘Enough is enough. This government thinks we are joking, bla la bla!’ Yinka said he was going to put down N100,000 for anyone of us to match it and that he was ready to forfeit his money if the strike did not go on.
It was very tempting but from my past experience, I knew he would lose the bet and it is our group that he will come crying to, to lend him something to tide his family over for the next month. So I did not take his bet. For one, I am not a betting man. Secondly, even though he needed some sense whipped into him, Yinka was a very good boy; too passionate about some issues but he loves Nigeria and thinks his involvement in trade unionism is a way for him to fight for the common man, unlike the politicians whom he loathes with a different kind of passion.
Well, the planned nationwide strike by organized labour in Nigeria was called off about last midnight, as usual, a few minutes to its planned commencement. ‘Suspended’ is the word being bandied about, and it is for two weeks; that is, until the Federal Government does the needful. Who knows what will change hands or who will get what so that everyone is satisfied? This is not the first time strikes have been called off at the last minute by the unions. In the beginning, we always asked why they have to wait till last minute to reach agreement on these matters.
It is difficult to understand why the opposing parties cannot just have civilized negotiations and agree so that life can go on smoothly. This ‘suspension’ only affects the nationwide strike called by the organized labour made up of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and the Trade Union Congress, TUC. It does not affect the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU who have stopped work since March 2020. Or those of their counterparts of the Non-Academic Staff Union and Senior Staff Association.
Many universities have been shut and half-hearted attempts to open them, like that of the Lagos State University, LASU, have met with stiff opposition. As we have seen, it is only strikes by smaller units like ASUU, NASU, Resident Doctors and Petroleum Workers of NUPENG and PEGASSAN that usually succeed. Most general strikes where NLC and TUC threaten to mobilise workers hardly go ahead. In November 2018, organized labour called a nationwide strike to press home demands for the implementation of the N30,000 minimum wage.
As usual, because we all seem to have short memories, there is always hope that the Nigerian government and the coalition of labour unions would find a solution to their disagreement and deadlock early in the negotiation process. Of course, they keep up the suspense till the last minute and then call off the strike action while negotiation continues. This has made people to be suspicious of organized labour and their parleys with government. Gone are the days when people had confidence in central labour like they had during the days of Pa Michael Imoudu or even Hassan Sunmonu.
We have had central labour leaders like Paschal Bafuyau, Adams Oshiomhole, Ayuba Wabba, Quadir Olaleye and the rest since then, but they have not commanded the respect and love like Pa Imoudu did, even in death. And they have not been able to wish off the insinuations of ‘settlement’ to call off strikes. For one thing, it is almost impossible for the two Labour groups to agree on a unified strike action and when they do, it becomes something like the survival of the fittest.
No one wants a full blown nationwide strike that may include shut down of practically every public utility like power, water, fuel sales as well as banks and markets. But sometimes, sacrifice may be called for when there is an insensitivity in government policies. One major reason for the current government-labour dialogue is the hike in power tariff and price of petrol, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic period when everyone feels government should be making provisions to ease the suffering of the citizens. During one of the sessions last week, Boss Mustapha, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, tried to convince labour leaders that, “The recent increase in electricity tariff and petroleum pump price was not intended to cause pain or harm.
The decision was taken in the utmost interest of all people and the working class”. The government made several at tempts to stop the strike. The National Industrial Court granted an interim injunction restraining the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) their officers, affiliates and privies from embarking on any strike or stoppage of work. Justice Ibrahim Galadima said the order was pending the hearing and determination of the Motion on Notice.
The court also granted an order compelling the Inspector-General of Police and the Director-General Department of State Services (DSS) to provide protection for workers engaged in their legitimate duties from any form of harassment, intimidation and bullying by the officers, agents or privies of the unions, pending the hearing and determination of the Motion on Notice. On its own, the Federal Civil Service warned all civil servants not to be a part of the strike or……… Well, the strike did not commence yesterday as scheduled. We hope whatever to be sorted out will be done in time before the two weeks are over. We do not want to wait till another midnight hour for another ‘Breaking News’ to announce another suspension or an agreement.
•Epa Ogie Eboigbe, veteran journalist, broadcaster and public affairs specialist writes on, and analyses current and historical issues with a ‘wise pen’.