AN APPRAISAL OF THE ROLE OF TRADE UNIONISM UNDER NIGERIAN LAW:A CASE STUDY OF THE NIGERIA LABOUR CONGRESS
1.1 Background to the Study
Trade union means any combination of workers or employers, whether temporary or permanent the purpose of which is to regulate the terms and conditions of employment of workers .
Trade Unionism has been an indispensable factor in ensuring and guaranteeing stability and industrial harmony between the employer and labour. Trade Unions played pivotal roles in ensuring the free flow of goods and services to the Nigerian public which keep the Nigerian economy afloat. The Nigeria economy is stable largely owing to the activities of trade unions labouring assiduously to strike a balance between its interest and that of management. Labour and Management are two bearers of great social interests.
It is well known that trade unionism all over the world emerged for improving the economic, living and working conditions of workers. Workers through their union representatives seek to obtain an equitable share in the profits made by the employer in order to improve their working and living standards out of the wealth they help generate.3 The above position has not been different in Nigeria. The primary objective of trade unionism had been an agitation to improve the lot of the labour force through improved conditions and terms of service from the employer. Trade unionism was basically an agitation which was meant to serve as a platform for dialogue with the employer on generally employee welfare.
In this 21st Century, it is our view that there seems to be an additional role in the basic and fundamental objectives of trade unionism in Nigeria. Trade Unionism entails playing economic, social and political roles not only to the working class but practically it now extends to ordinary Nigerians even those who are not gainfully employed particularly as it relates to unpopular Government policies.
The new role assumed by trade unions in this 21st Century is not in tandem with the statutory definition of trade unions which basically is an economic union the purpose of which is to regulate the terms and conditions of employment of workers. The impact of trade unions in modern society has become pervasive economically, socially and politically. The very logic that propels the state increasingly to interfere in industrial relations equally explains the need for trade unions to take active interest in politics. The writer submits that despite the restrictive role given t trade unions under the Act, the realm of political activism can still be accommodated legally under Section 40 of the Nigerian constitution which gives individuals the right to associate and assembly freely in order to advance their rights and interest. When individuals aggregate their interests it can be manifested in many legitimate ways this paradigm shift from the statutory defination of trade unions is one of the ways in which the rights guaranteed under Section 40 of the constitution can be advanced.
Particularly, in recent times a modern and vital role of trade unionism had been evolved in the form of political activism. Political activism today by the NLC has been responsible for reversal of several government actions and policies. A good example is the role played by the NLC during the upheavals associated with the removal of fuel subsidy on the 1st day of January 2012 by the Nigerian government.
Nigerians today heavily rely on the responses of the trade unions in a wide range of issues affecting the lives of Nigerians. Labour is now seen as the voice of the Nigerian masses. This additional role of trade unionism i.e. political activism is very unique as trade unions in Nigeria have assumed an additional and difficult responsibility of protecting and championing the rights of Nigerians as a whole by voicing out and rising against harsh, oppressive and unpopular Government policies made in recent times.
Incessant disruption of the production of goods and services by trade unions all over the world always have a negative impact on the economy of that country. The Nigerian Labour force are actively involved in all the spheres of the Nigerian economy ranging from banking, shipping, agriculture, oil and gas sector, industries etc. Any time the Central Labour Organization i.e. the Nigerian Labour Congress calls for a general strike nationwide, it always have a negative impact in all the sectors of the Nigerian economy. Nigeria always looses millions and perhaps billions of naira daily whenever there is a strike affecting the oil and gas sector which is the highest revenue earner for the country.
It is in the light of this impact that successive Nigerian Governments have always accused the trade unions of economic sabotage. Industrial actions like strike has always been used as a potent weapon by trade unions to hold Government or employers as the case may be to ransom in most instances. This has led to the reversal of some unpopular Government policies or forced the authorities to soft pedal on some of those policies.
Trade Unionism is an integral and indispensable part of achieving the basic objective of economic prosperity and industrialization to any developing country like Nigeria.
Trade Unionism had been responsible for maintaining stability in economies of developed countries through the promotion and maintenance of peace and harmonious industrial relations between management and labour. Labour and Management being the two bearers of great social interest, this interest always conflict as a result of the unequal bargaining powers possessed by these powerful forces. Through the activism of Trade Unions this conflicting interest has to a large extent been harmonized. Though, the tendency of conflict is there but its possibility has been kept to the barest minimum.
The role of trade unionism in Nigeria today cannot be overemphasized. It‟s an indispensable element in balancing conflicting and sometimes irreconcilable differences between management and labour and in sustaining the fragile Nigerian economy. Any reasonable and responsible Government that desires to sincerely change and bring about positive transformation to the lives and well being of its citizenry through a robust and vibrant economy can only achieve such objective by creating a conducive environment for dialogue with trade unions who constitute a majority of workers employed in all the sectors of the Nigerian economy. Activism by trade unions had been responsible for uplifting the standard of living and general well being of the Nigerian worker and also safeguarding and protecting the rights and interest of ordinary Nigerians from harsh and unpopular policies made by successive Nigerian Governments.
Trade Unions serve as a mirror for reflecting the opinions of Nigerians on various issues of national interest. Activism of trade unionism has awakened the thoughts of Nigerian citizens in various ways and literally forced the government being the largest employer of labour to imbibe civic and democratic culture in dealing with Nigerians.
The NLC prior to the amendment of the Trade Unions Act in 2005 was the only
central labour organization in Nigeria. The NLC was established as the only labour centre in Nigeria by virtue of the Trade Unions Decree of 1978. It became the platform to which trade unions in Nigeria must be affiliated. The emergence of the NLC ended decades of rivalry between the four labour centers and the unions affiliated to them. The NLC is basically administered by five of its organs namely; the National Delegates Conference, the National Executive Council, Central Working Committee, National Administrative Council and the Secretariat. Over the past three decades the NLC has been the epicenter fro socio-economic and political activism whenever fuel prices are hiked, elections are rigged, wages are not paid, bogus foreign loans are taken or repaid, workers are unreasonably retrenched without due process etc.
The Nigerian Constitution amply states that “Every person shall be entitled to
assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any association for the protection of his interests.” The right to freedom of association and assembly for the purpose of protecting one‟s interest is fundamentally guaranteed under the Nigeria constitution.
In recent times, there is a paradigm shift from the traditional objectives of trade unionism. Trade unionism in this past two decades has expended its roles by delving into the realm of political activism. The writer submits that this paradigm shift is very legal because the constitution gives individuals the right to belong to any trade union for the protection of their „INTEREST‟. It is submitted that interest can either be economic, social or political. This necessarily implies that when workers from trade unions n order to promote their political interest would be legal and constitutional. The trade Union Act has narrowly construed the role of trade unions to advancement of economic interest only. The category of interests in the constitution seems to be wider in scope therefore; this provision will provide a legal haven for trade unions to diversify their purpose and objectives. The provision of the constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly and association for the protection of a person‟s interest has laid the legal backing and foundation by which trade unionism is able to expand its roles in the society. Government makes policies some of which have far reaching consequences in the society like fuel likes. In such cases, engaging in political activism through calling mass action exemplified by political/general strikes is one of only way by which such negative policies are reversed totally or at least partially. The expanded role of trade unionism which is basically centered on political activism is the most effective way by which “the protection of a person‟s interest” envisaged in Section 40 of the constitution can
1.2 Statement of the Problem
Trade unions are not perceived as a potent pressure group interested in championing the rule of law, good governance and enthronement of democratic ideals for the betterment of
Nigerians. In the light of this general perception a writer aptly stated thus “The end of trade union activity is to protect and improve the general living standards of its members and not to provide workers with an exercise in self-government.”
This writer believes the above statement is inapplicable and erroneous in this 21st century because trade unionism had already taken a step forward away from its primary objective. The Nigeria Labour Congress being the umbrella for trade unions in Nigeria and has become the mouthpiece of the oppressed Nigerian worker and masses.
Trade Unionism today is not all about agitations for the upliftment of the Nigerian worker only, but the benefits of such agitations accrue not only to the workers but also transcends all classes of Nigerians comprising working class and even the self employed. A good example of such agitation having a general benefit to Nigerians is the resistance by the Nigeria Labour Congress of the perennial increment in fuel prices by successive Nigerian governments. The last of such increments was on the 1st day of January 2012 when the Federal Government removed the subsidy which Nigerians hitherto enjoyed on petroleum products. There was uproar nationwide and that astronomical figure was effectively reduced owing to the mass action called and coordinated by the Nigeria Labour Congress.
The major problem this work intends to address is the negative perception which Nigerians have of the Nigeria Labour Congress due to lack of enlightenment on its activities in the system. The research questions the writer posses is whether the Nigeria Labour Congress is purely an economic organisation which plays only economic roles and whether it has contributed to the advancement of economic, social and political rights in Nigeria. It is our candid view that trade unions perform dual roles to the Nigerian society. Trade Unions owe a duty to its members workers as well as the generality of Nigerians. This assertion is aptly captured in the mission statement of the Nigeria Labour Congress which states:
The mission of the Nigeria Labour Congress is to organize, unionize and educate all categories of Nigerian workers defend and advance the political, economic, social and cultural rights of Nigerian workers, emancipate and unite Nigerian workers and PEOPLE from all forms of exploitation and discrimination; achieve gender justice in the work place and in the NLC; strengthen and deepen the ties and connections between Nigerian workers and the mutual/natural allies in and outside Nigeria; and the lead the struggle for the transformation of Nigeria into a just, humane and democratic society.
In a similar vein, this objective was stated by the petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria in posting its tasks for the future when it boldly asserts that “we must speak not only for our members, but also for the Nigerian people.”
It‟s our considered view that the role of trade unionism transcends agitations for the betterment of the Nigeria worker only, it‟s a misnomer to confine and de-limit the role of trade unionism in Nigeria in terms of only the Nigerian worker. The entire Nigerian citizenry are target beneficiaries of agitations by trade unions.