- Birth of United Labour Congress welcome, but …
Perhaps there was good reason for the decision of the Muhammed/Obasanjo administration, a military government, to create a centralised umbrella organisation, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), for Nigerian workers in 1976. Before then, there were nearly 300 labour unions, which were merged to form eight organisations under the banner of the NLC.
True, extreme fragmentation of labour was chaotic and unproductive. But excessive concentration of the labour movement has proven neither desirable nor sustainable. Thus, with time, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), inevitably broke away from, and emerged as the second umbrella body for labour unions affiliated with it.
On December 16, last year, another umbrella body, the United Labour Congress (ULC) was unveiled, following the protracted leadership crisis that followed the disputed outcome of the March 2015 National Delegates Conference (NDC) of the NLC in Abuja. Things fell apart in the congress because a factional leader of the organisation, Mr Joe Ajaero, refused to step down for Mr Ayuba Wabba of the contending faction, hence the birth of the ULC.
We believe this is a positive development although there are those who argue that it is best to have one apex umbrella body for Nigerian workers. A divided labour house, they argue, is weakened in its capacity to protect workers against oppressive employers and respond effectively to critical issues such as minimum wage, rising inflation and job losses. They may have a point. But excessive centralisation, it has been demonstrated, creates its own problems, which also weaken the capacity of the labour leadership to defend workers and creates crises that necessarily result in the kind of schism that led to the birth of the ULC.
The fewer the number of centralised labour unions, the greater the humongous funds available for a more concentrated and fewer labour leadership to spend through compulsory check-off dues. Thus, the fierce NLC leadership crisis that resulted in the birth of the ULC was fuelled largely by a desire to control the huge amount of wealth and thus power available to those in control of workers’ check-off dues and the organisation’s other investments. A wide gap has consequently developed between an opulent and ostentatious labour leadership that has abandoned its core values and mission of defending workers, particularly at a time of great economic hardship like this, and the vast majority of pauperised Nigerian workers.
It is therefore only reasonable to conclude that the more the number of central unions with which workers can freely and democratically affiliate, the greater will be the competition among them to attract individual unions. This should in turn exert pressure on competing central union leaderships to demonstrate transparency, accountability and respect for democratic values in order to attract more affiliates.
There is no doubt that the ULC cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Its membership includes the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), National Union of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions Employees (NUBIFIE), National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE). These cover key sectors of the economy such as petroleum, industry, power, finance, aviation, education, manufacturing and telecommunication, among others.
But the ULC is led by the same leadership that left the NLC, not on matters of high principles or moral values, but due to struggle for power and probably wealth. Can it therefore be born again? Time will tell.