By Michael Chibuzo
Joe Ajaero, the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress is before our very eyes changing the Nigerian Labour Congress into a full blown opposition political party. The NLC is supposed to be a Labour Center meant to protect the interests of public and private sector workers who are its members and negotiatiate better terms of service with their employers through collective bargaining.
However in just 10 months in office, the NLC President, Joe Ajaero seems to be redefining the functions of the NLC and its modus operandi for worse. In the wake of the removal of fuel subsidy, NLC portrayed itself as an unrealistic labour union when it constantly threatened nationwide strike any time pump price of PMS fluctuates upwards in response to market forces, invariably agitating for the return of fuel subsidy, when the government obviously could not afford to continue with the subsidy regime.
NLC as a labour union ordinarily is not prohibited from protesting against any government policy that may have significant impact on workers, but on the issue of fuel subsidy, their demand to the government should never be about returning subsidy or face industrial strikes. It should be about negotiating for wage awards and increase that will cancel out the rise in cost of living for workers. Anything other than that amounts to an overreach.
It becomes more hypocritical for NLC to oppose fuel subsidy removal for example, when it endorsed the manifesto of its political arm, the Labour Party and its adopted candidate Mr. Peter Obi, which clearly promised to remove subsidy if elected into office. NLC did not voice its opposition then but decided to become vocal after its political party lost the election.
The most brazen act of NLC under Joe Ajaero is their newfound hobby of disobeying court orders. This was on display in Imo State recently when Joe Ajaero in total disregard of a subsisting restraining order by the National Industrial Court against the NLC and its affiliate unions not to embark on any strike or protest in Imo State, still came down to Imo State on November 1st to go ahead with the Occupy Imo protest being spearheaded by him without the support of the Imo state chapter of the NLC.
Unfortunately, in his attempt to picket the Sam Mbakwe Airport and force federal workers in the airport to down tools and join the illegitimate strike/protest, Joe Ajaero was beaten up by NLC members in Imo State who resisted the enforcement of his personal agenda in Imo State using the NLC as a cover. He was saved from mob action by the police who took him into protective custody and later released him. It was obvious to all that Joe Ajaero, who is from Imo simply wanted to use his influence as NLC President to create chaos in Imo State, make Gov. Hope Uzodimma look bad and then shore up support for the governorship candidate of NLC’s political party, LP in Imo State, Athan Achonu.
Joe Ajaero was even filmed shamelessly claiming he thought the restraining order by the National Industrial Court had expired, which simply shows his personal desperation to disrupt the peace in Imo State at any cost few days to the governorship elections. As if that was not enough, instead of identifying the individuals or entities that beat him up and suing them to court for assault, Joe Ajaero instead used the instrumentality of the NLC and coopted the TUC to declare a nationwide strike to protest his beating in Imo!
On Thursday, some NLC members blocked the entrance of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja to protest the assault of Joe Ajaero in Imo State. This is a brazen abuse of power by the NLC President who is now using the NLC as a personal platform to fight his personal battle. If NLC and other labour unions should protest the Joe Ajaero maltreatment in Imo State, they should simply head to Imo State where the maltreatment took place and not disrupt the activities of citizens in Abuja the federal capital territory. The whole country must not be made to pay for whatever happened in Imo State in the name of labour solidarity.
In fact the time has come for a holistic review and change in approach to issues of strike and protest by all labour unions in Nigeria. It is commonplace to see state workers or some unions being made to join an NLC-led nationwide strike where they absolutely have nothing at stake or anything to gain when the dispute is eventually resolved. This is pure labour impunity and must now be challenged.
You only embark on strike if you have an unresolved disagreement with your employer. This bizarre solidarity strike madness played out in the last ASUU strike when some state-owned University lecturers also joined the strike which was principally a dispute between ASUU and the federal government on IPPIS (a purely federal issue). You can only find that kind of madness in the Nigerian labour space. The era of solidarity strike must be consigned to the dustbin of history.
A strong action must be taken by governments across the three tiers of government to stop this Labour rascality. Workers who embark on strike actions when they do not have any labour dispute with their direct employers must be punished starting with implementing principles of ‘no work, no pay’. Also, governments must clearly spell out the red line labour unions must not cross in enforcing their legitimate rights to embark on strikes or protests. The practice of switching off electricity supply nationwide or preventing willing workers from rendering their services in the face of strike must be outlawed.
Picketing must be precise, labour unions should picket only establishments or organisations, which they have direct disputes with. Picketing just any organisation who has no dispute with its workers should be criminalised and those involved charged for economic sabotage. An unbundling of the NLC is long overdue so as to put a stop to the outdated nationwide striking of NLC over issues that affect just a section of their membership or even an individual as is the case in this Joe Ajaero drama.
If we allow the status quo to continue, the NLC will eventually become a Fiefdom where the union will exist simply in the service of any agenda the NLC President wants to promote. An NLC President such as Joe Ajaero may have a disagreement and get into a fight at a local beer parlour and get beaten. After becoming sober, he will direct NLC and TUC to embark on a nationwide strike to protest his beating in a local beer parlour, and probably picketing the national assembly complex for good measure.