It has been two weeks since organised labour suspended another scheduled industrial action for the upteenth time, but the question coursing through the minds of many Nigerians at the moment is, what is it with organised labour and the incessant abortion of strike actions?
But the labour leaders in the country seem to have a penchant for aborting strikes hours before they are embarked upon. This is causing mixed reactions among workers in the country. While some are screaming blue murder and accusing their leaders of “betraying the cause of the labour movement”, others seem to docilely accept the call-offs, despite unattended requests.
Two weeks ago, a warning strike action was scheduled to hold between Wednesday and Friday to protest the lack of commitment of the federal and state governments in paying the N18,000 minimum wage to workers, even after it had been signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan.
All explanations by state governments that they would not be able to pay the minimum wage unless there was an increase in the federal allocation, fell on deaf ears.
The state governments were simply advised, and rightly so, to cut down the cost of governance to enable them keep to what had “already become a law”.
President Goodluck Jonathan had said that the Federal Government could not be committed to the full implementation of the Minimum Wage Act 2011 till next year.
The president, speaking through the secretary to the government of the federation, Anyim Pius Anyim, who led a Federal Government team to a meeting with organised labour in Abuja, said; “The President said that we should not break the law. He said we should invite the labour leaders to let them know that we would pay workers on levels one to six and then include the funds for the payment of the relativity in the next budget, so that with effect from January, it can take off.
“We have no problem agreeing with labour; everything is clear, but we cannot go against the law. The only way we can raise money is through budgeting. Another budgeting season is around the corner, so that we can commence the implementation of the law from January.
“The Federal Government has made budgetary provisions to pay the new wage to workers from grade level one to six, who are known to earn below N18,000. You have demanded that the Act apply to all categories of workers in the country.
“I want to say that the Federal Government did not contemplate this position, and it did not make provision in the budget to implement this as everybody focused on the minimum wage.”
The governor of Zamfara State, Abdul’aziz Yari Abubakar, had also said that the North would not be able to pay the minimum wage. “Let us be sincere to ourselves: no state in the North can implement the N18,000 minimum wage, even Kano. We said it, that we are not like Lagos State. Lagos generates about N23b internal generated revenue (IGR) monthly. Zamfara generates only N120m, so how do you go about it?
Kano generates about N1.8b, followed by Kaduna. We are going to do it when we sit down with the top leadership and see how we can get a way out, if, sincerely, they want us to work harmoniously with labour. Today, I pay N1.1billion as my wage bill and I inherited about 28,000 workforce. By the time you multiply N18,000 by the number of workers ,we are talking of N3b. The total income of the state is between N2.3 and 2.5b.”
But all of these did not seem to move the labour coalition made up of the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress, as they appeared set to embark on the industrial action if the government at the Federal and the state levels stall in granting their requests.
The fear of impending strike which people knew would paralyse the economy forced them to take to the banking halls for panic withdrawals. For instance, banking halls on the Oba Akran area of Ikeja witnessed an upsurge in the volume of customers who turned in to make withdrawals.
A customer said, “I have to put my house in order by getting some foodstuff and keeping some cash handy for the strike period. You should know what three days means in Lagos. I cannot take chances.”
In markets, activities reached fevered pitch as many people thronged the stalls to stock their homes with foodstuffs that would last for the three days of the strike.
But on the eve of the strike towards midnight, labour announced that the strike had been aborted. That was good news to the different levels of governments, but to the average Nigerian, it was victory at too great a cost.
The question for labour leaders is, why did they not explore all options before venturing to announce strike plans? Are there no other ways of getting requests met without subjecting Nigerians to tension through planned strikes that get aborted before they are executed? Why does labour sometimes call-off a strike even when their requests have not been met?
Even within the labour movement, there are those who felt that the strike was prematurely called off.
A labour leader who pleaded anonymity said, “We smell a rat. It is unheard of in the history of the labour movement that the leaders would take such a decision without consultation and approval by the NEC. The standard practice is for the labour leaders to report back to the NEC, irrespective of any agreement, for deliberation and proper articulation of the terms of agreement and its workability or otherwise.
“It is therefore after exhaustive debate on the issues that decisions are made as to whether to call off the strike or no. By so doing, every worker already mobilised would be carried along. The hurry to call off the strike without the usual preceding NEC meeting left much to be desired.
“It is not a good commentary. It is an indication that workers may not have been told exactly what transpired. Do not forget that the NEC comprises all state executives, who would have transmitted the appropriate decision to their members. The strike could have been on at least for one day, and may be called off on the behest of the NEC’s decision but it was not the case, as these people shamelessly called off the strike in the presence of the opposing side (the federal and state governments).
“It is a brazen disobedience to the rules that guide collective bargaining. There must be an explanation to what actually happened and what the truth is.”
However, the acting general secretary of the NLC, Owei Lakemfa, felt otherwise.
“Do you expect that we should have called a rally or anything to say this is it, before we call off the strike?
“The reason we wanted to have a warning strike was to make the government agree to implementation and the governors said they have agreed to implement. Why should we go on strike? It would not be logical after agreeing with the governors, then we call a meeting of the NEC. The strike would have taken off today, then what would be the reason for the agreement?
“We went to meet the federal government and governors and they asked us what we wanted and we told them. They agreed, so we took a decision there instead of allowing the strike to hold.”
In parts of the country, given the time that labour announced that it would no longer embark on the strike, workers who did not know the change of plans still stayed off work. Perhaps, this indicates a need for organised labour leaders to change tactics.