CHALLENGES OF UNIONISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
TRIBUTE TO COMRADE OLUSEYE ERO-PHILLIPS, CHAIRMAN SSANU, LASUSTECH ON THE OCCASION OF HIS RETIREMENT FROM THE SERVICES OF THE LAGOS STATE GOVERNMENT
Presentation by Comrade Hassan Taiwo Soweto, National Coordinator, Education Rights Campaign (ERC)
I bring fervent and heartfelt solidarity from the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) to the celebrant in whose honour we gather here today – our own dear comrade Seye Ero-Phillips (SSANU Chairman, LASUSTECH), his beautiful family, friends, colleagues and the community of academics and workers of the Lagos State University of Science Technology (LASUSTECH).
I must confess that this is an invitation I found too hard to decline despite the late notice. Comrade Seye Ero-Phillips is such an illustrious, inspiring, and self-sacrificing unionist, activist, trade union educator and workers leader. To paraphrase a popular joke, I would like to say that “Comrade Oluseye Ero-Phillips is a great unionist, different from Bala Blu, Bulabaaa”.
So when one of his closest collaborators and co-conspirator in struggle, Engr. Abdulsalam, called me two days ago to invite me to a retirement lecture organized in his honour, I immediately gave my word that I would be here. But more than being here, I also got infected by a deep sentiment that regardless of the late notice, a lecture organized to celebrate a personality as important, gracious and respected as our dear comrade deserves a few penned lines instead of an extemporaneous speech. So bear with me as I read through this few penned lines of mine which is not only a well-deserved tribute to Comrade Seye Ero-Phillips but also an attempt at a contribution to the very timely discussion about “The Challenges of Unionism in the 21st Century”.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS OCCASION
We gather here to celebrate Comrade Seye Ero-Phillip because his kind has become rare. When I say his kind, I mean the kind of unionists who would unflinchingly and genuinely defend their members’ interest not minding what happens to them, not minding if they are sacked or imprisoned or killed.
The earliest time I could recall meeting Comrade Seye Ero-Phillips up close and personal was on 17 April 2019 at the Magistrate Court, Yaba-Oyingbo, Lagos when he and 8 other leaders of SSANIP, NASU and ASUP were arraigned on trumped up charges by the police acting on the instruction of the evil Samuel Sogunro-led administration of the Polytechnic. The other eight union leaders were comrade Salami Olugbenga, Mrs Muinat Ogunbambi-Ibrahim, Mr Ayanda Rauf, Mr. Awoyemi Abiodun, Mr Semiu Fasasi, Mr. Tobi Oremule, Mr. Tiamiyu Olalekan and Mrs. Janet Odunuga who had with her a one year old baby. I could still remember the scene at the premises of the court that day – workers leaders chained like criminals sat on the bare floor. Their only crime was their opposition to the anti-worker policies of an evil Rector.
Their arrest and detention was the culmination of over two years of struggles for better pay and working conditions. Since January of the year 2019, the three staff unions (ASUP, NASU and SSANIP) had been on strike and continuous protest over the reversal of CONTISS 15 migration by the polytechnic management. The reversal of CONTISS 15 migration meant that rather than being paid a monthly salary, since January 2019 many of the workers were receiving “negative salary”. Other issues in contention at the time included poor welfare conditions, harassment of workers and students, corruption, and highhandedness.
Instead of meeting their demands, the management in collusion with the police and state government responded with brute force. Several workers were demoted, illegally sacked and transferred. In the course of the struggle, 38 workers (11 of them women) who were on a sit-out protest were arrested and detained at Kirikiri and Ikoyi prisons. This was a period a great disturbance and great crisis in the polytechnic, yet the workers survived it all. It was also a period of great self-sacrifice from the workers and their leaders. Cumulatively, about 48 workers leaders were at some point in the struggle arrested and detained on false and trumped up charges leading to the death of one of them, comrade Owolabi Sunday of blessed memory while another comrade suffered a partial stroke.
May I with all due respect ask us to please rise up on our feet to observe a minute silence in honour of late comrade Owolabi Sunday. May his killers find no rest and may his blood continue to water the tree of our collective struggle!
So this was the kind of service comrade Seye Ero-Phillips offered on this campus and beyond as a great unionist and a fighter. He is indeed a chip off the old block being a son of the late pioneer Treasurer of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and founding President of National Union of Electricity Employees, NUEE, Comrade Peter Olufemi Ero-Philips.
So when we gather to celebrate him as we have done today, we do not celebrate him alone, rather through him we celebrate all of that sacrifice and all of that struggle as well as all of us who played one role or other in that enormous battle. So on this occasion, I say kudos not only to comrade Seye Ero-Phillips but also to all the living heroes of the struggle in this institution. I say kudos to comrade Salami Olugbenga, Mrs Muinat Ogunbambi-Ibrahim, Mr Ayanda Rauf, Mr. Awoyemi Abiodun, Mr Semiu Fasasi, Mr. Tobi Oremule, Mr. Tiamiyu Olalekan and Mrs. Janet Odunuga. I say kudos all the others whose names I do not have but whose indelible mark in the sands of time are obvious enough for all to see
UNIONISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Remember I said we gather here to celebrate our dear comrade because his kind has become rare. How many union leaders in the trade union movement in Nigeria today can fight for the interest of their members like comrade Seye Ero-Phillips and his comrades did? I am sure you will all agree with me that there are very fear genuine unionists left in the trade union movement today. Many call themselves trade unionists but in reality they are thieves, blacklegs and traitors to our movement.
Meanwhile, there used to be a time when the likes of our dear comrade were not so rare. When in the trade union movement, the student movement and the popular struggle, you would find militant, progressive, ideologically-trained, and radical activists and unionists ready to fight for the class interest of workers and the poor masses. Generally, the period from the 1941 Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) struggle led by the Railway Workers’ Union up to the late 80s can be described as the golden era of radical unionism in Nigeria. This was true both for the labour movement as well as the student movement. From that time up till now, the character of unionism has changed from the militancy it used to have to the class collaborationism that trade unions and trade unionists champion today.
When I say class collaborationism, I refer to that strange doctrine which has found root in the trade union movement and is championed by the likes of the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba and others which renounces the principle of class struggle between labour and capital while urging workers to accept inequality as part of the natural state of things and work with their oppressors to preserve the social order. It is this false, anti-worker and treacherous doctrine that is responsible for the stupefying silence of the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the face of atrocious degradation of workers’ pay and conditions over the past few years due to mounting inflation and rising cost of living.
The N30, 000 minimum wage has become obsolete and workers living standards has nosedived. So bad is the situation today that a great majority of workers are living like paupers, many cannot even afford the cost of transport to work daily while workers children are being sent of school because their parents are unable to pay their fees. Workers are becoming homeless. Unemployment is rising.
Yet the labour leaders are silent and why? Because they believe that this economic crisis is the problem of all social classes, both employers and workers are in the same boat, we all have to come together to find a solution. Strange doctrine indeed! By adopting this kind of false doctrine, the trade union leaders in Nigeria are displaying a frightening ignorance of the most elementary principle and objective, in other words the ABC, of trade unionism which is the defense of members’ economic interests. Furthermore, they betray a tragic ignorance of the historical origins of the trade unions and the role of the working class.
ORIGINS OF TRADE UNIONISM
Trade unions did not arise for the fun of it. The origins of modern trade unions can be traced back to 18th-century Britain, where the rapid expansion of industrial society then taking place drew masses of people, including women, children, peasants and immigrants into cities. Afterward it spread to other countries, as a natural companion of capitalist industry. Here in Nigeria, trade unionism began in 1912 through the formation of trade union by workers in the colonial civil service.
Trade unions arose in recognition of the fact that there is class antagonism in capitalism, in other words, that capitalists and workers have opposing interests. It is a recognition of the fact that the capitalist mode of production is a system of exploitation and the only way workers can defend themselves is by uniting and organizing. The capitalists attempt to increase their profits, the surplus value, as much as possible, by cutting down wages and increasing the hours or the intensity of labour. On the other hand, the workers attempt to increase their wages and to shorten their hours of work. The workers can only oppose the capitalist drive for profit and by so doing improve their own conditions by uniting and organizing. This is what a union is all about!
So by its very nature, a trade union is a fighting organization of workers. Trade unions exist to seek economic and social benefit for members. As noted by Anton Pannekoek in an article written in 1936, trade unionism is “the first training school in proletarian virtue, in solidarity as the spirit of organised fighting. It embodied the first form of proletarian organised power”. Also according to Sydney and Beatrice Webb, “trade union is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining and improving the conditions of their working lives”. Likewise, Okogwu (1990) sees trade union as an association of workers to promote and protect the welfare, interest and rights of its members, primarily by collective bargaining.
Without radical and fighting trade unionism, we would not have the progress we have today in industrial relations. There would be no eight-hour working day. There would be no weekend, no leave, no minimum wage, no pension, no collective bargaining and no May Day. In Nigeria, trade unions fought against colonial rule and exploitation of the Nigerian State during the colonial era. Historically, the activities of trade unions, under the umbrella of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) have been responsible for the reversal of government actions and policies like fuel price hike, etcetera.
OBJECTIVES OF TRADE UNION
According to Yesufu (1984), listed below are the overall objectives of trade unionism:
“(1) To equalize the strength between workers and employers in matters of collective bargaining.
(2) The secure better terms and conditions of employment from employers or the state.
(3) To make demands and promote the demands by agitation, strikes or otherwise in other to ensure that the agreed terms of employment are not eroded.
(4) To attempt to create the permanent or continuous existence of the trade unions.
(5) To protect workers from humiliating jobs/unfair treatment by employers.
(6) To provide collective identity to workers (solidarity) and comradeship).
(7) To act as influencing agent to government’s policies affecting workers adversely.
(8) To act as a vehicle for revolutionary social change and transforming the society.
(9) To join hand with other groups in the society to advance the economic development in the larger society.
(10) To check the excesses of employers and provide workers with a measure of collective strength”.
CHALLENGES OF UNIONISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
So where did things go wrong? What is responsible for the dismal condition of unionism in Nigeria today? I have identified a number of challenges militating against trade unionism in the 21st century. They are as follows:
(1) Lack of Committed Leadership:
(2) Lack of Internal Democracy:
(3) Decline of Marxism in the movement: Effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ideological triumphalism of capitalism.
(4) Absence of class-conscious education for workers leaders and rank and file
(5) Tribalism and Nepotism
(6) Internal Factionalism: NLC versus ULC (though not currently the case)
(7) Victimization of radical unionists and activists: Late Ayodele Akele, LASPOTECH 48, sack of ASUU LASU leaders etc.
(8) Hostile Government Intervention: For example, plans to introduce laws to outlaw strike, No work No pay, mandatory 8-weeks training for labour leaders, promotion of disunity and creation of “yellow unions” e.g. CONUA etc.
(10) Sit-Tightism: For example, Lateef Oyelekan, the President of the National Union of Food, Beverage, and Tobacco Employees, has refused to step down after spending about 14 years in power. Instead he continues to extend his tenure.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
We need a rescue mission and a rescue strategy to reclaim the labour movement.
We need to restore class-conscious ideological education at all levels of the union.
We need to bring Marxism and revolutionary ideas back to the labour movement by building cells and study groups and systematic circulation of pamphlets, classics and contemporary publications.
We need to rebuild our unions and restore internal democracy
Need to train and mentor a new generation of unionists and activists for the labour movement.
In the preceding paragraphs, I tried to explain the origin, significance, objectives and challenges of trade unionism in Nigeria. The purpose was to show how rotten the labour movement is at present while drawing out what needs to be done to rescue it so that the labour movement can fulfill its role as platform to unite and fight for workers interests.
However, a point that is left unsaid is that the economic and social benefits trade unions seek to win for workers cannot be won permanently so far capitalism, in other words, the system of organized exploitation of workers’ labour power, continues to exist. For workers to achieve full liberation, we must end capitalism and enthrone a workers and poor people’s government armed with socialist programmes. It is only this kind of government that can utilize the collective wealth of Nigeria (human and material resources) to guarantee a living wage and better conditions for workers and all oppressed such that ASUU and other education unions will not have to go on strike before government funds education, doctors and other health workers will not have to down tools before public hospitals are funded etc. This is the ultimate objective of the class struggle and it is the only way to liberate the working people.
I want to end by expressing my profound gratitude to the organizers of this lecture. I congratulate our dear comrade Oluseye Ero-Phillips on the occasion of his retirement and while wishing him a restful retirement, I will like to beseech him to try where possible to continue to deploy his immense experience to guide the activities of the unions in LASUSTECH and the trade union movement in general by offering useful advice and direction when required and also by mentoring a new generation who can help build on the legacy he is leaving behind.
Comrade Hassan Taiwo Soweto
Education Rights Campaign (ERC)
Friday, 6 January 2023.