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21st August 2004

OBASANJO’S TRADE UNION BILL: NLC Must Lead A Fight Against This Frontal Assault On Workers’ Rights Now!

The DSM fully backs the NLC resolution to mobilise nation-wide mass action against Labour Bill currently being debated by the National Assembly. According to the NLC President, Adams Oshiomhole, labour "shall...mobilize Nigerian people to resist not only the labour law, but all unjust policies... We must depend on Nigerian people to defend us, since we are being attacked for defending them". (ThisDay, August 13, 2004). The DSM fully identifies with these objectives and sentiments.

In all essential aspects, the proposed Bill represents the most comprehensive attempted legal assaults ever mounted by any Nigerian capitalist government, either under colonialism, military or so-called civil rule, against the democratic rights and aspirations of the trade unionists and the working masses in totality.

This law is a revenge for the four general strikes that the NLC has called in the last four years. Seeing how the NLC has been able to mobilise the vast majority of Nigerians in opposition to fuel price hikes, Obasanjo's imperialist-backed clique are attempting to legally cripple the trade unions.

If passed into an Act, the legal and democratic rights of Nigerian workers to freely associate and embark on collective struggles to strive to better their own lots would fare no better than that of the working masses of the stone-age era - a virtual slavery condition, where employers whims and caprices constitute the laws! But it is one thing to pass undemocratic laws, it is quite another to implement them. A determined mass movement could smash any legal shackles. Obasanjo hopes that this law will produce a tamed trade union leadership that will act as policemen to hold back their own members from struggling.

To defeat these frontal assaults on trade unions and masses democratic rights, the NLC leaders must therefore be sincerely ready to match their words with commensurate deeds and sustained actions.

NATIONAL ASSEMBLY: An Anti-poor, Anti-working Class Club

Unfortunately however, the conflicting and contradictory pronouncements credited to Oshiomhole in the above-cited edition of THISDAY clearly shows that the NLC leaders are still trapped under the illusion that a mutually beneficial, acceptable solutions can be reached between capitalist governments/private employers and the working masses on key economic and political issues.

The NLC president correctly in our view, declared: "We must depend on Nigerian people to defend us". Regrettably however, this fundamental truism will not likely constitute the primary strategy of how the NLC leadership intends to prosecute this just and necessary campaign. According to Oshiomhole, NLC has "resolved to make a passionate appeal to National Assembly and to remind them that they have joined labour through motions in condemning fuel price increase for which we are being persecuted... We have never taken any decision that is in conflict with National Assembly... We expect the National Assembly to deliberate on the bill and ensure that the fears and wishes of Nigerians are upheld". In a special publication titled "President Obasanjo's Trade Union Bill: Message To Nigerians", dated July 2004, the NLC, amongst other things stated: "To the National Assembly, we say, do not forget you are the peoples representatives".

It should be stressed that these statements are incorrect in every material particular. Tragically too, it contradicts and in reality repudiates the commitment "to depend on Nigerian people to defend us". It is incorrect to give the impression that the National Assembly has always backed labour cause against incessant increment of fuel prices. Yes, at one time or the other, National Assembly may have passed resolutions that appeared to be against fuel price increment. Nevertheless, this act in reality was nothing but sheer hypocrisy. Under the 1999 constitution of Nigeria, the National Assembly possesses the exclusive powers to determine issues relating to taxes and oil matters in all ramifications. Yet, it had never deemed it fit to challenge the practical usurpation of its powers in this respect by the executive headed by General Olusegun Obasanjo.

Collectively and virtually, every member of the current National Assembly fully subscribes to the prevailing, dominant capitalist, neo-liberal agenda of massive privatisation of public utilities and resources together with total price deregulation of all goods and services. There is therefore no reasonable basis to assume that anybody who subscribes to neo-liberal, capitalist ideology can seriously and consistently oppose incessant fuel price hike a.k.a price deregulation. In fact, in his first ever public comment on the bill, the senate president Adolphus Wabara actually betrayed part of the raison d'être for the bill when he stated that the Nigeria Labour Congress was the main obstacle to Nigeria securing debt relief as the country's creditors, the international financial institutions, had been complaining over the incessant strikes and protests led by the labour.

It is therefore utopia to expect this kind of gathering to pass a Trade Union Act that will "ensure that the fears and wishes of Nigerians are upheld". Let us remember that even the US State Department was forced to say that last year's elections were "not generally judged free and fair and (they) therefore abridged citizens' right to change their government". Most members of the National Assembly practically stole their mandates or bought their mandates with looted funds! In reality, the kind of elements that predominate in the National Assembly and other structures of government are those whose underserved splendor and vain ego can only be sustained when the "fears and wishes" of the Nigerian masses are trampled upon.

The speaker of the House of Representative, Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari, at the peak of the mobilisation for the general strike of June 2004 against hike in fuel prices, while purportedly supporting the NLC stance on the matter declared at the same time that fuel prices must ultimately be decided on "merit" a.k.a "market forces". Despite wide spread opposition of labour and pro-labour organisations to the proposed Bill, the senate, at its sitting of August 12, 2004, unanimously adopted a resolution remitting the Bill to the committee stage, after having, in legislative parlance, done the first reading of the Bill!

THE BILL – What It Means

Centrally, the two proposed Bills, Trade Unions Act (Amendment) Bill 2004 and Trade Disputes Act (Essential Services) Amendment Bill 2004, seek to give government and employers legal powers to destroy all manifestations of democratic expressions of the working masses to struggle to protect their economic and political interests in the face of relentless assaults on these interests by the pro-rich, pro-imperialist government and employers which dominate contemporary society.

Every one of the proposed amendments in the two Bills cited above was consciously inserted to practically undermine the inherent powers possessed by the trade unions and the poor working masses in general. However, due to the age long pro-capitalist, pro-management outlook and conducts of most trade union leaders, some sections of the working masses consequently but falsely hope that these Bills could contain some gifts in disguise. Let nobody, amongst labouring masses and socialists, be deceived. There is nothing progressive in the proposed Labour Bills being processed currently by the National Assembly. We are not saying that the present trade unions are perfect, but only trade unionists people themselves can change them in their own interests. Obasanjo's plan is to create trade unions that support oppression and exploitation rather than help liberate working people.

The most sensational aspect of the proposed amendments being sought by the General Olusegun Obasanjo led PDP capitalist government is the one which seeks to de-recognise the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) as the sole "central labour organisation". In principle, we in the DSM have always maintained the position that the issue of trade unions creation, organisation and activities should be the exclusive prerogative of members of trade unions themselves and not a legislative subject. In other words, the number of industrial unions and or trade union federations, must always be determined through democratic means and aspirations of trade unionists themselves and the working masses in general. Unfortunately however, the proposed amendments to the existing Trade Union Act are based on the philosophy which totally subjects the right to freedom of association, including trade union rights, absolutely to the whims and caprices of capitalist government and employers of labour in general. Yes, in the proposed amendment, the NLC will cease to be the sole "Central Labour Organisation". On the surface, this implies that other willing industrial unions could form independent trade union federation whenever they so desired.

This is a totally mistaken assumption. Section 30 (1a) of the Trade Union Act (Amendment) Bill 2004 makes the following provisions: "Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (1)(a) of this section, the minister in his discretion may approve that members of two or more trade unions whose members are not employed in the same trade, occupation or industry, or in substantially similar trades, occupations or industries, form a federation of trade unions, if it is in public interest so to do". Evidently, from the above provisions, the rights to form industrial unions and or trade union federations or centres have become seriously circumscribed. Instead of regarding freedom of association, including trade union rights as an inalienable fundamental right of the working masses, the proposed laws seek to put the enjoyment of these rights at the "discretion of the minister" and only if "it is in the public interest so to do". But the big question is who determines "the public interest"? Obviously, the ruling government and their imperialists, capitalist mentors.

At the peak of the June/July 2003 general strikes and protests against hike of fuel prices, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), an association of mostly managerial and semi-managerial employees, openly disassociated itself from the ongoing strike, even though most of its members were never part of the strike. In reaction, some industrial unions within the TUC who felt betrayed by the TUC's leadership position split from TUC to form the Congress of Free Trade Unions (CFTU). Under the proposed bill, the minister will have absolute discretion of whether to recognise and register a formation like CFTU or not, which of course, as quoted above, will ultimately be determined on the basis of an undefined and nebulous concept called "public interest".

Presently, membership and dues deduction are semi-automatic. Where a trade union already exists in an industry, a newly employed worker automatically becomes a member of the union in the industry or public sector and his/her salary is subject to automatic deduction for trade union dues. Presently, any worker that no longer wishes to be a member of a union can in writing to his/her employers, ask that union dues be no longer deducted from his/her salary. Under the current dispensation, any establishment with a minimum number of 5 employees may resolve to form a trade union branch operating within the industry. Therefore, the carrot in the proposed Trade Union law is the provision, which stops automatic deduction of trade union dues from workers salaries. And many workers that are bitter and/or frustrated by the often pro-government, pro-employers outlook and conducts of most trade union leaders may see something good in the new proposal. But this is an entirely mistaken viewpoint.

Right from 1978 when the current trade union act promulgated under Obasanjo’s military regime then as decree made provisions for automatic deduction of check-off (union) dues, many socialist and progressive trade union activists expressed their opposition to the idea, maintaining that union leaders were likely to become disconnected from the actual conditions of their members once they had access to stable pool of resources, which they did not have to pursue. To a large extent, the conservative disposition of most contemporary trade union leaders could be traced to the condition created by the above-cited law. But like in 1978, the current proposal to cripple the financial base of unions is meant to weaken and/or destroy and not to strengthen trade unions. The method may be outwardly different but the goal remains the same. In 1978, the idea was to use the availability of large, lump sum of easy money to corrupt labour leaders with the primary motive of rendering the unions less militant and as such, less relevant to the aspirations of the ordinary trade union members.

Today, the idea of making sure that the trade unions are starved of funds to function is equally directed to achieve this same self-serving, anti-workers objective. This is why we say that only the action of union members themselves can democratise their organisations in their own interests. The proposed law gives the false impression that workers are currently being forced to become members of the union. The truth however, is the exact opposite. In many enterprises and factories across the country, many workers engage in daily struggles to have the right to form and belong to trade unions. In almost all cases, these agitations were usually and routinely suppressed through the usage of sacks and police repression.

Under the proposed labour dispensation, membership of trade unions shall be absolutely "voluntary". Henceforth, a worker that wishes to belong to trade unions will first and foremost have to give written instructions to his/her employers to deduct certain amount from his/her salaries as union dues for his/her chosen trade union. We therefore ask: Will workers now have greater choice to form or belong to trade unions whenever they so desire? The answer is capital No. Section 16(A) of the proposed amendment states: "Upon the registration and recognition of any trade unions specified in the third schedule to this Act, an employer may, subject to the express consent of worker who is eligible and willing to be a member of any trade union, make deduction from wages of such worker for the purpose of paying contributions to the trade union so registered" and "(b) pay any sum so deducted directly to the registered office of the trade union provided that compliance with the provisions of this Act shall be subject to the insertion of a "No strike clause" in the relevant collective Bargaining Agreements between workers and their employers". On the basis of this law, workers' right to form or belong to trade unions of their choice or any meaningful trade union at all has been practically outlawed.

Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria states in parts: "Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular, he may form trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests". (Emphasis ours). Moreover, as against the false impression being created by the government that the new law is in line with the international labour standards, the proposed law contravenes every letter and spirit of International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention and Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention respectively). Article 2 of C87 states: "Workers and employers, without distinction shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation".

However, under the proposed law, a trade union can only exist upon "registration and recognition" by the powers that be! Two, under the proposed law, members of even the existing unions will have to give fresh express consent for their unions dues to be deducted and paid to their union of choice. Thereafter, according to the proposed law, the employer may act on such "express consent" if the worker involved is deemed "eligible" to be a union member! Even so, such deductions shall be paid directly to the registered office of the trade union, a method, which will absolutely puts work-based units of the unions (assuming this will be allowed) under the unregulated whims and caprices of central labour bureaucrats.

Therefore, the trade unions envisaged under the proposed labour law will only be trade unions in name. In every important particular, it will be nothing but complete yellow, business unions. The so-called unions envisaged by the proposed labour law must be prepared to comply with a "no strike clause" in their constitution. This is a blatant attempt to produce tame trade unions that can only collect money if they renounce strike action. In other words, it gives up the only concrete weapon a worker has the right to withdraw their labour. Under the proposed labour law, it shall be an offence to engage in picketing during industrial actions. Equally, the concept of "no-work-no-pay" as regards periods of industrial strikes shall be strictly enforced. With the proposed labour law, the federal government through its minister will have powers to proscribe trade unions and at the same time seize their assets and any person(s) resisting such act shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction be liable to imprisonment not exceeding five (5) years. Due to age-long underfunding and neglect by successive capitalist governments, key social sectors such as health care, education, etc have suffered monumental decline, a situation that has also brought forth incessant struggles and resistance by various layers of education workers. Under the proposed labour dispensation, government has no plans to address the various concrete issues being raised by education workers such as ASUU. Instead, it has come up with the disingenuous idea of classifying education, healthcare, etc as essential sectors whose strikes will be completely outlawed! Against this background therefore, the NLC has to say that even if this law is passed, it will not accept any limitations on workers' rights and will mobilise to defend any workers or trade unions threatened by this new law.

LESSONS

If it could be said that there existed in some quarters doubt about Obasanjo's democratic credentials, the proposed labour law has completely exploded such doubts as absolutely baseless. Therefore, the only obvious conclusion that can be drawn from the motive behind this highly undemocratic and anti-labour regime being prepared by the General Obasanjo led PDP government is that the ruling class is prepared to use all means, especially foul ones, to preserve its unjust economic and political interest against the vast majority of the working people.

But let no one make the mistake that the draconian anti-democratic feature of the proposed law is a reflection of personal flaws of President Obasanjo. Of course, President Obasanjo at every critical stage of his political career has proved over and over again that he is a consulate anti-democratic element. The latest manifestation of Obasanjo's contempt for anything democratic can be seen from his conduct over the issue of who becomes the next Oba of Owu, his own native community. President Obasanjo's choice as an Oba failed to win the vote of majority of Kingmakers - 8 of them in all, including Obasanjo himself. Rather than accepting the verdict of the Kingmakers, President Obasanjo decided to forcibly snatch the electoral result from the local government officer who conducted the election and tore it to pieces in the presence of all those present. From somebody generally known to have, in conjunction with other elements within PDP and INEC, stolen his political mandate as President, Obasanjo's conduct at the meeting of Owu Kingmakers was therefore a habitual conduct.

The fact that the highly undemocratic proposed labour law has passed through the Senate's first reading is a clear confirmation that the entire capitalist ruling class will stop at nothing to keep the working masses in perpetual misery and political bondage.

Sadly however, the NLC leadership does not appear to fully recognise and or accept the fact that the conflict between the capitalist ruling class and the working people is totally irreconcilable. In the ThisDay edition earlier cited, the NLC president was reported to have urged President Olusegun Obasanjo to have a rethink on this issue in the interest of Nigeria. He was reported further to have stated that if President Obasanjo was able to live with workers movement for five years, he should be able to accommodate the body for the remaining two and half years of his second tenure.

Glaringly, from this sentiment, the Adams Oshiomhole led NLC clearly fails to recognise the fact that giving the increasing incapacity of the capitalist state to guarantee the basic means of livelihood to the vast majority of the working people, the only way it could sustain its unjust rule is a resort to act of repression and suppression. Therefore, as a consummate capitalist statesman, President Obasanjo, through the proposed law not only wants to ensure that the remaining years of his second term tenure are totally free from labour resistance but also that the powers of labour are clawed for the benefit of future capitalist governments. What therefore is expected of the labour movement is equally a conscious and committed leadership, which is implacably prepared to fight to finish not only the proposed labour law but all anti-labour and anti-peoples’ policies in their entirety.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE

The sheer anti-democratic scope and features of the proposed law is a clear manifestation of the fears of the potential powers of the organised working class by the PDP capitalist government. In the past five years, through series of general strikes and protests led by the NLC, the Obasanjo regime has been forced to come to recognise the fact that only an organised working class movement constitutes an insurmountable obstacle towards its pro-rich, anti-working masses agenda. The proposed repressive labour law is, in this context, a reactive measure designed to kill the labour movement. In all ramifications, the proposed labour law is completely undemocratic and unconstitutional, especially in the light of section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In all special respects, the proposed law is akin to the 2002 Electoral Act which prescribed several undemocratic and unconstitutional provisions designed to prevent the emergence of new political parties in addition to the three political parties created by the General Abdulsalami Abubakar led military junta in 1998. However, through the combination of massive propaganda, agitations and legal challenges spearheaded by the National Conscience Party (NCP), that obnoxious Electoral Act was eventually pronounced unconstitutional and as such, struck down by the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Therefore, if labour immediately commences massive propaganda and agitations among all rank and file members of Trade Unions, organised and non-organised workers and the general masses, the proposed undemocratic draconian labour law can be easily defeated. As have been amply demonstrated above, the proposed labour law strikes at the very existence of trade unionism in particular and the oppressed masses democratic rights in general. To rebuff this crippling attack, we in the DSM propose a DAY OF ACTION, which will involve symposia, lectures, rallies, peaceful protests, including general strike to highlight the dangers of the proposed law and also as a warning against the passage of the bill by National Assembly. Depending on the outcome of such a DAY OF ACTION, further appropriate actions should be planned and executed until the outrageous proposed law is totally defeated.

However, as we in the DSM often state, the Obasanjo's capitalist government or any other capitalist government for that matter for every second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year in which it remains in power will only remain to plot how to compound the economic and political woes of the working masses in one way or the other. As such, even if the labour movement is able to defeat the proposed labour law, the Obasanjo's government will attempt and devise other means of achieving its ignoble strategy of silencing working peoples opposition to its pro-rich, anti-poor agenda such as privatisation of public utilities and national resources, privatisation and commercialisation of health care, housing, education, etc, incessant hike in fuel prices, mass retrenchment of workers, electoral manipulations and riggings, etc.

We consequently restate our long held position that the NLC leadership and other trade union leaders should take an immediate concrete step to set in motion a process for the convocation of a Special Conference of labour activists, pro-masses and radical organisations and parties like the NCP, NANS, DSM, DA, etc. with a view to working out a common political agenda/party, within which all the forces that had always sided with labour in all past and present struggles can collaborate to fight for the winning of economic and political power from the capitalist class. Organisations like the NCP could equally initiate such a process. If built on an independent working people's economic and political interests, such a formation can grow rapidly and strong enough sooner than later, to capture political power and thereafter begin the process to bring to a permanent end the economic, political, national, religious, etc, exploitation, oppression and deprivations being suffered by the overwhelming majority of mankind under capitalism.

However, for this end to be attained, the trade union structures itself must undergo a revolutionary transformation. First, the trade unions and the NLC have to be run as fighting, militant and democratic organisations. The prevailing bureaucratic approach whereby only a few elements at the top take all organisational, strategic and political decisions is not only prone to abuse and corruption, it can never help in bringing out the best from the trade union rank-and-file and the entire working class in any given struggle. Two, the right conclusions need to be drawn from Obasanjo's assault on trade unionism. This attack totally undermines the prevailing pathetic mentality of most labour leaders that strive in vain to reconcile the interests of the working masses with that of the capitalist rich. Imperialism and the Nigerian ruling class cannot allow strong trade unions; they see no hope to develop the country and therefore cannot afford to meet the justified demands of the vast majority of Nigerians. Hence, their answer to mass movements is deceit and repression. This is why the DSM argues that the labour movement needs to approach and act upon a policy that primarily sets out to emancipate the working masses from the ruinous rule of capital. In other words labour must adopt a political agenda to end capitalist rule instead of one seeking to reform it. It needs a social revolution against capitalism as opposed to an unattainable "social partnership" with capitalism for a workers' and poor peasants' government instead of a capitalist one.

If the trade union leaders address themselves properly and consistently to this task, the future struggles would meet the working masses better prepared and can lead to the socialist transformation of Nigeria. If not, the prevailing agonies of the masses will become prolonged and further struggles likely put in jeopardy.