Which of the unions is the apex umbrella body for Nigerian workers? The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) used to be the sole umbrella for the various affiliate unions before the formation of the Trade Union Congress (TUC). But now, there is another apex union – the United Labour Congress of Nigeria (ULC).
Until the debut of ULC as the third force, the NLC and TUC championed the cause of the workers.
The development has further deepened the two-year-old leadership crisis rocking the NLC. The leadership tussle was caused by the supremacy battle between two factions led by Ayuba Wabba and Joe Ajaero.
Ajaero, a factional President of the NLC, had refused to step down for Wabba, in wake of the crisis that followed the disputed outcome of the March 2015 National Delegates Conference (NDC) in Abuja.
All interventions made by those sympathetic to the labour movement, including former Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole and other past labour leaders, yielded no positive results. The gulf between the Wabba-led and Ajaero-led factions has not reduced.
Despite appeals from several quarters, including industrial unions, the recommendations in the report of the reconciliatory committee, headed by the former NLC President Hassan Sunmonu was never implemented.
Divisions over the 2015 strike and protest
The disagreement between the factions played out in failure of the organied labour to mobilised Nigerians to protest the withdrawal of petrol subsidy by the Federal Government in 2015.
Ajaero led his faction to collaborate with the government in finding solution to the issue. But, the Wabba-led faction opted for a nationwide strike, which was anything but successful. In fact, when the government invited the factions to a meeting over the subsidy removal, Wabba was quoted as saying that he would not hold meeting with government alongside the Ajaero faction. That forced the government to hold separate meetings with the factions.
As Wabba and Ajaero continued to battle for the soul of the NLC, their members remained at the mercy of the government as the organised labour lost its common voice on issues affecting workers’ welfare.
Ajaero group floats new union
The leadership crisis in the NLC got the climax on December 17, when the Ajaero faction broke away from NLC. It announced the formation of ULC as a new labour centre. In the new body are some unions affiliated to the TUC and NLC as well as some industrial unions that were hitherto, neither affiliated to the NLC, nor the TUC.
About 25 unions were said to have joined forces with the new association.
Some of the affiliates of the ULC include: National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Nigeria Union on Electricity Employees (NUEE), Nigeria Union of Mine Workers, National Union of Banks, Insurance and Financial Employees (NUBIFFE), Nigeria Union of Rail Workers, National Union of Lottery Agents, & Employees, Association of Nigeria Aviation Professionals (ANAP) and National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE).
Ajaero, who was elected unopposed to lead the new body, said that the ULC would fight for workers’ interest and ensure a more equitable Nigeria where workers’ dignity and the work place would become less prone to impunity.
According to him, ULC’s emergence would strengthen the labour movement and bring on board aggrieved elements to chart a new cause for the workforce.
“The new labour centre, instead of weakening the movement, will present labour as a creative partner that has strategic benefits for the public, especially the employers and the government”, he said.
The ULC leader said the new centre’s focus was to restore hope to the Nigerian workers, the oppressed, the victimised, the neglected and other relegated members of the society.
Explaining that the new body has no plan to contest with anybody or faction, Ajaero said ULC will remain an independent centre, adding that “the issue of faction is over.’’
Ajaero also said the new congress was emerging because of the exigency of the moment where people work without salaries for months and were being denied their rights by their employers.
NUPENGs President Igwe Achese was elected ULC’s deputy president. Three vice presidents, a treasurer, an auditor and a financial secretary among other officers, were elected to run the affairs of the centre.
The officials promised to stand for victims of unfair labour practices and those being owed months of salary arrears.
Implications of ULC's emergence
One obvious implication of ULC’s emergence is that the unions in critical sectors of the economy, including NUPENG, NUEE, NUBIFE, ANAP and NAAPE are among its affiliates.
Impliedly, the ULC would wield influence in the petroleum industry, power sector, financial, aviation, education, manufacturing and telecommunication sectors among others.
The name ULC is not new to the labour movement. It was the umbrella body for progressive unionists before the 1976 merger of unions following the restructuring of trade unions by the then military government under the late Gen. Muritala Mohammed/Olusegun Obasanjo.
Incidentally, the new ULC relies on the Trade Union Amendment Act of 2005, by the Federal Government headed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, to come into existence. But how far will the ULC go? Only time will tell.
Labour leaders react
Labour leaders across the country have been reacting to the new development in the NLC. They believe that labour, as a house divided against itself would lack cohesion to engage government policies. They are pushing for fence mending.
The National President, National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN), Oladele Hunsu, described the move as unfortunate and a big blow to labour movement.
According to him, labour movement needed to be more cohesive at this time rather than disintegrating, adding that the only gainers in the ongoing dispensation were government and employers.
The garment workers’ president, while lamenting the development, further said that workers, who look up to labour for protection from employers’ anti-labour activities, would be disappointed in their leadership.
He said: “There is something we always say in labour movement that ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. This is not the best time for this to have happened because workers look up to the movement for protection.
“We need a strong movement to confront government and employers, now that it is divided, how can we achieve that. Some of us are not happy.”
Hunsu said the challenges facing Nigerian workers required a strong labour movement to battle it, listing minimum wage, rising inflation and job losses as some of the issues requiring a virile and formidable union to address.
“The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) confirmed recently that about four million Nigerians have lost their jobs. That is not even true; they are being economical with the truth. These are areas that should be confronted. So, division at this time is saddening,” he said.
The labour leader, who expressed hope in the ability of a united movement to tackle government and employers’ anti-labour activities, advised both parties to come together for the sake of the workers.
“It is government that profits from this division; it is the class enemy that profits from the system,” he said.