Home Opinion The tyranny of labour unions, By Kazeem Akintunde

The tyranny of labour unions, By Kazeem Akintunde

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Labour leaders

Did you see the video posted on social media by Labour union leaders, rejoicing as they switched off power transmission equipment that heralded their now suspended strike which threw the nation into darkness? In the now-viral video, the labour leaders were happy and seemed possessed by an inner joy as they threw the entire country into darkness. They even had the effrontery to record it and post on social media for the world to see. And what was their grouse with the Federal Government?

Electricity workers, through their union, the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), among other issues, said that they were protesting a directive by the Board of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) mandating principal managers in acting capacity to appear for promotion interview before they could be promoted to the next grade. Joe Ajaero, Secretary-General of NUEE, said that the directive was in contravention of the workers’ conditions of service and career progression paths, adding that “it was unilaterally done without the relevant stakeholders.”

In a circular with number 012/2020 dated 15-08-2022, Ajaero said: “This directive is in contravention of our conditions of service and career progression paths, and unilaterally done without the relevant stakeholders.” He added that a reason for the industrial action also included stigmatisation and prevention of staff from the office of the Head of Service of the Federation from working in other areas in the power sector and refusal of the market operator to fund the payment of entitlements of the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN’s) ex-staff, as agreed in December, 2019.

And for those flimsy reasons, the union decided to shut down power assets which triggered a national electricity grid crash, crumbling power generation from over 4,000MW to 762MW and finally to zero at exactly 3.01p.m. Information from the Independent System Operation (ISO), a section of TCN, shows that power generation on the grid was 4,149.40MW as of 6 a.m. from 21 power plants on Wednesday but drastically dropped to 1,635MW from 17 plants when the protesters started shutting down power generation plants. It deteriorated as of 12 noon, crashing to 1,246.40MW as three power plants went off, and by 1 p.m, the grid dropped to 762.30MW with just 13 plants active before falling to zero. 

Under normal clime, the union leaders should be put behind bars but in Nigeria, under President Muhammadu Buhari, they are still flexing their muscles as they know that nothing will happen to them. We have a rudderless government in power to the extent that anything goes in the country now. Our President is either not concerned, not bothered, or he is just tired of the seat and is just marking time till he hands over to the next person. How can labour leaders include as part of their reasons for embarking on strike, a directive for senior managers that may be less than 20 in number to appear before a panel for an oral interview for them to be promoted to the next grade level? What is the big deal in attending a promotion interview? Is Ajaero and his bunch of economic saboteurs aware that in the federal civil service, senior staff due for promotion must sit and pass a written examination and also face another panel for oral interview before they could be promoted to the next grade?

Make no bones about it, what Ajearo and his colleagues did was pure economic sabotage. Their action within the 12 hours that the national action lasted which led to the collapse of the national grid cost the nation over N3 billion. The economic implication of their action alone is enough for them to be tried for sabotage. Aside that, with most private and public sectors reeling due to the high cost of diesel, electricity workers did not even consider the fact that those in the health sector, particularly doctors, may be involved in life-and-death situations, during which electricity may be needed for surgical procedures. Their action could have indirectly led to the death of many innocent Nigerians in hospital beds. But they spared no thought for those considerations, and were more concerned with not sitting for promotion interview. No wonder that we have many deadwoods in the system. While it is a known fact that the power sector was privatised eight years ago, the transmission segment, which wheels electricity from the generation plants to the distribution segment and to various homes and offices is still controlled by government due to its sensitive nature.

Prior to PHCN privatisation in 2014, electricity workers were barred by law from embarking on industrial actions, as such an action would have been deemed as economic sabotage punishable by a long prison term. Although, records show that under the defunct NEPA, workers attempted an industrial action in the 1990s and it was met with a brutal response from the Ibrahim Babangida military regime. The ring leaders were not only sacked, they were arrested and detained under Decree 2.

While the labour leaders went overboard with their decision to shut down the country’s electricity grid, it should also be noted that the Federal Government is not responsive to issues but rather always waiting for the deed to be done before embarking on their usual fire- brigade approach. The latest strike by electricity workers is the clearest manifestation of the administration’s inability to nib a problem in the bud. We have seen many instances in which every single problem grew into a crippling crisis in the last seven years before attempts were made to address them.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, has been on strike for over six months now, yet all serious attempts at resolving the imbroglio have ended in deadlock. The issue has escalated to the point whereby the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, has called on students to drag their lecturers to court for wasting their time. The Federal Government has also insisted that it would not pay the lecturers for the period of the strike while ASUU has also vowed not to return to the classrooms until all their outstanding salaries and allowances are paid. The future of our youths is being wasted by both parties and a very abnormal situation is now normal in Nigeria. How can anyone be said to be in charge of Nigeria?

Recently, members of the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), gave a three-week ultimatum to the Federal Government to meet their outstanding demands or face their wrath. Their demands, according to the National President of NARD, Aliyu Sokomba, includes for the Federal Government and the National Assembly to investigate what was responsible for the non-enrollment of health care workers in the group life assurance scheme for medical workers. He also called for the probe of non-payment of death benefits to next of kins of their fallen colleagues, “in spite of claims of payment to insurance companies for the purpose.”

The unionists are also demanding an immediate and unconditional reinstatement of suspended executives of the association at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), led by Solomon Amadi. “NEC notes with dismay, the continued administrative rascality and victimization of its members by the Chief Medical Director of (UPTH), Prof. Henry Ugboma. We frown at the suspension of resident doctors, who also double as the legitimate executive council officers of the Association of Resident Doctors in UPTH. The union also called for immediate removal of Prof Ugboma for alleged fraud, administrative rascality, unnecessary onslaught, victimisation and abuse of office. Aside that, the association is demanding payment of COVID-19 hazard allowance to its members. He noted that the association was disappointed that the COVID-19 hazard allowance payment was started only to be abandoned abruptly when NARD suspended its last strike. “NARD demands immediate implementation and funding of the Medical Residency Training Act as agreed.’’ He said the association also noted with dismay, the non-payment of the salary shortfall for 2014 to 2016, in spite of promises by several stakeholders to intervene, which led to the suspension of the strike. “NEC demands immediate payment of the arrears and the consequential adjustment of the new minimum wage owed some doctors. NARD calls on state governments to implement the Medical Residency Training Act and to ensure adequate remuneration of health workers.”

The association gave the Federal Government till August 17 to address the issues or they would be forced to embark on another round of strike. The union at the weekend, gave another two weeks for the government to respond to their demands after which the health sector may be thrown into another round of strike and confusion. 

All these flimsy excuses could have been resolved at a round table without members of the public getting to know full details. In Nigeria, labour leaders don’t seem to know how to engage those in authorities and resolve their grievances without recourse to strike. Government officials also seem unwilling to listen to union officials until issues involved become intractable.

In Nigeria, the first strike was recorded on 21 June 1945 after failure of protracted presentations to the government for salary increase. Then, about 150,000 clerical and non-clerical workers in the Nigeria civil service came together in a general strike of all government departments. Since then, the incidence of strike in Nigeria has been on the increase and unabated with far-reaching effects on the economy and other critical sectors. Most strikes are undertaken by labour unions when there is a breakdown or deadlock of negotiations or collective bargaining between employees and employers. Strike is usually reserved as the last weapon during negotiations between management and the union, which may occur just before; or immediately after the negotiation fails.

Now, however, a strike is usually the first option to union leaders. The National Assembly may have to make a law that criminalises an industrial action by certain workers, including electricity workers and those in the health sector just as it is illegal for law enforcement officers to go on strike. In most cases, parties (labour unions and government officials) still have to come to the roundtable to discuss and agree, which means that the strike could have been avoided in the first place. The appeal should be to those in positions of authority to set up mechanisms that will create effective channels of communication between the workers and government. We have suffered enough from the tyranny of labour unions.

See you next week.

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