A university lecturer Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the Department of Public Administration of the University of Abuja has said that the protracted minimum wage crisis in Nigeria has been as a result of too much politics and other intervening variables. He also called for a strategic change of attitude in the ways the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Governments have been relating in Nigeria’s industrial relations’ system in the past forty years. Prof. Obasi made this call while delivering the 34th Inaugural Lecture of the university titled Public Policy in the Management of Industrial Relations. The lecture which attracted a large audience from within and outside the university was held on March 28, 2018 at the Faculty of Management Sciences Lecture Theatre of the university. A representative of the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment Mr. Usenekong Akpan; a former Minister of Education Prof. Fabian Osuji as well as a former Minister of National Planning and Chief Economic Adviser to President Obasanjo Prof. Ode Ojowu were among the many dignitaries that graced the occasion.
Essentially the lecture examined how public policy has affected the conduct of industrial relations since the emergence of ASUU and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in 1978. Prof. Obasi traced the historical shifts in public policy on industrial relations from the colonial doctrine of voluntarism, to unilateralism, and to the era of limited and full government intervention which culminated into the new Labour Policy in 1975. Prof. Obasi subsequently focused in details on two very contentious issues in Nigeria’s turbulent industrial relations history namely the National Minimum wage fixing process and the vexatious ASUU-FG cycle of conflict which has lingered for the past four decades.
On National Minimum wage fixing process, Prof. Obasi revealed that from colonial era to the period of military rule, unilateralism held sway in the public sector. Unilateralism was a situation in which the government fixed wages by unilateral administrative decisions rather than by joint consultations and negotiations between the government (as employer) and its workers. These Prof. further said was the period of over-dependence on ad hoc wage review commissions. However, it was during the period of civilian democratic period of the Second Republic on- wards, that national minimum wage struggles began in earnest. Minimum wage has since the enactment of the Minimum Wage Act of 1981 remained unfortunately a long and tortuous struggle rather than a smooth and mutually beneficial collective bargaining exercise between the Federal government and the NLC. For example minimum wage struggles have been characterized variously in the popular media as ‘unending struggles’ and as ‘maximum problem’ for workers which should not be so. Again, minimum wage has also been seen as ‘minimum benefit’ and ‘maximum palaver’ for workers. The latest now is that minimum wage is going to attract ‘maximum VAT’. The truth is that there has been too much politics and foot-dragging in minimum wage fixing process.
With respect to the vexatious ASUU-FG cycle of conflict, Prof. Obasi came hard on both sides in what has become an intractable conflict that has also become highly inimical to the development of the entire university system. He located the root of the conflict between ASUU and the Federal Government to its asymmetric and structure-oriented character, which unfortunately makes the conflicting parties to see themselves in antagonistic and irreconcilable terms. ASUU as an ideologically radical union projects and operates a working class ideology that challenges the legitimacy of the prevailing capitalist order promoted by the Bretton-Woods institution in Washington. ASUU in its Benin Declaration in 1984 he noted, called on the Nigerian working and oppressed people to struggle for the constant deepening of the democratic content and patriotic consciousness of the society so that a system can be created that ensures just and equitable distribution of power and resources. According to this declaration, such struggle is between democracy and oppression, between true independence and neo-colonial slavery. This declaration announced ASUU’s liberation mission, over which it has remained unbending in its strategy and tactics as a radical union. One major takeaway from this, is that ASUU’s liberation mission and its endless struggles against successive governments that have been less sensitive to the needs of the universities, constitute the animating and driving force of the cyclic nature of ASUU–Government conflict.
Unfortunately, the conservative nature of the eleven federal governments which ASUU has had to engage with over the years, radicalized ASUU leadership more and more, and also its otherwise ideologically docile rank and file who are easily mobilized for industrial actions with bread and butter attractive carrots such as anticipated new salary, academic earned allowance etc. Prof. Obasi observed that he had revealed in a study in 1991 that given ASUU’s radical ideological character vis-a-vis government’s conservative nature, (which makes the conflict a class war), the management of the conflict would continue to be intractable unless both sides see themselves as partners in progress rather than enemies in the workplace. Antagonistic conflicts he noted are not easily resolved through the instrumentality of collective bargaining. This is the root of the floppy nature and eventual failure of collective bargaining in the management of the conflict, and explains also why the conflict runs cyclically with incessant strikes as its most striking feature. This has made students and their parents to bear much of the brunt, while serious academic activities such as research among lecturers suffer greatly. With an average strike period of over 4 months in the life of ASUU, no one would take research findings in our universities seriously. This has indeed become the bane of ASUU’s familiar slogan of total, comprehensive, and indefinite strike. Strikes occur everywhere in the world, but they need to be very short in duration as both sides are sensitive to huge man-hour loss to the economy..
Before his recommendations, Prof. Obasi concludes as follows: (a) Public policies in the two-broad areas focused in the lecture (national minimum wage fixing, and ASUU-FG conflict) were more effective in causing and sustaining industrial unrest than in promoting industrial peace; (b) Government’s conservatism induces labour radicalism – a case of negligent leadership begetting militant followership; (c) successive federal governments remained consistently weak in their commitment to the principles of collective bargaining; (d) government’s weak policy commitment begets labour antagonism which in turn heightens labour-management conflict, e.g. FG’s unfulfilled promises beget further labour agitations, and ASUU radicalism feeds fat on this; (e) Management of ASUU-FG cycle of conflict would continue to remain intractable in so far as its asymmetric and structure-oriented character remains; and lastly, the adoption of a long and tortuous minimum wage negotiation process is anti-workers and against the spirit of progressive governance.
Prof. Obasi made the following recommendations among others: (a) There is need for the federal government to review its weak policy implementation commitment causing avoidable labour unrest; (b) strong policy commitment towards collective bargaining principles is urgent e.g. government should negotiate in good faith, implement agreements reached with labour, and keep promises made; (c) strong policy commitment is an antidote to ASUU’s radicalism, e.g. for a start, government should increase funding level from current 7% (2018 budget) to 20% and see what happens in the next five years i.e. possible emergence of a new era of industrial peace in public universities; (d) Government should avoid long and tortuous negotiation process that generates more labour unrest, but should rather adopt less controversial methods of fixing minimum wage such as automatic adjustments/inflation-adjusted system, among others.
With respect to ASUU-Government conflict, Prof. Obasi recommended inter-alia (a) the need for effective government commitment to collective bargaining and policy implementation is very crucial, as mere assurances, re-assurances, promises or expressed good intentions on worker’s welfare, are not enough, no matter how many times made; (b) both ASUU and the Government need to change their antagonistic perception of each other (with its positional bargaining approach) and move along pragmatic, constructive and cooperative relations, (c) ASUU should have realized by now that after 40 years of waging a radical struggle with unbending modus operandi (though with some spectacular victories), the time has come for it to change its strategy and tactics in its struggle to a more constructive engagement – it is a historical fact that those spectacular victories came also with some unforgettable pyrrhic victories as the case of the tragic loss of Prof. Festus Iyayi in an avoidable vehicular accident, and the case of the University of Ilorin 49 lecturers amply demonstrate; and lastly, (d) to help ASUU change its rigid operational style, the government should provide the green light. Such green light is necessary for the emergence of a new era of less chaotic and more peaceful and stable industrial relations practice in Nigeria. This Prof. Obasi finally said, is indeed what public policy in the management of industrial relations is crying out now for urgent attention.