The ongoing struggle against the latest increase in the pump price of petroleum products has expectedly eclipsed the issue of trade union bill in the national discourse. But the labour leadership and pro-labour organisations and activists must not be myopic and go to bed. One must not forget that there is iron hoop link between the trade union bill and the unending struggles against the incessant increase in fuel price.
It would be recalled that Obasanjo led government rushed to the national assembly with the vexatious and vindictive bill shortly after the general strike and protest led by NLC against the hike in fuel price in June this year. This is not accidental. It is on record that the NLC had led four general strikes in four years on the same issue. Thus, there was growing discomfort of the Obasanjo administration with the role of the NLC in leading the Nigerian masses in opposition against the anti-people policies euphemistically called economic reforms, especially the incessant increase in the prices of the petroleum products. When he was in Europe sometime this year, Atiku Abubakar, the vice president, told the representatives of international finance institutions that NLC was the main obstacle towards achieving the regime’s economic reforms. Adolphus Wabara, the Senate President, reechoed this point of view when he stated that the Nigeria’s creditors were not pleased with the general strikes and protests led by the NLC and thus their refusal to grant the country debt relief. In the nutshell the kernel of the bill is to emasculate opposition to the implementation of the IMF/World Bank inspired neo-liberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, downsizing, etc
The upper chamber of the Nigerian National Assembly, the senate passed the bill on Thursday, September 9, 2004. The speed and manner with which the bill was passed expose the intensity of desperation of the government and urgency it attaches to the crippling of the Nigeria labour movement. The bill was passed by 36 senators in 109- member chamber, i.e. without quorum, and in the absence of the chairman and members of the senate labour committee that worked on it. It is the fastest bill to be passed so far in the history of the senate in the current republic.
Although, some of the obnoxious provisions of the original bill like the discretionary power arrogated to the minister on the formation of federation of trade unions have been removed, the senate’s version still largely retains the undemocratic and anti-labour character of the original bill. For instance, it outlaws picketing and strikes on government policies like fuel price increase beyond direct labour related issues as wages and welfare package. It also makes it illegal for the workers in the so-called essential services, which include education, health, electricity, air traffic control and aviation, communication and water services, to go on strike. This barbaric and fascist provision was actually not in the original bill but was smuggled to it from the second bill, Trade Union Disputes (Essential Services) sponsored by Senator Tafida, the leader of PDP in the senate, of course at the behest of Obasanjo. In order to ensure strict compliance to the bill as passed by the senate, it prescribes six-month jail term or N10, 000 fine or both for the violators.
It is a bitter irony and sheer hypocrisy that the government that does not see health and education sectors, for instance, as essential services to deserve adequate funding, sees them as such while it is determined to use legal instrument to prevent strikes in the sectors. More so, the workers do not go on strike for the sake of it, but as a reaction to the characteristic under-funding of the essential services.
The bill as it is now has not become law; the process remains its passage by the lower chamber, i.e. the House of Representatives, harmonization of the areas of conflict by the two chambers and the assent of the president. The bill has already passed through the second reading in the lower chamber, remaining two steps, the labour committee’s work along with public hearing and the final reading. From all indications the house’s version of the bill when passed will not be fundamentally different from that of the senate except if there are intensive political actions.
Although, Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, has held protests and rallies in some states’ capital cities and Abuja, which were visited with police brutality and repression, the labour leadership has not done much to educate rank and file workers and the masses and mobilise them for political actions. The so-called rallies organised were poorly attended due to the refusal of the leadership to mobilise the workers as a tactical approach to the struggle. It appears they rely solely on the goodwill of the national assembly to defeat this brazen assault on workers’ rights. Even despite being let down by the senate, they still repose hope in the house for a better deal without political action as a back up.
We in Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights CDWR have been involved in the struggle against this anti-labour bill armed with our campaign materials and slogan for a day of mass political action since the outset. It is on record we organised the first major public enlightenment programme on the bill. This symposium held on August 23, 2004 at NLC Lagos National Secretariat and organised in conjunction with Kolagbodi Memorial Foundation, a pro-labour NGO, had in attendance over 200 workers and labour activists. Earlier on June 21 we had written a petition to the national assembly on the bill. Moreover, we also actively participated in the Abuja and Lagos rallies of NLC and were recognised to speak on the two occasions.
In furtherance of our effort to popularize the struggle among the rank and file workers and the masses, and to take the campaign far and wide beyond the major cities of Lagos and Abuja, we have commenced separate discussion with the two of the biggest affiliates of NLC, the Non- Academic Staff Union of Educational and Related Institutions, NASU and National Union of Local Government Employees NULGE for collaboration.
Moreover, we involve our student members in the campaign. The branches in the Polytechnic Ibadan and University of Ibadan are holding public symposium on their campuses on Wednesday, September 15 and Thursday September 16, 2004 respectively. That of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile- Ife branch will come up soonest.
Remarkably, it should be noted that it was the series of campaigns, though partial, organised so far by the labour and pro-labour organisations including DSM, Kolagbodi Foundation and Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR) against the bill that forced the senate to delete some of provocative and anti-democratic features of the bill. This is a pointer to the fact if the campaign is intensified on full scale with the more enlightenment and involvement of the rank and file workers and the masses in the series of political actions, the bill can be killed right at the National Assembly.
In the course of the struggle against the deregulation/ incessant increase in the fuel price the demand for withdrawal of the anti-labour bill by the government must not be kept in the cooler but be placed boldly on the front burner. If after the fuel struggle the bill has not been defeated, the intensive preparation for a day of mass political action that will involve symposia, lectures, rallies, peaceful protests including general strike must begin in earnest. The three labour centres (NLC, TUC and CFTU), civil society groups, the trade unions particularly those in the so-called essential services must come together for a joint/ united action to defeat the bill. In order to maximize the strength of the movement the struggle against the anti labour bill must be linked to the overall struggle against the imperialist inspired policies of commercialisation, privatisation, deregulation, etc.
We in the CDWR shall remain steadfast in this campaign and even if the bill is eventually passed, we shall call for continued mass agitation until the obnoxious, anti-labour legislation is totally defeated.