Report by Emmanuel Adikwu
27 August 2006
The long awaited Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) led picketing of Nigerchin Electrical Development Company was finally flagged-off on August 15, 2006. Adams Oshiomhole, the President of NLC, led the picketing. CDWR intervened with placards and leaflets.
Despite the strong presence of armed policemen conveyed by 2 pick-up vans, by 10am the striking Nigerchin workers and some members of NUSDE (National Union of Shop and Distributive Employees) and NLC, adorned with anti-casualisation vests, placards and NLC flags, amidst coordinated chants of solidarity songs, gathered at Nigerchin. This hitherto restricted area had been cordoned off by mobile policemen for the past 2 months at the behest of the Nigerchin management in an attempt to drive away striking workers from the Nigerchin premises. Reporters from various media houses were on hand to cover this long awaited event.
At exactly 1:45pm the NLC president arrived for the exercise, and was heartily welcomed by the striking workers, most of whom had never met him before and had eagerly been expecting his presence for the last 2 months. To such workers, he was a tin god – as the sight of him was able to put out all the bottled up frustrations and lost hopes caused by the protracted delay of the picketing exercise. Other notable labour leaders at the picketing exercise were Bright Anokwuru, Chairman of NLC Anti- Casualisation Committee, Denja Yaqub; Elder Ukamba, Chief Arthur, NUSDE President, Babatunde, NUSDE Secretary General, Uwakolum, Senior Assistant General Secretary, Rufus Olusesan, NUSDE Vice President etc.
A platform was raised on which the NLC president stood to address the workers. He congratulated the workers for holding firm in the struggle. He said that casualisation is an evil that must be combated; the battle against casualisation has just begun and must be carried through. He promised that the battle would be taken to a logical conclusion. He mentioned the NLC’s stand on the issue of casualisation and contract labour and its commitment to defend and improve the welfare of workers. A solidarity call was also extended to the police whom he called “our brothers in uniform.” He promised the workers that he was going to dialogue with the Nigerchin management so as to resolve the crisis in their favour. He concluded his speech and came down from the raised platform but could not gain entrance to the premises that was locked from within.
While this was happening, the police team, who had called for an additional pick-up van loaded with police officers, became noticeably angry because the Nigerchin management was not receptive to peaceful dialogue being offered by the NLC. Management’s crudity in this regard angered not only the workers who were evidently disappointed by the fact that the management bluntly refused to negotiate with the NLC leadership. The police personnel, who for the past two months had had to mount a virtual occupation in order to keep the company minimally functioning, caught between workers carrying out legitimate agitations and an unreasonable intransigent management, subsequently moved their trucks away by about 50 metres from the hub of workers pickets, apparently to avoid needless confrontation with the striking workers. The event was almost turned into a mini-carnival as most of the labour leaders on ground took the opportunity to address the teeming crowd and to sing solidarity songs, while workers sang and danced heartily as if in a festive mood. Two activists stood by to control the traffic flow as lorries, cars and buses of all sorts pass through the busy industrial area.
Meanwhile, Oshiomhole’s attention was drawn to a SEWUN (Steel and Engineering Workers Union of Nigeria) circular pasted on the Nigerchin gate alleging that NUSDE was responsible for the unjust strike action by workers against the Nigerchin management. After reading through the circular, Oshiomhole asked some workers to tear it off since it lacks merit, is counter productive and ill motivated. There has been a long standing crisis between SEWUN and NUSDE. This crisis started with the spontaneous pull out of local union branches from SEWUN to join NUSDE because leaders of SEWUN has for long been seen as rabidly pro-management and completely anti-worker.
The reporters on hand used the opportunity to interview Oshiomhole on issues concerning his political ambition and the next line of action etc since discussions had been made impossible by the management. He later returned to the raised platform to reassure the workers of his total commitment to the struggle. He listed the subsidiaries of Nigerchin to also be picketed amongst which are: WAHUM, WAHUM packaging, BAMCO, PMP, all in Lagos – except ABM that is situated in Otta - which he promised will be picketed by the NLC branch in Ogun State. He promised that proper and extensive mobilisation would be carried out within the 29-affiliate unions of the NLC to that effect. He also stated that since the Nigechin management had made dialogue impossible by denying him access to the premises, the workers would make it impossible for them to continue to operate without meeting the strikers’ demands.
He came down from the platform and granted more interview to reporters. Most of his conclusions were in line with our slogans… but like we have always said, unless actions are matched with words - such radical speeches will lie in futility. He later had discussions with Segun Sango, DSM General Secretary, on recent political developments and the picketing exercise. While he was discussing with Segun, one of the victimised PARCO worker bearing a placard inscribed thus: “Adams, PARCO workers needs your intervention”, took a CDWR leaflet on the PARCO struggle to Oshiomhole. According to Oshiomhole, he was seeing or hearing anything about the PARCO struggle for the first time. But he promised to see to it that the struggle is taken to a logical conclusion. The PARCO struggle had been on since August 2005 and CDWR has played an active role in the process of bringing life back to the protracted PARCO struggle that is still lingering in limbo.
The Nigerchin workers were seen carrying posters announcing the death of their colleague whom they claimed was one of their spokesmen. His name is Mr. Anthony Obogo, whom they claimed was murdered by a management agent on August 7, 2006 while staying at his sister’s house since it was closer to Nigerchin. Mr. Anthony Obogo decided to live with his sister since he had to report on a daily basis along with his colleagues to where the striking workers were driven to (a distance of about 500 metres from the Nigerchin main gate) by the policemen detailed to frustrate the striking workers.
At about 3pm, Oshiomhole went on break, returned to the picketing exercise, stayed a while and later took his leave.
At about 4 pm, management staff and the few workers carrying out skeletal services started showing signs of hunger and weariness since they could not go on break - as they remained trapped in the premises. This was thanks to the unreasonable stance exhibited by the Nigerchin management in remaining unduly adamant and insensitive, all because it believes that State power of coercion – as represented by the police – could be used to thwart workers collective might, as represented by the workers union. Minutes later a man was spotted trying to smuggle two loaves of bread to the Nigerchin premises, he was immediately accosted and the loaves were taken by angry workers who immediately shared and ate the said bread.
At about 5 pm, workers started coming out of the factory gate but remain trapped within the premises, while those on night shift could not get in either. The labour leaders present made mention of an official of the Federal Ministry of Labour that is trapped inside the Nigerchin premises by the picketing exercise. They said that he had since been reported to the Ministry and that disciplinary action will be taken against him by the Ministry for leaving his office without permission without going back to his office before closing hours. It was further mentioned that he came there to collect bribe instead of working towards the resolution of the industrial crisis on ground.
The Nigerchin crisis started exactly two months ago when the Nigerchin management decided to force its workforce to belong to a trade union (SEWUN) which the workers have vowed never to have any dealings with. The management went ahead to pay SEWUN the check-off membership dues from workers meant for NUSDE, the trade union embraced by the workers. The workers demanded that the management should respect their democratic rights to join and belong to a union of their choice, a demand that the management paid deaf ears to, a situation that led the workers to down tools on June 15, 2006.
Close to 200 workers were at the picketing exercise, it was impossible for us to sell any material as most labour activists already have our materials. The Nigerchin workers are too poor to buy any since they are out of work for two months without pay and are already overburdened with endless family crisis of all sorts.
The management was held within the Nigerchin premises till about 8:30 pm by the striking workers who promised to be out as early as 5 am to mount blockade at the Nigerchin premises as a means of forcing the management to dialogue with the NLC.