The strategy of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) over the last decade or so has included extended negotiations, limited strike threats and generally calling off strikes at the last moment. The assumption appears to have been that we have decent governments that only occasionally need reminding to do the right thing. In fact we have corrupt governments that only work to further enrich themselves and their elite friends. They rarely, if ever, actually implement any agreements that they have signed with the trade unions.
In this situation, we require class struggle trade unionism. This takes the view that we are at war with a vicious enemy who is looting on a daily basis. The government has no care for the common people and it will even gun us down in the streets if it considers necessary. The trade unions must talk to the government in a language that it understands, that hurts their pockets and frightens them. We literally have to terrorise the ruling elite if we are to gain significant change and to improve the lives of the mass of the people. This approach was successfully implemented in Kaduna State in May 2021, if only briefly, until the NLC suspended its strike and allowed El-Rufai to regain his confidence.
This articles reviews the limited actions of the NLC and TUC over the last decade and demonstrates that the lack of action and solidarity has meant that the minimum wage, for example, has never been worth less in real terms than it is now. We then suffered months long fuel shortages and the current currency crisis with no action from the trade unions.
The minimum wage was increased to 18,000 naira by the Jonathan presidency in March 2011. It should have been renegotiated and implemented, at most five years later, by March 2016 (in contrast to the ILO recommends annual increases). In fact it was not made law until April 2019 and then slowly introduced across the states. In January, 2023 it had still not been fully implemented in Abia, Zamfara and Taraba states, according to the NLC, although other states have yet to fully implement the increase and are not paying their pensioners on time.
The NLC called off a general strike with the TUC over an increase in fuel prices in May 2016 after four days. The unions went on strike after the government raised the price of a litre of petrol from 86.50 naira to 145 naira. The leadership of the NLC spent the final two days before the strike in talks with the government rather than mobilising the members and having sensitisation meetings at all levels. As a result, the strike was not fully supported.
In July 2018, the NLC picketed MTN offices in several state capitals over unionisation and an agreement was reached the following month. Similar action was taken against Bristow Helicopters, Arik Air, Air Peace, Corporate Affairs Commission, Chevron Oil and Gas and many others. But at least some of these may have been sweetheart deals, for example at CAC. In other cases the NLC President was alleged to have been settled. There remain a number of even Federal Government agencies where there is no union and many branches are not active.
The government threatened a fuel price increase from N148/litre to N162/litre and a doubling of electricity tariffs in September, 2020. The NLC and TUC threatened a general strike. But an all-night meeting deflated our hopes when, without consulting with their organs, they called off the strike in the early hours of the morning of the day it was due to start.
Also in September 2020, Rivers State Government sealed the NLC office in Port Harcourt. A protest was promised, but an agreement was reached over the office and the implementation of the minimum wage. NLC proposed protest in Rivers State in 2022 did not even take off.
October 2020 saw the #EndSARS protests which the NLC refused to participate in or even voice its solidarity. These came a few weeks after the impromptu suspension of the general strike.
There have been a series of state level strikes over the implementation of the 2019 minimum wage and arrears of salaries and pensions. The NLC failed to provide effective national solidarity and so most of these strikes did not end in victory.
In February 2021, the NLC NEC directed strikes in half the states over the minimum wage, but this was not implemented. Protests were held in at least 25 states in March. Taraba State NLC and TUC did strike, also in March 2021, over the failure of the state government to implement the new national minimum wage. But this was suspended less than three weeks later with merely an agreement to implement the minimum wage within three months. It had still not been implemented by early 2023.
Then we hoped the fight would start in Kano, where the governor reduced the minimum wage back to N18,000 with the payment of the March 2021 salaries, but the NLC pulled out at the last minute and cancelled a planned three day strike. The governor merely had to promise to repay the illegal deductions.
In May 2021, a five-strike in Kaduna State, was called off after three days on the offer of talks. But eventually el Rufai regained his confidence. Nearly 2,500 other teachers, including NUT National President, were retrenched in May, 2022 for either refusing to write a competency test or failing the test. Neither the NUT nor the NLC took action in response to these sackings. At the same time, the judiciary and parliamentary workers were continuing their strikes for implementation of the agreements that they signed.
National and state level protests were again postponed, in September 2021 after a late night meeting the day before. There was a collective agreement between the Government and the NLC and TUC to suspend the doubling of the electricity tariff and fuel price increase from N145 per litre to about N161. NLC and TUC were given 133 mass transit buses and 10% allocation of houses from a Federal scheme.
A general strike in Nasarawa State led by the NLC and TUC was suspended after three weeks in June 2021 on the basis of promises from the state government. Cross River NLC organised a general strike for four weeks from October 2021 over minimum wage, promotions and pension payments. But the strike was suspended without achieving any of the four main demands. Much more could have been achieved if the NLC and TUC had provided active national solidarity. The same applies for the strikes by the workers at the research institutes and the university lecturers of ASUU during much of 2022.
In Niger State, the combined strike by the NLC and TUC for most of the first three months of 2022 was not able to win any significant concessions. One reason for this is that it was not an active strike as one of the strike alerts merely said: “Workers are enjoined to stay at home and pray”.
The threat of mass protests at Federal and state level by the NLC in January 2022 ensured that the fuel subsidy was retained, but the price of fuel still increased over the next year to up to double the official price of N165 (unofficially increased to N185). Joe Ajaero, now the NLC President had argued that the protests should have continued. But the NLC took no further action over these price increases nor the currency crisis in early 2023.
In July 2022 the NLC (with the TUC in some states) organised protests in every state capital in solidarity with the ASUU strike that had started in mid-February and was to last for eight months. At the protest in the FCT, the General Secretary of the NLC promised a warning strike in two weeks time and an indefinite strike after a further two weeks if the Government did not agree to the ASUU demands. The strikes were not organised and ASUU suspended its strike in October without gaining its demands nor being paid for the time its members were on strike.
The first meeting of the NEC after Joe Ajaero took over as the president of the NLC in early February 2023 agreed to mobilise for strike action in Abia State. Abia State NLC embarked on an indefinite strike from 28th February, following the failure of the state to clear the backlog of unpaid salaries and pensions arrears and its failure to fully implement the 2019 minimum wage. A protest was held in the state capital. Negotiations were held after two days and the strike was called off the following day. It seems to be a major step forward, but there appear to be a number of loose ends, especially perhaps over the minimum wage arrears and the salary arrears for the state university that are not mentioned in the settlement. Negotiations were still to be held between the NLC and state officials to agree how the minimum wage is to be implemented. This is nearly four years after the minimum wage should have been implemented.
In February 2016, the NLC organised a one-day strike and mass picket in Owerri, Imo State. This won the reinstatement of 3,000 sacked workers and stopped the privatization drive. However, the pressure was not maintained. There were further complaints about the state in 2020, but the NLC only reacted after thugs attacked the state delegate conference on 7th March, 2023. The electricity was cut off across the State, flights to the airport were stopped and NUPENG oil drivers stopped delivering. The demands also included arrears of salaries and pensions that had previously been an issue in 2016. Thousands of existing workers and pensioners had been declared as ghosts and so have not been paid for at least 20 months. The strike was suspended after a week for two weeks on 15th March as a result of “interventions by highly respected and well-meaning Nigerians from within and outside Imo State”.
The history of trade union struggle in Nigeria over the last decade has shown that we need a change of strategy by the NLC and the TUC. We need solidarity across the trade union movement and we need to continue the strikes until the government has actually implemented its agreements.
Strikes by individual industrial unions are not enough. ASUU closed all the public universities for eight months last year, but this was not sufficient for the government to implement its previous agreements.
Similarly, our experience has shown that strikes by NLC/TUC in individual states are not likely to win significant gains without active support across the working class. This was initially demonstrated in Kaduna State in May 2021, where one of the most powerful governors was brought to his knees. Similarly, the NLC General Secretary outlined a strategy that could have enabled ASUU to win their strike last year with solidarity action from the NLC, but this was never implemented.
Governments at the Federal and state level have repeatedly demonstrated that they are not prepared to implement agreements with the trade unions or even follow the law on payment of the minimum wage and pensions. Earlier this year, the Federal Government refused implement orders from the Supreme Court over the currency issue. The lesson from this is that strikes cannot be suspended over promises of negotiations or even when agreements have been signed. We have to remain steadfast until implementation of our demands has been achieved.
The outcome of the NLC/TUC strategy over the last decade is that the real value of the minimum wage has never been lower, salaries and pensions are routinely not paid on time and the costs of poor quality public education and health services continue to rise. As a result, poverty rates have increased dramatically from around 40% to 60% and we have suffered a massive increase in insecurity. Our trade union strategy has to change. We need militant class struggle trade unionism and solidarity across the movement until we win significant changes.