Examining the Development and Impacts of Trade Unionism in Nigeria (1)

Ibrahim Ahmad Kala

By Ibrahim Ahmad Kala, LL.M

A trade union is a recognized association or group of workers who by means of collective bargaining endeavor to obtain better wages and conditions of service for its members.

A collective approach on labour issues has been found to be more rewarding than a single-man crusade, hence the need for workers to come under professional unions to seek for their own betterment.

A few trade unions out of the lot in Nigeria include the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), Acadamic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), PENGASSAN the acronym for Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria and the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE). Others from the private sectors include Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurances and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), The National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), and Manufacturers Association of Nigeria also known as (MAN).

These Unions we have in the country now operate under the canopy of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC).

Such Unions have made direct and indirect impact on the economic development of their areas and members. The unions always bargained for and won on negotiations designed to improve the health standards for members, better wages, and physical welfare of the members. All these have helped also to improve the productivity of workers since there is an apparent link between workers’ output and their working environments. The “economy of higher wages”, in most cases, has also increased productivity among workers. Since “higher wages” generally serve to increase the social and economic wellbeing of workers, so are the workers expected to justify their increased pay packets with higher productivity and efficiency.

Trade unions appreciating the value of improved skills and knowledge have also been organising seminars with a view to educating their members on their obligations too. They also emphasize on investments, cooperation with employees and higher productivity and economic growth.

There have also been cases where trade unions, finding themselves as partners in the decision making processes, have stoutly put their views across and advised government on the right economic path to tread thereby contributing their quota to the economic development of the state. The labour union have even floated a political party and sponsor candidates in general elections as the case of Labour Party in the United kingdom and in Nigeria as section 15 of the Trade Union Act define political objectives to include making contributions toward funding of any political party and sponsor of candidate. Earlwhile Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State and some Legislative members got elected under the platform of Labour Party in Nigeria.

Historically, Trade Unionism was not entirely a new concept in Nigeria before the arrival of Colonial masters. Thus the associations of weavers, blacksmiths, and potters etc were found not only in the cities but also in various villages across the country. However, the emergence of modern commerce and industry only transformed them into better organized systems of trade unionism known today.

The formation of trade unions appeared to have been encouraged in the colonies as a matter of British policy, and where in 1930’s, Labour Officers were appointed, thus beginning a decisive involvement of the administration with the formation and development of trade union movement in Nigeria. Effort were made by Nigerian Miners to form a trade union in 1931, and by the Railway Workers in 1932. By 1940, there were about seven (7) registered unions in Nigeria which has increased more than tenfold by the end of Second World War, with a membership of about 30000.

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The post World War II saw the development of trade unionism taking more dynamic step. For instance, between 1945 and 1953, some 24 Trade Unions were placed on register. Those periods were noted for its Labour unrest. Between 1949 and 1950 alone, there were 46 strikes in Nigeria affecting about 50,000 workers.

Among these strikes was the general strike in 1945 of railway men for better wages and good conditions which paralysed the entire system of the country. In 1946, civil service unions also called out their men on strike, one of which lasted for a more than a fortnight.

A brooding event that remained blot in our industrial relations was the dispute which ended in the shooting of miners at Enugu in 1949. There had been tension in the coal mines when underground workers began a “go-slow” strike. A British officer was sent to the scene with a contingent of armed policemen. In the resultant clashes with the police, 21 strikers were shot dead.

However, the above situation made the Nigerian trade union leaders more than ever before recognized their weaknesses and suddenly better appreciated the need for central collective right of trade unions in form of national movement.

The first serious effort to unite the unions was in the middle of 1940’s when Trade Union Congress (TUC) was formed. Its functions effectively as the mouthpiece of the working class until 1949 when there was a split due to political pressure. In 1950, second attempt made by the formation of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), but that effort was also bedeviled by a leadership crisis which led to the disintegration of the Congress. However, by 1953, it was possible to gather the unions together under a banner of the All-Nigeria Trade Unions Federation (A.N.T.U.F.) which continued to dominate the labour scene before later went into oblivion.

Up to1978, four central labour organisations were recognised by the Nigerian government. This caused the near-crisis which the duplicity of the central labour organisations occasioned over the representation of Nigeria at the inauguration of the Federation of African Trade Unions in the late 70’s.

Two main reasons could be found for the perennial division in the Nigerian labour camp. One is ideological and therefore political; the other is a question of leadership. Ideological issue was a bye product of a weak financial position of the unions as a result of their small number which they had to resort to financial support outside the trade union movement – with the consequency of ‘who pay the piper dictates the tune’. Also the question whether the Nigerian trade unions should affiliate with Pa Micheal Imodu pro-east, or Mr Adetope pro-west international organisations, or even be aloof – has also been a sore point. That conflict of allegiance split the labour camp into two in those days of economic power Politics.

However, the Labour Act which came into being in 1978 now took care of the funding of the unions by introducing the “check-off” system by virtue of section 1 of the Act. Thus it enabled the employer to deduct union contributions from workers wages and pay them over to the unions.

To be continued…

Kala Esq wrote this piece from Gombe.

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