On Wednesday, February 28, 2018, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the first labour centre in Nigeria, will be 40 years old. It was on that day that the ancient city of Ibadan played host to the inaugural conference of the current NLC. Indeed, the history of the centre ever since has been synonymous with struggle. As the popular slogan goes, “the struggle continues.” Nigerian workers over past four decades have contended with issues ranging from non-payment of salary, minimum wage, unilateral sack of workers, hike in cost of living and other issues that have to do with good governance and workers’ welfare; labour has consistently been at loggerheads with government for four decades, as its major objective was to protect, defend and promote the rights, well-being and interests of all workers, pensioners and trade unions.
According to the organising committee, the 40th anniversary would to reflect on the movement’s struggles, trials, successes and triumphs over the past four decades.
In retrospect, the NLC, an umbrella organisation for trade unions in Nigeria, was a product of a merger of four different organisations: Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC). The numerous affiliated unions were restructured into 42 industrial unions in 1978.
The chairman of the organising committee, Peters Adeyemi, has stated that the NLC is celebrating the era of the advent of trade unionism in the country and the labour movement’s contribution to the anti-colonial struggle.
“This anniversary is, therefore, organically linked to the August 1912 formation of what is today known as Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU). It is also about the 1945 general strike for cost of living allowance (COLA) led by labour leader number 1, Pa Michael Imoudu. The strike lasted all of 52 days. It is also about the 1949 Iva Valley Massacre of coal miners by the colonial police, which directly fuelled the agitation for self-rule and independence from Britain.
“It is similarly about the first NLC, which was again led by Pa Imoudu as president. This celebration is also about the second NLC, which came about famously as a result of the Apena Cemetery declaration, in September 1975, when leaders of the then existing four national centres, the United Labour Congress of Nigeria, the Nigeria Trade Union Congress, the Labour Unity Front, and the Nigerian Workers Council decided to form a new united central labour organisation. The occasion was at the burial of treasurer of ULCN, Comrade J.A. Oduleye, at Apena Cemetery. This gave birth to the second NLC, which came into being at the end of the December 1975 Unity Conference. Comrade Wahab Goodluck was the president of the second NLC. Of course, the second NLC had a very short life span, because the military administration fought its coming into being and soon after proscribed it.”
NLC is a non-state institution that has come of age in defence of the interests of its working and retired members, in line with the objectives of its constitution.
The presidents of the NLC to date are comrades Hassan Sunmonu (1979-1984), Ali Chiroma (1984-1988), the late Paschal Bafyau (1988-1994), Adams Oshiomhole (1999-2007), Omar Abdulwaheed (2007-2015) and the incumbent, Ayuba Wabba.
Under British colonialism, the first generation of unionists not only formed trade/house unions but tirelessly worked to form central national labour organisations that could confront colonial capital with its exploitation and oppression. The iconic visionary labour leaders and drivers of this historic organising effort included Michael Imoudu, Alhaji H.P. Adebola, the late Wahab Goodluck, S.U. Bassey, J.O. James, N.F. Pepple, A.I. Okwese, Chief E.A.O. Odeyemi, J.U. Akpan, R.A. Ramos, Okon Esshiett and Vincent Igwe Jack. The first NLC was formed in 1950.
The inaugural conference of the second NLC was on December 18, 1975, at the Banquet Hall of the Lagos City Council Hall.
Reflecting on the birth of the second NLC, the general-secretary of the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers (NUTGTWN), Issa Aremu, noting that the second NLC was inspired by the great oration delivered by Eshiett, then director of the Trade Union Institute, at the burial of Chief J.A. Oduleye at Apena Cemetry, Lagos, 1975, known as the Apene Declaration, has suggested that NLC should make that historic oration a compulsory read for all the current labour leaders, if it must sustain the historic efforts for a strong united labour centre. He added that words from the heart could touch the heart to ensure necessary compromise for labour unity.
The NLC at 40 is the “third NLC” in history!
Aremu noted that the efforts at the new NLC were successful until the then Federal Commissioner for Labour, under the administration of General Murtala Muhammed, Major General Henry Adefowope, announced the Federal Military Government’s “labour policy of limited government intervention and guided democracy in trade union matters,” which eventually led to wholesale restructuring of the hundreds of house unions into a national industrial union.
In 1978, despite military intervention, NLC, under Hassan Sunmonu, re-emerged as a product of the independent efforts of comrades to forge a common front in advancing workers’ interests.
Aremu said, “2018 is definitely a year of celebration of all industrial unions in both private and public sectors affiliated to the restructured NLC in 1978.
He said, “There is definitely a long walk to NLC at 40. With documented struggles spanning four decades, NLC has truly “come of age” as a pan-African (and indeed global) strong institution in spite of the dissolutions of its duly democratically constituted organs by military regimes of Murtala/Obasanjo, (1975) Ibrahim Babangida (1988) and Sani Abacha (1994) in-that-order-of undemocratic meddlesomeness in labour affairs.”
In its four decades of existence, the NLC has survived attempts by various military and civilian governments to dissolve it. Most significant of such challenges have been direct assault on its existence on two occasions. Ten years after its formation, in February 1988, the congress was dissolved by the military junta of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, a dissolution that was to last 10 months. In 1994, the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha again assaulted the congress when it dissolved it and placed it under a sole administrator for four years.
Under Nigeria’s military governments, labour leaders were frequently arrested and union meetings disrupted.
However, following democratic reforms in the country, some of the anti-union regulations were abolished in January 1999, the same month Adams Oshiomhole was elected president of the reformed organisation.
Even civilian governments have also made serious attempts to destroy or weaken the NLC. In the Second Republic, a bill was proposed to pave the way for rival organisations. A more desperate offensive was launched by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004 to completely annul the NLC through draconian amendments to the Trade Union Act. In recent times, the NLC has led several general strikes protesting the government’s fuel price policy. In September 2004, the NLC gave the federal government an ultimatum to reverse the decision to reintroduce the controversial fuel tax or face a nationwide protest strike. The strike threat was made despite the fact that a federal high court judgement in an earlier dispute had declared the organisation lacking legal power to call a general strike over government policies. A similar strike against increase in fuel price, which crippled the nation’s economy, took place in January 2012.
Though opinions remain divided as to what the NLC has achieved in the last 40 years, even the worst critic of the labour movement support the fact that the NLC has been a rallying point for Nigerians who feel oppressed over the years.
From its first president, Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu, to the current president, Wabba, the NLC has been fighting a series of battles to protect and defend workers’ rights. There has never been anything that labour got on a platter of gold since the history of the labour movement in Nigeria.
The history of the movement in Nigeria in the last 40 years has been written in blood and sweat of those now regarded as “veterans.”
Without a doubt, the road has been rough for Nigerian workers. Over the years, government and employers have loathed the NLC for its dogged defence of the constitutional rights of workers and Nigerians.
In view of the difficult task of negotiating and getting the best deals and packages for its members, approaches by NLC from employers of labour in Nigeria are most times construed to be confrontational or antagonistic, to say the least. Yet it is a job that has to be done, if unwarranted exploitation of workers must be curtailed or avoided completely.
In the industrial relations sphere, the early NLC caused the enactment for the first time of national minimum wage legislation. That move represented unprecedented progress in the development of wage administration and efforts to develop a living wage and living pension. The anti-SAP campaigns of the 1980s spearheaded by the congress helped to galvanise a mass movement in the nation, resulting in the formation of a broad alliance with the Students’ Union movement and the Academic Staff of Nigerian Universities, among other things. In the period, the NLC’s slogan was “Nigeria Not for Sale.” This became the battle cry of the working class and the progressive movement as they resisted attempts to sell off all national assets.
Worthy of note was the long-drawn struggle over petroleum products pricing. Before its first proscription, the NLC had started to lead opposition to petroleum products price increases. The history of the present democracy would also be incomplete without a mention of the role of the NLC and some of its vibrant affiliates. Probably more than anything else, this struggle has come to define the public perception of and identification with the NLC.
Over the years, the NLC has remained the biggest labour centre in Nigeria and indeed in Africa, with over seven million organised and potential 40 million members! Indeed, the Nigeria Labour Congress, with seven million worker-members from more than 40 affiliate industrial unions, is the biggest independent free trade union movement in Africa, followed by COSATU. A mega labour centre in Africa, NLC is only rivaled in terms of independence and self assertion by South Africa’s labour federation, Council of South Africa Trade Unions, (COSATU) with which it maintains robust bilateral engagement on organising, collective bargaining and international solidarity campaigns. The congress is an activist affiliate of the Accra-based Organisation of Africa Trade Unions (OATUU) and Geneva-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), representing 176 million workers in 156 countries and national territories, with 311 other affiliate unions worldwide. The NLC, therefore, is national and global.
At the 2017 ILO conference, NLC’s president, Wabba, was re-elected back to the ILO governing council as a key player in the organisation. Oshiomhole, the fourth NLC president, also served on the governing council of the ILO. Stakeholders have expressed opinions that the 40th anniversary offers a platform for a critical but constructive engagement among comrades for a better-repositioned NLC.
The incumbent president, Wabba, has said that the 40th anniversary celebrations will afford the congress the opportunity to reflect on past achievements and set the agenda for the future.
“The theme of the anniversary: ‘NLC, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,’ is to enable us reflect on where we are coming from, what we have been able to achieve, looking forward, what do we do to take things abreast of the future,” he said.
Wabba noted that all leaders of the NLC have been up and doing, but responses to issues depend on the system of government that labour is operating under.
He opined that government as well as employers around the world are now more oppressive towards organised labour.
“The trends are changing in the world of work. Employers no longer see workers as partners in progress; today, you see very more recalcitrant employers. Before, there were no casuals, but through globalisation and all sorts (we now have the trend), though ILO is looking at new commitment to the world of work,” he said.
The NLC president affirmed that the future of the organised labour movement would entail efforts to build cadre that would enable workers to be conscious of their rights.
He stated that, “If we have to return to the basics, the standard of the NLC must be strengthened, like in the 1970s. The strength of the union has dwindled and this consciousness has to be built from the local government. The informal workers not covered by social security must be given consideration. Only strong unions can fight for workers’ rights.”
Adeyemi, chairman of the anniversary organising committee, who is also the deputy president of the NLC, equally listed the broad objectives of commemorating the anniversary as celebrating 40 years of struggle and perseverance as a working class organisation; highlighting congress’s history and its accomplishments; reflecting on the challenges facing the NLC and the wider labour movement; and identifying ways these challenges can be addressed, as well as articulating an agenda for congress in the next 10 years as it marches towards its golden jubilee.