Before we destroy the unions…

Before I go into the meat of this, I must, in the interest of fairness, talk a little about my change in situation.

When I took part in planning for, and organising the Occupy Nigeria protests four and a half years ago, I was an employee, and thus saw things from a sort of socialist point of view. It was later that year that a few months of owed salary payments forced me into setting up my own business. In that time, I’ve set up three businesses, one after the other. The first two failed, the current one appears to be chugging along rather nicely. In that time too, I’ve had cause to employ a few people, and as a result, get to see things from the point of view of an employer.

Four and a half years ago, I was in total support of a strike by the NLC. But, after the events of 16 January, 2012, where Gbenga Sesan and I were politely told to go our way by a Kalashnikov, I began to think through the NLC’s role in the whole protest, and came, again, to the conclusion I’d warned about during the planning. The NLC leadership, was in it only for their own interests.

Unfortunately, this brings about a major quagmire.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Carnegie Steel expanded rapidly backed by major contracts for the US Navy. As the company expanded, the labour force grew, and by 1890, Henry Frick, the CEO of Carnegie Steel had resolved to break the unions. The owner, Andrew Carnegie, had in response to the growing power of the unions, ordered the plant to produce far more than needed amounts of steel, so they could weather a strike if it ever came, and then quietly withdrew support for the unions. Two years later, as the steel industry did better, the unions asked for a wage increase. The problem though, was that because of the rapid expansion, only 20% of the workers had been unionised, so Frick seized the chance to attempt to break the unions. Rather than the wage increase the unions were asking for, he decreased wages by a fifth saying that “the minority must give way to the majority”. Then he locked workers out of the plant. Most of these men were people who lived on their daily bread (sound familiar?). On 30 June, 1892, the unions went on strike and began to picket the plant as the company had started hiring replacement workers. Frick hired a private military firm to provide security, and the battle lines were drawn. Long story short, 12 people died, martial law was declared, the unions lost, and was crushed. The unions went into retreat for three long decades, and the capitalists effectively dictated terms.

That, is what we are toying with in 2016 Nigeria. Yes, our unions have not been very representative of the interests of the common man, but destroying them is not the answer. Consider this: in temperament, 2016 Nigeria is very similar to 1890 America. Think the American robber barons of the 19th century, think Aliko Dangote and the likes of him. Properly channelled, they could be good for the country. Left to their devices, they will crush the worker. Can Nigeria of 2016, which is far more volatile than America of 1890, survive that?

What will happen won’t be immediate, but in another decade, some rich oligarch, maybe me, will freeze, and possibly decrease wages for his staff. What am I talking about? Many already owe their staff for months on end in the safe knowledge that nothing will happen. One of the ironies of having unions only in name.

We need our unions to recalibrate and to actually begin to serve the interests of the people they claim to represent. I’ll start with ASUU, you guys need to come up with something more effective than the blunt tool of constant strikes. To be honest, I can’t help you with that, which is why I started with the intellectuals in ASUU…

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