Is strike negotiation tool or threat to national security, economy?

In the recent past, the above question has become necessary on the lips of many Nigerians because most often, no one gears anything about labour unionism in Nigeria until when it’s time for strike action. No wonder, many are saying that the only thing labour movement in Nigeria is noted for is strike. The attendant loss from such strike action is usually unquantifiable.

For instance, quoting Mr Ikpe Nkanang, chairman, Board of Trustees, Domestic Airports Cargo Agents Association, it has been reported that domestic cargo aviation in Nigeria lost approximately N7 billion to the recent two-day nationwide industrial action, a loss that can never be recovered.

This is because the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) had on June 3 called for a complete halt to business activities to protest against the federal government’s lacklustre attitude to the ongoing negotiation on an acceptable minimum wage for Nigerian workers. Not even the N60,000 proposal of the federal government was enough to placate the labour leaders.

Losses

Nkanang said usually, 30 tonnes of cargo is lifted across the country’s domestic airports daily, but that the volume of cargo left unprocessed during the two-day strike was significant.

According to him, “For those two days, the airlines were not working and once the airlines are not working, cargo cannot move and it is a great loss to all of us.

“You needed to see the volume of cargo that was dumped over those two days; of course, you know we gathered cargoes during the weekend hoping that by Monday and Tuesday, we would be able to send them out,” he said.

Before then, a national daily claimed that Nigeria might have lost around N148.8bn in oil revenue on the first day of the two-day strike.

That particular newspaper report arrived at the figure by calculating Nigeria’s daily oil production against the daily global benchmark for crude oil pricing.

Like their counterparts in the aviation and oil and gas sectors, trade unions in other critical sectors of the economy such as the banking and energy sectors complied with the directive thereby leading to monumental loss of revenue.

The involvement of these and other critical service providers has led to some public affairs analysts and commentators to suggest the exemption of those sectors in moments of national strikes.

They argue that the impact of flight disruptions, a halted oil production, power outages and the crippling of the financial sector for a few days could last for months and in most cases losses are not recovered.

Strike as sabotage?

Some groups have even gone further to refer to the action of organised labour as a threat to national security and Nigeria’s collective ability to protect its economy and critical national infrastructure. Two days after the strike, the secretary to the government of the federation Senator George Akume described the action of labour to shut the power sector completely as treasonable.

Not only him, a group, Centre for Social and Economic Rights (CSER) condemned the shutting down of the national grid by the labour in implementing its declared nationwide strike action.

The group said that to plunge the nation into darkness meant labour had carried out economic sabotage and treason that must be met with the full weight of the law.

Both president of the Senate, Godswill Akpabio and Akume, agree no less with the position of CSER.

While Akpabio said the strike amounted to economic sabotage, Akume referred to the shutdown of national grid by electricity workers as a treasonable felony.

Strike as workers right

However, those who support labour and some legal practitioners say workers have the right to embark on strike action.

According to TEMPLARS ThoughtLab, a publication of Templars Law, workers’ right to declare a strike action was derived from workers’ right to form unions as spelt out in Section 40 of the nation’s constitution.

Section 40 of the constitution partly reads, “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons and in particular, he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.”

However, the publication was quick to point out some situations where a right to strike could be circumscribed as it said that every union in any organisation would usually have a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) signed between the union and the organisation.

“All standard CBAs typically provide for the dispute resolution mechanism for the resolution of any trade dispute between the parties.

“Such dispute resolution mechanism typically involves direct negotiation between the union and the organisation.

“It also involves mediation through a third-party mediator agreed upon by the union and the organisation or referring the dispute to the minister of labour and employment,” it said.

According to TEMPLARS ThoughtLab, another ground for the circumscription of a right to strike is when industrial action is not available to persons rendering essential services by the operative effect of the Trade Disputes (Essential Services).

Additionally, it noted that the courts could issue an order against a union and the union has an unqualified obligation to obey that order even where they believe it to be irregular or invalid.

The question on the lips of some persons is that through parliamentary legislation, should the government designate some of those sectors of critical national importance as emergency services?

They are of the opinion that if the action is carried out, it would become illegal for workers in those sectors to join national strikes.

Critics of the government’s handling of negotiations with labour unions often refer to these restrictions as highhanded measures to suppress legitimate demands.

The International Labour Organiation (ILO) of which Nigeria is a member said strike action is one of the fundamental means available to workers and their organisations to promote their economic and social interests.

However, it admitted that it is the most visible and controversial form of collective action in the event of a labour dispute and is often seen as the last resort of workers’ organisations in pursuit of their demands.

It also listed some public servants, essential services and emergencies, minimum services and disputes over rights as some of the possible exclusions from a right to strike.

According to ILO, unions must meet three conditions to embark on a strike. The first is the exhaustion of conciliation or mediation procedures before calling a strike. Another requirement to hold a strike ballot is for a majority of the workers concerned to vote in favour of a strike before it can be called. The last condition is the obligation to give a notice period before calling a strike.

Some stakeholders, therefore, believe that it is important for both the government and organised labour to accept the principle of ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’.

They say, going forward, industrial relations no matter how frosty, should not be allowed to degenerate into arbitrariness and irresponsibility by either or both parties.