Of strikes, Trade Unions and the Political Class

TUC LogoIn the last couple of years, especially since the return to civil rule, Nigerians have lived through all manner of  industrial action by labour unions for improvements in working conditions, salaries and emoluments. This is not unexpected from a people who had been under the tyranny of military rule now enjoying a new- found freedom. However, the regularity and predictability of the industrial actions are now a cause for serious concern due to the quantum of the productive hours and services lost, human lives lost in some instances of strikes by health sector trade unions and the overall effect of these strikes on the economy and the polity. The Academic Staff Union of Universities just called off its five- month- old strike and the Nigerian Medical Association just ended a warning strike and now threatening a bigger one. . But there is a fundamental fact which Nigerians and indeed the authorities appear to have glossed over and the resolution of which will reduce these strikes to a minimum.

This discourse takes the view that we all live in one economy and market prices apply to everyone who lives within the confines of the Nigerian territory.  The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 in Section 153 set the tone for this unnecessary industrial crisis by establishing the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission and empowered it inter alia to determine the remuneration appropriate for political office holders including the President, Vice-President, Governor, Deputy Governors, Ministers, Commissioners, Special Assistants, legislators and holders of the offices mentioned in sections 84 and 124 of the Constitution. RMAFC responded in kind by arbitrarily fixing jumbo salaries, allowances and perks of office for political office holders. These political office holders got allowances for all kinds of imaginable and unimaginable things including accommodation, medicare, vehicles and fuelling, furniture, wardrobe, plethora of aides, security, entertainment, utility, hardship, newspapers and magazines, etc. Severance gratuity after a term of four years was fixed at 300 per cent while duty tour allowances and estacodes were fixed on the very high side.

Indeed, overnight, Nigerians saw the emergence of a political class who now belong to a special class of Nigerians – the elect who must be maintained at the public expense with a good chunk of available resources. Paupers and straw men of yesterday turned overnight into new kings and lords of the manor with sufficient resources to buy up properties and live like princes. As if to say that these arbitrary gifts by RMAFC were not enough, these jumbo salaries provided the anchor for some of them entrusted with the allocation and management of public resources to begin to steal and corrupt the system. So while the protest about these fat salaries were ongoing, corruption now led to the emergence of a new class of billionaires whose only visible means of livelihood is the public treasury. The members of this new class may not number up to 30,000, an infinitesimal minority that have held the whole nation hostage. All these developments were witnessed by  the majority of bewildered Nigerians who work honestly for a living but whose voice have been drowned by the powers of those who abuse the public purse. All attempts by the majority to make this minority to see reason have fallen on deaf ears. To compound this scenario, there is nothing special about this group of Nigerians either in terms of intellect, nobility of character and disposition or contribution to national development that qualifies them as members of a special class. In fact, most of our political offices are now occupied, not by the best brains available, but by mediocre officials who have no business occupying the seats.

On the basis of the foregoing, every worker and labour leader who has been witnessing this rot believes he has been short-changed; that he has been labouring while others have been cornering the proceeds of the public treasury. Thus, demands for increases in salaries and wages masked as demands for improvements of the working condition have become the order of the day. Since the government and its officials only care for themselves, workers on their own now fix what they believe to be their appropriate remuneration in the unfolding scenario within the context of what political office holders are earning and stealing.  Thus, workers are indexing their demands on the remuneration and activities of the political class. This is not to say that workers have no right to make these demands which invariably are based on the right to an adequate standard of living to take care of the worker and her family. Every union on strike insists on negotiating with the President before the strike can be halted while agreements are signed and negotiated without reference to the mandate of the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission. This is not the way to build institutions and scientifically determine remuneration and incomes. In some cases, new strikes arise out of the settlement of the demands of a union that has gone on strike; sister unions now go on strike to restore parity of remuneration!

The above developments have set out a life and trajectory of their own – politics is heavily monetised and huge financial outlays are now needed to win elections while Nigerians see politicians as investors who should pay for services (the vote) before getting into office. A vicious circle emerges which can only lead the country to stagnation and crisis. There is a way forward and that is the reduction of the pay cheque of political office holders and stifling the corruption in the system. Nigerians must also realise that they have a choice and that it is to make electioneering less expensive. It is the proposal of this discourse that the aspect of the mandate of RMAFC that deals with remuneration of political office holders should be handed over to the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission and the Commission strengthened to take on this role. Instead of the administration responding piecemeal to demands for improved remuneration by individual unions and groups, the Commission should in accordance with its mandate carry out a comprehensive review of incomes of various stakeholders in the economy, giving everyone the opportunity to be heard and make a presentation so that an empirical approach to remuneration can be devised. Instead of reacting to individual unions when they are already on strike, the government should be proactive so that man-hours and lives are not lost to strikes. In determining the remuneration of a group, the Commission should take into consideration the contribution of the group to the economy and national development. The Commission should not base its scaling  of groups on any bogus idea of entitlements which have no place in rational thought. This way, we would resolve once and for all, the remuneration and income challenge that seeks to break the productive capacity of the nation.

•Follow me on twitter @censoj

 By Eze Onyekpere 

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