Nigeria: Trade unions and politics of survival

By Phil Aragbada

Industrial relations is a comprehensive term taken to embrace everything from individual employer-employee relations, through all forms of collective bargaining between labour and management to the trade union movement and its many ancillary activities.

Although the spectrum could be said to cover what has traditionally been termed as personnel administration and what is today often referred to as organisational behaviour and development, the emphasis here will be placed on the relationship between employers and organised groups of their employees.

To begin, it is essential to have an appreciation of the source and nature of industrial relations or labour problems.

This focus will bring out the inevitable and natural division of interests between managers and their workers. In turn, this explains why collective bargaining and trade unionism have come to play such a significant part in Nigerian society.

Their presence gives rise to what is basically an adversary system between labour and management, characterised at times by open confrontation and the display of raw economic or political power.

The various forms of interaction between labour and management are now so extensive that they have now given rise to what may be described as an industrial relation system, or at least, a framework within which one can intelligently study the associated processes and results.

Despite the existence of such a system or framework, it is still frequently alleged that industrial relations is a rather amorphous, confusing and incoherent subject.

Admittedly, it is a subject which draws heavily on eclectic sources to provide its own contributions, insights and perspectives. Whether a discipline in its own right or not, industrial relations focuses on issues that lie at the heart of every modern industrial society.

The controversy and ambiguity that characterize the industrial relations policies in Nigeria have made it somewhat pertinent, if not compulsory for a discussant on the above subject to first explore, no matter the conciseness, what these policies are, their rationality and why these policies are appropriate at this particular time of our industrial history.

The government in its wisdom attributed the decision to deregulate collective bargaining some years ago to economic rationale which indicated that the financial fortunes of the federal, states and local governments are not identical and should therefore be allowed to negotiate with their employees’ on the strength of their financial affordability.

Despite the elegance of that argument, the consequent strikes that witnessed the industrial relations policy clearly put a question mark on the rationale behind the federal government’s action.

The point here is not to give a normative view about the appropriateness or otherwise of the policy but to hint that the implications for productivity enhancement in the public sector have strong influences on the profit in the private sector.

As it must be noted, industrial relations management, even during a non-inflationary period has continued to be a very sensitive matter.

Unfortunately, the massive unemployment and hyperinflation in the country (stagflation) have added another dangerous dimension to this intricate issue. It is worth stressing repeatedly that whenever a country’s industrial relations seem to be in difficulty, it is usually because society itself is undergoing some stresses and strains.

As could be seen, collective bargaining reflects the society within which it is functioning. Thus, if collective bargaining in Nigeria has in recent years appeared to be in some turmoil, it is partly, if not wholly, a symptom of dislocation in the wider Nigerian society.

In Nigeria, there’s a growing fear of social and political tempest at a time of rising inflation, unemployment and an increase in violent crimes. Those conditions don’t just happen in a vacuum.

They result from personal and collective lack of discipline and respect for the rule of law. As long as that respect is missing, the fear of socio-economic cataclysm may come dangerously close to reality.

In Nigeria, workers hold the view that it is their legitimate right to contribute to decisions affecting their employment conditions, they also believe that they are victims of what Professor Pita Ejiofor describes as contribution inequity.

“That is to say that workers are paid less than they contribute and that employers appropriate unjustly whatever is the shortfall between labour’s contribution and their reward. In labour parlance, the employer is the exploitative class feeding fat on the sweat of the toiling masses.

This suspicion on the part of workers is manifested by their demand for huge reward for their services during negotiation. In fact, the unbending stance of employees during wage bargaining has in most cases led to avoidable strike actions.

Employers and employees naturally tend to see their labour problems from different vantage perspectives. The basic challenges confronting most employers are to recruit, train, organize and motivate a work force so as to ensure the kind of output and productivity that will enable the marketing of goods and services at competitive price and with respectable profits.

Equally and briefly stated, the problems facing most workers are to find, gain and hold a job providing good wages, fringe benefits and working conditions and a relatively secure future. More recently, concerns about the nature of work itself and job satisfaction, seemingly have come more to the fore.

It is important to have this kind of broad perspective to avoid the common impression that “they’re only fighting about money”. Certainly, money is important, but only as part of a wider contest for authority and power.

The conflict of interest over money is part of a wider struggle between employers and employees. Managers’ basic interest is in efficiency, innovation and productivity while the workers’ basic interest is in job security.

At least, in the competitive sectors of the economy, management has to press for a high standard of performance if it wants to survive, let alone grow and prosper.

At the same time in an uncertain market economy, workers are bound to strive for all the income and job security they can acquire.

Similarly, there is conflict over management prerogative and right that is between management’s view of its “authority” and different forms of industrial democracy as interpreted by the workers. Employers insist on their need for maximum discretion and flexibility in order to manage their operations profitably.

In contrast, employees want some certainties, stability and increasingly, a voice in deciding changes that are likely to affect their established interests. The outcome of these competing claims often produces the most irreconcilable differences of opinion between managers and workers.

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning that not all trade unions are monstrous as some may be tempted to conclude. While it is true that many management outfits still see their relationship with the unions as a Zero Sum Game (ZSG) or what could be described as “one man’s gain is another man’s loss” – that is, whatever is the gain to the unions is a loss to corporate unit or government, it needs be stressed that this line of argument, in spite of its attraction, patently suffers from fallacy of illicit assumption.

For one thing, a well-articulated and accelerated reward may lead to higher productivity which manifests in greater profit to the corporate unit.

A responsible trade union may also evolve a democratic culture within an organisation through checks and balances, thus sustaining industrial tranquillity and progress.

Aragbada a veteran journalist wrote from Ibadan.

First published on the Nation

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