DEBATE: Did Labour ‘sell out’? Akintunde Oyebode explains why they did not

by Akintunde Oyebode

When the NLC/TUC released this statement, calling off the Nationwide Strike to protest the 120% increase in the price of petrol on the 16th of January, the reaction was inevitable. Comments from social commentators on traditional and social media alleged labour unions had been bribed to withdraw the support given to the nationwide street protests before calling the general strike off. I disagree with these allegations for two reasons. Firstly, it is unacceptable to question the integrity of a group of people without proof, and as I write no one has come forward with details (verifiable or not) of bribes, and to whom they were paid. Secondly, most of these “analysts” do not acknowledge the wise men that represent labour unions at these meetings report to a larger executive council. They cannot take decisions without the agreement of the NEC. To single out Omar, Lakemfa, Esele as the men who called the strike off is incorrect and unfair to the individuals involved.

I will summarize what I believe to be the reasons why labour unions failed to negotiate a return of petrol prices to N65 per litre in the following points:

1. The Street Protests – From the moment Pastor Bakare started the “Jonathan must go” message, it was obvious the government was going to respond with one word. TREASON. By emphasizing a message of regime change, peppered with various “offences” the government committed, the convener of Save Nigeria Group played into the hands of the government. All the government had to do was ask the labour unions to either withdraw their support for the protests, or be seen as accessories to treason. Personally, I was disappointed by naiveté of the civil society organizations. They left a host of issues – rising prices, corruption, cost of government, accountability etc. and focused a large part of their message on regime change. No labour movement, at least not one negotiating with a sitting government, can defend such comments or support such rallies.

2. Lopsided Negotiations – In some of the meetings, labour unions had five representatives. The government had the President, Vice-President, Senate President, Speaker, seven State Governors and five Ministers. This meant sixteen of the most powerful people in the country were negotiating against five labour leaders. The words of Tupac “no need for hoping it’s a battle lost” kept playing in my head. A picture of Abdulwaheed Omar exchanging pleasantries with the Minister of Finance spoke volumes. The deference he showed did not suggest he was negotiating with an adversary, it was the sign of a man acknowledging the superior position of his adversary; no one wins a battle with that mindset.

3. Negotiation is an Art – The previous point highlights labour’s big deficiency, the lack of skilled negotiators. I’m not sure if the labour union has skilled negotiators within its ranks, but the actions of the last few weeks suggest the answer is an emphatic NO. The writing was on the wall; from the venue of all the meetings, to the skewed attendance, and there was an uneven use of the state and private media. It was akin to drawing dead in a game of poker.
Negotiation is an art where skill, not passion, delivers success. The sooner our unions understand this, the better.

4. PENGASSAN – Everyone expected PENGASSAN to be the knight in the shining armour, the silver bullet in this impasse. It was simple, shut down oil installations, and cripple the country. What we forgot is this option was last used when we despots ruled the land, 17 years ago. In my opinion, the situation we faced last week did not necessitate a shutdown of oil installations, and what government could tag as treason. The government read this situation, possibly played the treason card, and labour caved in. The moment the PENGASSAN threat was neutralized, the game was up.

I don’t believe labour’s role in the events of January 2012 needs an extensive report. This is because I believe they are an insignificant element in a society that truly desires change. History teaches us  people not labour unions drive change. When our country is ready, all of us will drive that change, and our labour unions will merely be a footnote in that story.

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