LABOUR ‘Labour should engage and protect interest of workers without being partisan’
The National Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Dr. Ozo Esan, in this interview, spoke of the union’s past and present struggles to get labour to its desired destiny.
How would you compare the unionism of the last five years and the days you joined the struggle?
Every period has its own challenges and the challenges of the period define in part how they are tackled as it were. I noticed that trade unionism is based in some way on an ideological calling or an ideological commitment.
Historically trade unionism has been to the left of the ideological spectrum and workers interest were usually served more by the ideologist on the left. But the issue of ideology became a little more blurred following the unipolar world, because some of the issues were as a result of global development. In our own country also, increasingly even our own educational system really no longer gives effect to the ideological consciousness as it used to. These have permeated into the union so that the ideological clarity that used to drive union activity is no longer as strong as it were; it has weakened. What the people perceive is the union position but in terms of relevance there is no doubt at all that the challenges today remain what they used to be.
Union requires being strong in order to represent the interest of the workers. I think there are steps that we need to work at in order to revive the level of activism and therefore the degree to which the followership would want to see in their unions and their activism.
What are those areas you think need to be worked on to revive activism?
In the early 80s I used to go to Kafanchan, to Bauchi and interact with unions in Jos, the degree to which that is happening is now little. Many other people were doing the same then. We have our own educational programmes, that is the NLC level, but the ideological content is not as strong has it used to be and we believe we need to restructure and look at the curriculum in order to try to bring back those things that made the union flourish in the past.
Two: Of course this is something that I believe needs to be done, which is not strictly within our power in the union. The interaction between academy and the unions in the past played a very major role in ensuring that clarity. The level of ideological clarity and activism by our students in the universities provided a ready ground from which the union could recruit people. There were generations of trade union officials who were recruited from active student union leaders in schools but all those have gone.
You can hardly find students who are well skilled in Marxist doctrine who understand the whole ideological questions. We need to get our educational system back to a level in which that can become a little more robust so that they can interject, interact with the union and through that means create a more favourable environment for union activities.
When you hear people say ‘don’t mind those trade union leaders, they are mere party politicians’ how do you feel?
To a large extent, when I hear such my first reaction is to say, they are unaware, they do not understand, and do not even have the information. No doubt about that at all, there may be cases where we have union leadership partisan, those more interested in relating with political parties.
Particularly at the state level, they are unable to fully extricate themselves from whichever party is in governance in their state partly because they want to be able to maintain good relationship with the state governor and the state government. This leads to a situation that, at times, will appear that the union has become assimilated into the parties, whereas, our position has been that union must remain separated from the local political parties.
You need to be able to engage and protect the interest of the workers. You do not need to be in the pocket of any political party to do that. However, in the long term we are also conscious that we are political beings, and that, politics and policies are decided within a framework and what affect workers are those policies.
So, we are also consciously taking the position that in the long term, what we rarely need to do is to have a party so that we are seen clearly supporting a party like we floated the Labour Party, unfortunately it has been hijacked and misapplied. But that doesn’t remove from the realisation that ultimately the best way to secure the interest of the workers is to have a worker conscious party that would, if it sought and acquires power, put in place policies that are favourable to the interest of the workers.
So in that sense, it will be true and if people say, ‘oh, you are a politician’, you want to say yes, and that will be open. That doesn’t prevent us from engaging with policy makers and the government of the day, irrespective of parties. It is the policies and how we perceive those policies to affect workers and the generality of Nigerians that will determine, where we stand.
So when people make such criticism at times we know they are orchestrated in order to weaken the engagement and criticism we are making on government. In other cases, they may be genuine because they have observed what I painted as situations that are on ground in some of our states and all that. But we take note of such criticism, and we use them to improve the work that we do.
The Labour Party was said to be a party that will serve the interest of workers, what are the circumstances that led to its been hijacked?
NLC as part of its conditions for registration cannot on its own become partisan and so when the Labour Party was floated we had to get the leadership and management of the party to be outside the labour union. We then noticed that over time the party was drifting away from the initial objective.
Well, it was first registered as the Social Democratic Party and later the name was changed to Labour Party but increasingly we started seeing this thing about the party. When you believe in the idea of a party, even if you are unable to capture power or win elections immediately, you should build and maintain the purity or the philosophy that you want to build.
I think what went wrong with Labour Party is that those who are in leadership positions were anxious to show success and so it became a vehicle, if someone couldn’t find nomination in party ‘A’ he approaches the Labour Party then the party felt it may have a chance to win an election here and it became a vehicle for hire, and with that people came in and tried to undermine the philosophy of the party and that weakened it.
We’ve been making some effort to reposition the party and that’s why today we have two claims to the Labour Party — we have some groups that we say they are the leadership, and the caretaker committee which we have put in place. That process is still on and we hope that with time, we will be able to reclaim the party and position it in a way that it will be principle driven rather than immediate election issue driven.
The last NLC election was turbulent and since then we were told that effort are on to reconcile the parties. What is the progress so far?
Yes, it was turbulent and we had issues. The veterans under the chairmanship of Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, are broking reconciliation, peace and unity. Several meetings were held jointly and individually with the parties concerned. Some common understandings were at least reached and a document was signed by all the parties involved to now start working together. So, it is ongoing, but some issues do arise sometimes, which again open up the wounds, but ultimately the best interest of the workers is set by the unity and work is still ongoing to ensure that unity is restored.
The last call for a national strike by labour is over now, has the secretariat evaluated, examined this strike?
When we met with the NEC to take the decision, it was taken to suspend the strike. One other decision that was taken was that there was need to review and evaluate what went on during the period. But it was agreed that a special meeting of NEC should be called to do the evaluation and that is yet to be called. We will do an evaluation with both the NEC itself, and in conjunction with our civil society allies so that we can see what would have been done differently, if any and draw lessons for the future from whatever we have been witnessing in this process.
Dr. Peter Ozo Esan