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.

Daily Trust - - LABOUR - From Ke­hinde Akinyemi, Abeokuta

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

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