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TUC and NLC Divide Amid DSS Caution Over Planned Protest

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The Trade Union Congress has backed out of the planned two-day nationwide protest declared by the Nigeria Labour Congress over the high cost of living, inflation, insecurity, and hardship in the country.

The Vice-President of the TUC, Tommy Etim, told The PUNCH on Wednesday that the decision to protest on February 27 and 28 as announced by the NLC was not taken collectively by both unions.

The TUC in a letter dated February 19, 2024, written by its Secretary General, Dr Nuhu Toro, said the NLC unilaterally took the decision on the planned protest.

Etim in the interview with one of our correspondents, confirmed the letter addressed to the NLC President, Mr Joe Ajaero, adding that “by the virtue of the letter, there is no way we can join the protest.”

This is happening as the Department of State Services warned organised Labour against the planned mass action, saying it could be hijacked.

The NLC had on February 16 declared a two-day protest which would begin after the expiration of the 14-day ultimatum it issued to the Federal Government which will expire on February 22 (today).

The warning was on account of the alleged failure of the government to implement the agreements reached on October 2, following the removal of the fuel subsidy and other economic reforms which had triggered higher transportation costs, inflation, and general hardship.

The situation had provoked protests across the country with youths, and women taking to the streets over the food inflation and higher cost of living.

The NLC and TUC earlier on February 8 gave a two-week ultimatum to the government to meet demands ranging from wage increments to improved access to public utilities and accused it of failing to uphold pledges to soften the impact of reforms.

Briefing journalists in Abuja after an emergency National Executive Council meeting on the state of the economy and matters related to insecurity in the country, the NLC President, Joe Ajaero, also accused the Federal Government of failing to implement the agreement reached in October.

On Monday, the Head of Information of the NLC, Benson Upah, said the NLC affiliates were being mobilised for the protest just as state chapters of the congress vowed to join the nationwide demonstration.

The PUNCH had on Tuesday reported that one of the NLC affiliates, National Union of Public Service Reportorial, Secretarial, Data Processors, and Allied Workers Union, in a letter dated February 18, 2024, written by its Secretary General, Duro Adebisi, directed its members to join the NLC planned protest.

But in a new twist, another Labour centre, the TUC, in the letter written by its Secretary General, Toro,  faulted the process adopted by the  NLC in fixing the dates for the protests.

Confirming the latest position of the TUC, the Vice-President, Etim, noted, “We cannot join the protest because the decision was not taken collectively. It is very clear that by virtue of the letter, there is no way we can join the protest.”

In the letter obtained by this newspaper on Wednesday, Toro recalled that the decision to issue a two-week ultimatum to the government was jointly taken by the NLC and TUC.

He noted that the right thing after the expiration of the warning on Thursday (today) was for the leaders of the two unions to review the situation and agree on the way forward prior to convening their respective national executive councils’ meetings.

TUC tackles Ajaero

It read, “We are writing to address a matter of mutual concern and our disappointment regarding the recent unilateral issuance of two days’ national protest with specified dates.

“You will recall that both centres issued a joint statement with a 14-day ultimatum to the Federal Government. This ultimatum will expire on Thursday, February 22nd, and the right thing to do was for both leaders to review the situation and agree on the way forward prior to convening our respective NEC meetings.

“Our respective NEC is made up of highly intelligent individuals who are desirous that we both work together always in our collective interest. Even if we didn’t anticipate our NEC decision meetings, it is our responsibility as leaders to harmonise our positions before jointly going to the press.

“It was our understanding that decisions of such magnitude would be made collectively, ensuring that the interests and perspectives of all parties involved are duly considered.

“This is the way other leaders of both centres have worked together from the time of SECSCAN to when TUC was formally registered.’’

The TUC further complained that this was the third time Ajaero would be taking a unilateral decision, adding that various interventions to correct the anomaly had failed.

“It is important to stress that this is the third time such a unilateral declaration has happened under your leadership; we are therefore constrained to formally put this on record as various discussions, communications, and interventions have failed. A first and second time could pass as human error, but a third time would, in our opinion, translate to an intentional act to undermine us.

“Again, recall that we requested that both congresses jointly develop an MOU (memorandum of understanding) that will clearly guide and define our collaboration on issues of mutual interest to avoid situations like this, which have not seen the light of day,’’ the TUC stated.

Though the TUC said it was not opposed to the protest declaration, Toro emphasised that the TUC had an issue with the NLC taking a decision on an issue the two unions agreed to work on.

The letter noted, “Comrade President, also note that we are not averse to the issuance of your resolution because our members equally feel the pain, even if it’s a weeklong national strike, but we have a huge problem with the unilateral declaration for a process we both mooted and agreed to.

“Because our members are equally concerned about the rising cost of living and not particularly the ultimatum, why can’t we see through the ultimatum that expires within the same period before jointly addressing other issues of mutual concern or, at worst, consolidating them?

“At best, when the NLC conveys its NEC meeting on a subject of mutual concern, courtesy demands that we ought to have been informed so we can synergize on the way forward and not jump the gun.

“We cannot be seen to undermine the process of synergy and collaboration between both centres that predates the current leadership of both congresses.

“For the avoidance of doubt, we fully understand that NLC is an independent labour centre that has the right to make independent decisions. It is pertinent that when such decisions are taken unilaterally, there is a need to go ahead and implement them unilaterally.’’

The union further said, “We wish to postulate that both centres have demonstrated severally that we both have the capacity to go solo, but my comrade President, you will agree with the slogan we couched for this unity that “we are always stronger together,” and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“We want you to always remember that we have teeming members that we lead and are answerable to, and when such an abnormality happens, the leadership has the right to defend the sanctity of its congress.

“Recall that this same issue of unilateral decision was what made us stay away from the two-day warning strike that you staged in September last year.

“The entire world noticed our collective strength when the governor of Imo State overstepped his bounds, and we rose to the occasion.

“That is the kind of synergy and collaboration that we yearn for, and we strongly believe the Nigerian working people and the downtrodden are looking forward to our collaborative efforts to work together.

“As you are aware of our previous discussions that cumulated into a late-night meeting at the NUEE Lodge, Utako last year after the unilateral decision of a two-day warning strike and several other interventions that emphasised the importance of mutual respect, collaboration, and effective communication in matters affecting workers and the masses.

“Congress was greatly taken aback and dismayed to learn that you addressed the press and announced the dates for the nationwide protest without consulting us. Making arrangements for the press is even an indication that you have an idea of what the outcome of the NEC meeting will be. This action undermines the spirit of solidarity and cooperation that we have worked hard to foster.

“Nonetheless, we wish to state that such unilateral actions are contrary to the principles of our shared understanding and collaboration. In order to uphold the integrity of our partnership and ensure that the voices of all workers are heard, it is imperative that decisions of this nature be made through open dialogue and consensus-building.

“We kindly urge you to reconsider your approach and to engage in meaningful consultation with all parties moving forward, as we will always do the same when the table turns. By doing so, we can reaffirm our commitment to working together for the betterment of workers’ rights and welfare.”

The NLC could not be reached for comment on the TUC’s position last night as its spokesperson, Benson Upah, did not take phone calls. He also did not reply to a message requesting his response to the development.

DSS warns Labour

Speaking on the planned protests, the DSS spokesman, Peter Afunanya, in a statement on Wednesday called on the NLC to shelve the plan.

He urged the NLC not to embark on the protests in the interest of peace and public order, stating that going ahead with the protests could increase tension across the country.

The statement read, “The attention of the DSS has been drawn to plans by sections of the organised labour to stage protests between 27th and 28th February 2024 in parts of the country over sundry economic issues.

“While the service recognises such an action as the legitimate right of the labour movement, it, however, urges the body to shelve the plan in the interest of peace and public order.

“The DSS further calls on parties to pursue dialogue and negotiation rather than engaging in conducts that could heighten tensions.

“This is more so that the service is aware that some elements are planning to use the opportunity of the protest to foment crisis and by extension, widespread violence. The development, without doubt, will worsen the socio-economic situation across the country.”

It urged opposition groups, religious and traditional institutions, civil society, and non-governmental bodies to eschew violence.

“Making political capital out of the current situation or involving in divisive utterances at a time like this, will be of no benefit to any peace-loving Nigerian. Citizens are advised to be vigilant and not allow fifth columnists and hostile forces or agents to use them to destabilise the peace of the nation, “ it warned.

Ajaero faults DSS

Reacting to the DSS advisory, the NLC President, Ajaero, accused the agency of blackmail, noting that it was concerned by the unsolicited advice from the security outfit.

Ajaero said the DSS could not blackmail labour to halt the planned mass action which he said was called to protest against “the unprecedented high cost of living despite the indescribable suffering in the land, spiralling inflation, deepening poverty and the Naira at an exchange rate of N1,900 to the US dollar.’’

According to the NLC, the DSS’ statement presupposed that the action was intended to be violent and disruptive “even when we have a history of peaceful protests.’’

“Our protest is a peaceful one against the unpardonable cost of living of which the unserviced personnel of the service are also victims. We cannot fold our hands and pretend all is well. That will be a grievous conspiracy that history will not forgive,” the labour leader submitted.

He took a swipe at the secret police for allegedly making wild allegations and speaking as the mouthpiece of the government.

Ajaero stressed that it was more worrying that the DSS had a new role assigned to itself as the chief spokesperson of the government.

“We are equally intrigued by the innuendos of the Service, their philosophy of peace and wild allegations and we want to reassure them that no one loves this country more than us and, on our honour, we would never do anything that will compromise its sovereignty or security,” Ajaero said.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government said it had reviewed the commitments made with the organized Labour in the agreement signed on October 2, 2023.

This was contained in a statement signed by the Minister of State Labour and Employment, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, on Wednesday.

The minister said the government had paid four out of six months of the minimum wage award of N35,000, adding that the minimum wage committee, which was inaugurated on January 30, 2024, had held two meetings and discussions were ongoing.

Onyejeocha said, “On the payment of wage award of N35,000 for six months, the government has so far paid for four months up to 31st December 2023. The remaining two months of January and February 2024 are being processed.

“On the minimum wage committee, the government has on 30th January 2024, inaugurated a 37 -member tripartite committee on national minimum wage to review and come up with an acceptable and sustainable minimum wage for Nigerian workers.

“The committee has so far held two meetings and discussions are ongoing. The government has constantly engaged various state governments and the private sector on the issue of the implementation of wage award for their workers and this has been receiving favourable compliance by state governments. The government will continue to use all relevant channels to ensure the sustainability of the programmes.

“With respect to the suspension of collection of value added tax on diesel for six months beginning from October 2023, this was effected immediately. It is on record, that no one has been subjected to this form of taxation since October 2023.”

On the provision of CNG buses and conversion kits, she explained that the government had so far made substantial financial commitments in this area.

She added that the buses would be rolled out very soon to alleviate the transportation challenges being faced by Nigerians.

The minister further stated, “On the issue of various tax incentives as contained in the agreement, the government has commenced a series of engagements with relevant stakeholders while all necessary machinery is being put in place for effective implementation.’’

She added the crises rocking transport unions had been amicably resolved.

The minister added, “Concerning the outstanding salaries and wages of tertiary education workers in federal institutions, the government disclosed that it paid in full the four months outstanding salaries to the Academic Staff Union of Universities as approved by the President.’’

Onyejeocha added that 3,140,819 households including vulnerable pensioners had benefitted from the N25,000 monthly conditional cash transfer amounting to N68.3bn before the programme’s temporary suspension.

To ascertain the level of rehabilitation of the refineries in the country, the minister noted that a joint visitation by the government and organized Labour was successfully carried out on Wednesday and “it was established that the Port-Harcourt Refinery is 80 per cent completed. Production of Premium Motor Spirit will commence before the end of the year.”

Speaking further on food security, she said “With respect to the issue of subsidized distribution of fertilizers to farmers across the country, the government has made tremendous progress in this regard to ensure effective distribution to farmers to boost agricultural production.

“In order to encourage micro and small enterprises as contained in Mr President’s broadcast on 1st August 2023 to the nation, plans have reached an advanced stage to accelerate the process of job creation through the release of funds to micro and small-scale businesses.”

She stated that the Federal Government was committed to social dialogue with organised labour and other stakeholders towards achieving industrial peace and harmony while prioritizing workers’ welfare.

Source: Punch