• Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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BusinessDay

Trade & professional unions: Misusing the right of dissent

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In a democratic political system, dissent is accommodated and sometimes is regarded as an inalienable right of the citizen. We have the right to disagree with each other and even with the government. This right of dissent is protected by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and is manifested in the right of free speech. But as with every right and privilege, there is always a limit. This right to disagree must be exercised in a responsible manner to avoid, a reign of confusion and anarchy.

  That’s why in company meetings and in most society or organizational interactions, we always have a chairman who moderates the interplay of choices, agreements and disagreements. People are allowed to express their opinions, after which the Chairman summarizes and comes up with a position which becomes the formal view of the group. Sometimes, this consensus or agreement is achieved through a voting or pooling procedure and where there is a tie, the chairman casts the decisive vote. Thereafter everybody is expected to comply with that decision, including those who initially had different views or positions. That is the only way order can be attained and progress assured.

  In the political system, similar principles apply for good order. In the National Assembly, we watch robust arguments and different opinions but they eventually end up with a given position, with or without a vote. Even when the two chambers disagree on some issues, they set up a joint reconciliation committee to reconcile and harmonize their positions and come out with a single position. In some circumstances, like in panel assignments, a minority report may be produced if the minority feels very strongly on an issue or issues essentially for the records. There cannot be an expectation that the minority report will upstage the majority report or that the writers of the minority report will refuse to comply with the majority decision ultimately.

   This right of dissent or right to disagree has a natural extension to trade union activities. The laws of the nation allow trade unions to occasionally disagree with their employers on issues related to their remuneration and welfare. To avoid anarchy and unnecessary disruption of legitimate economic activities, a deliberate protocol must be followed for negotiations between employers and employees. And should negotiations breakdown or fail then a trade dispute can be declared by either party with specified notices, and within given limitations. Thereafter, further negotiations are undertaken, sometimes with the aid of a third party. If the parties cannot resolve the differences, then each side can go to the Industrial court to seek adjudication.

   To the best of my knowledge of trade Union laws, Workers abandoning work in the name of strikes are illegal. And so is Employers locking out Staff from work because of trade disputes. Limited Demonstrations or Protests, yes, to express their feelings to the public or to attract public sympathy to their course, anything else that disrupts work is illegal. So often, I wonder if the trade or Professional Unions understand the impact of work stoppages on the economy. Do they appreciate how much damage is done to the economy if work is stopped for one day, not to talk of the many weeks and months many disrupt the economy by their strikes. They worsen Poverty and lower National Productivity. They affect our global competitiveness on labour efficiency and reduce our capacity to attract global labour outsourcing.

  Sincerely, I believe that the strike option should be seldomly used, if at all and only in extreme cases. But it is perplexing that many of Nigeria’s trade unions and certain professional associations have perfected the use of strikes as instrument of blackmail against the government and or their employers. Sometimes, this power or right of dissent is blatantly misused to no good cause. Nigeria experienced the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) crisis. Luckily many of the Primary and Secondary Schools were on long vacation. The Federal Government in consultation with the State Governments decided first, to ask all schools that were open to close down as it took measures to contain the epidemic. Even Schools running summer and extension classes were shut down.

  Then considering the uncertainty of the time required either to contain the epidemic or for the full remission of the disease in the Country, the government announced that the Schools would not reopen at the time schools were to reopen for the new session but would rather reopen on the 13th of October or so. In the interim the Governments (Federal and States), undertook measures to mount a very effective campaign on how to contain the infection and to prevent future infections. It even received support from several international Organizations (WHO, CDC, UNICEF, ADB, etc) in the campaign including training teachers and care givers on how to handle their wards in schools and elsewhere.

  Having done all that, and with the professional advice of the health authorities (local and international), the government announced that the Schools could now resume earlier than was thought, announcing a new resumption date of September 22. Then the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) went up in alms to resist this new directive from government. They have threatened that no teacher would go to work on the 22nd September and that no primary or secondary school would open. Why? To me this is taking the right of dissent too far! Do they love Nigerian Children more than the governments? Or are they just not ready to work? Is the disruption of our school calendars not enough? Many of the Unions have just called off their previous unnecessary and unprofitable strikes! And they are threatening another one, haba!

   As at date, there is no active Ebola patient in the Country. Twelve out of the Nineteen infected survived, and the Nigerian Government has not been more successful in mobilizing the Country behind any issue, as we have done for Ebola. Even the Boko Haram onslaught has not successfully united Nigerians. Secondly, the decision to change the normal resumption date was taken by government, as I am not aware that NUT or any union or association persuaded Government or went on strike to get government take the initial decision to move the date to October 13. So why can we not trust the same Government that took that pre-emptive action to know when to change its mind. It is a pity that everyone now questions every decision or action of government. Well we may reserve the right to question government decisions and actions. I guess that is part of the freedom of thought and speech enshrined in our constitution. But to insist on forcing our views and preferences by strikes and other economic disruptive tactics is patently wrong and illegal and must not be allowed to have sway. Otherwise, we may enthrone anarchy.

   The whole idea of establishing governments and electing people to run them, in my view is to help organise the Society and take actions on behalf of the people. We are all entitled to make suggestions to that government on how we expect things to be done. And I can bet that there may be 170 million ideas from Nigerians on how a particular matter should be treated. It is the responsibility of the elected government to consider all the views and take what they consider the best option for the Nation. To unduly or forcefully abridge that right of Government is anachronistic in my reckoning. If we feel that any government is consistently not doing what we want, the cycle of elections offers us the opportunity to vote out such government or specific officials. But to constantly disrupt economic activities of the Nation for personal or group preferences, which sometimes are parochial, selfish and laden with partisan political motives must be abhorred and condemned by true Patriots.

Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa