ASUU Strike or Crisis of Collective Bargaining (1),By Issa Aremu

Aremu2013The strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) enters the third month. Somehow the strike has become the issue rather than the real issues that made the union apply the same strike weapon it has over the last three decades adopted to demand for the reinvention of the university education. Reinvention precisely because there was once a country (apology to Chinua Achebe) that was truly a knowledge destination. The poineer universities and polytechnics (which we could then count on our finger tips!) truly were centres of uninterrupted knowledge service delivery. Indeed it was unthinkable for intellectual workers like the respected ASUU members to be active in trade unionism no less for them to be pressured to frequently deploy the last weapon of mass industrial disruption;
strikes. Students of trade union struggles for better working conditions will recall that ASUU as it is today was not known in the 60s, 70s, when blue collar workers in the civil service (Nigeria Civil Service Union formed in 1912 being the first legal union in Nigeria) and railway men (no women then!) in Nigeria Union of Railway men were up in protests and strikes for better working conditions.

Indeed in the 60s and 70s when textile workers were engaging in go- slows, and strikes to demand for right to unionise, universities were seen as exclusive Ivory Towers, (not necessary inclusive poor working environments of today) such that most academics had no need for a union not to talk of the one that would go on strikes like blue colar workers. As a matter of historic fact, academics formed Association for some social past times during this period out of choice unlike today that they are members of the ASUU out of necessity to press home the demands for basic things like good remuneration, pension and above all funding of the universities. Certainly universities’ lecturers never joined the great strikes of
1964 for costs of living allowances as well as the Udoji ‘awards’ of 1973. That was developmentalist Nigeria, that funded education, nurtured universities’ staff as a critical success factor for cultivating the necessary human resources through adequate pay and incentives for learning and research. Of course there were few occasional closures of universities as it was in 1977, during the Ali-Must-Go when the first assault was launched against education through budget cut and subsidy removal by military regime headed by General Olusegun Obasanjo. Even then universities’ calendar that year ran as students still graduated and called for the mandatory one year national service. What then must have gone wrong? Why would a poorer Nigeria of the 60s and 70s guarantee uninterrupted educational
service delivery why a richer Republic of 2013 shut down the universities for three months and even as long as 9 months during Abacha era? My interest in this series is purely academic. Interestingly the ASUU’ s struggle is the struggle of academics. At the core of the on going crisis in the universities is the issue of collective bargaining. But before then, we must ask the question ; do human resources really matter in Nigeria? If Oil and Gas sector had been shut down for three months can the Federal and state governments remain indifferent the way they are to the current ASUU strike?

Nigeria is legitimately ambitious to be one of the leading 20 economies in 2020, just 7 years time. However, we often define development narrowly in terms of huge infrastructure and macro economic factors such as growth rate (7.5per cent, one of the highest in the world!) GDP, Nigeria being Africa’s second biggest GDP of $232 billion. As significant as these economic numbers are, one critical success factor missing in our discussion is the quantity and quality of 165 million human resources which will drive development agenda. Despite the inventions of Computers, ipad, internet, Labour remains a critical factor of sustainable
development. Indeed China (certainly one of the 10 developed economies) boasts of 1.5 billion human resources not necessarily oil and gas. Any organization or country that ignores constant motivation of human resources through constant capacity building risks unnecessary work-place conflicts and low productivity. If we want to be part of the leading economies in 2020, we must ask if the universities of the remaining 19 countries are closed like Nigeria. If the universities of other countries are functioning, certainly Nigeria is out of the race to the top of the 20 in 2020. Paradoxically, collective bargaining which is the tool for industrial conflict resolution is part of the industrial relations heritage of Nigeria. Nigeria has ratified Core ILO conventions 98, 151 and 154 dealing with terms of work covered by collective bargaining. Convention 98 is fundamental because it underscores the application of the principles of the Right to organize and to Bargain collectively and freely.

Nigeria has a vibrant collective bargaining process which has guaranteed relative industrial harmony in the work place. With vibrant bargaining agents, namely trade unions, and employers’ Associations, and hundreds of thousands collective agreements signed annually, Nigeria is an industrial harmony destination. Industrial harmony does not preclude strikes and conflicts.Harmony means when disputes occur, through collective bargaining; contestation can lead to resolution and accommodation later.

The first step in negotiating a new collective agreement or in reviewing an existing collective agreement involves preparation of proposals. A proposal is a comprehensive statement of demands put forward by the union or employers association for the consideration of the employer or unions. In preparing the proposal , the needs of the workers and industry are considered, so also is the position of the economy and the profitability and performance of the industries.
A well researched proposal is likely to hasten the process of negotiation rather than a proposal that is based on guess work. It is important to note that a proposal is NOT an agreement; it is only a list of demands submitted for negotiation. How does the universities’ crisis fit into this theoretical model?

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