On Thursday, June 15, 2006, at about 12 noon, workers of Nigerchin were forced by the draconian and criminal policies of management to commence an indefinite strike. Top on their list of demands is the call for management to recognize and respect their right to belong to any trade union of their choice and not to one that management criminally imposes on them.
What finally sparked off the strike was management's attempt to impose the Steel & Engineering Workers' Union of Nigeria, SEWUN, on the workers. From reports, management working in collaboration with a few top bureaucrats in SEWUN had planned to organize a kangaroo election on Friday, June 16, 2006 and this was what triggered off the workers' anger and provoked the strike.
Firstly, from reports, no worker in Nigerchin belongs to SEWUN. All the unionised workers in Nigerchin voluntarily pulled out from SEWUN around May-June of last year and went to officially join the National Union of Shop & Distributive Employees, NUSDE. We reported this development in our November-December 2005 edition.
The law backs the actions of the workers. The Nigerian Trade Union Act passed last year allows workers to join any trade union of their choice and the process is quite straightforward. What is required for the worker/s is to notify the management of their decision to pull out of any union and notify management of the new trade union they have joined. Therefore, management is to recognize the new union and relate with it, which also includes forwarding the workers' check-off due to that union. The decision exclusively belongs to workers and not management.
However, since last year, Nigerchin management has refused to recognize the workers' decision to pull out of SEWUN and join NUSDE. Workers' check-off dues were withheld by management in July 2005 and were effectively stopped in September thereby technically rendering the mass of workers unionless.
Between last year and now, various correspondence has exchanged hands between the management of Nigerchin, the elected executives of the local union, national executives of NUSDE and even the Federal Ministry of Labour. Workers have held several mass meetings where it can be seen by anybody with eyes to see where they want to go!
However, management totally refused to respect all these decisions. They even ignored the response of the officials of the Ministry of Labour stating that the law backed the decision of the workers!
The Nigerchin management rather chooses to play pranks. First, they claimed in May 2005 that 46 workers did not fill the withdrawal form from SEWUN and therefore, management paid SEWUN their check off dues. The workers involved later disproved this. But for the past four months, the management of Nigerchin has refused to deal with the elected local union executives. Of course, they hate leaders who defend workers' interests.
Now management has claimed that 35 workers are members of SEWUN and that they would organize an election for them on Friday, June 16. This is with the view of forcing all the other workers to join SEWUN.
It is very important to understand that the workers of Nigerchin along with about 4,000 workers of other steel related companies chose to leave SEWUN and move to NUSDE on the grounds that the leadership of SEWUN was not representing or defending their interests. They say that the leadership of SEWUN was very corrupt, collaborates with the management of the companies against them, etc.
Workers splitting from the official unions are a common event in Nigeria now. This is mainly due to the various shortcomings of the top leaders of these unions who are corrupt and sell the workers out.
The management of many of the other companies have since recognized the decision of workers. However, the management of Nigerchin chose to go the other way because of their greedy and selfish interests. They want to maintain the terrible and inhuman conditions of service in Nigerchin.
Nigerchin has about 207 full time workers and 47 "casuals". Everybody works for an average of 12.5 hours a day, seven days a week. The company does not recognize public holidays or any form of break and the wages of the workers are quite low. The company maintains these conditions in order to maximize profit. Therefore, they would not want to tolerate a pro-worker union that would challenge them. Since the strike started, they have brought in the police to attack the workers, which led to the arrest of 5 workers. The management also arrogantly refused to meet with the national executive of NUSDE or even with the NLC officials sent to intervene in the conflict.
Workers everywhere must support the struggle of the Nigerchin workers, as a defeat for them would be a terrible blow to the working class movement everywhere. NUSDE and NLC must mobilize workers to support the struggle of the Nigerchin workers.
Workers remaining in SEWUN must also call on their leaders to break with the management of Nigerchin and support the Nigerchin workers. SEWUN must come out to genuinely defend the interests of the Nigerchin workers. That in the final analysis would decide which union the workers would want to join.
It is important to state that workers who support slavery are themselves slaves!
26 June 2006
Model protest letter
To the management of Nigerchin, Nigeria
It has been brought to our attention that the workers at your company are being refused their basic right to join a trade union of their choice. We understand that they decided last year to join NUSDE, but you have been systematically trying to stop this. The Nigerian Trade Union Act recognises this right.
We call on you to stop this harassment of trade union activists and members in your company and recognise their basic rights. We are taking this issue up here in ouir country within the wider labour movement.