As we go to press [July 2004], the strike called by the medical and health workers of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital has entered its third week, 38 days to be exact and the workers remain resolved to see it through in spite of heavy threats from management and government.
The demands are the immediate payment of the over nineteen months arrears of the already agreed 22 percent increment in salaries and allowances (HATTIS 4), the improvement of the facilities in the hospital, the removal of the Chief Medical Director, among other demands.
In spite of the fact that the strike is a movement close to two thousand workers – nurses, health workers, laboratory staff, and non-academic staff of the teaching hospital, it has receive limited press coverage. This is again in spite of the fact that LUTH is the foremost teaching hospital in Nigeria and the strike downed most activities. The management had brought in armed mobile policemen to take over the hospital.
However, from the limited coverage the strength of the movement cannot only be seen, it can be physically felt! The few television stations that care to show clips of the movement show scores of militant workers, in their hundreds, determined to fight for what is rightfully theirs. The ruling elites are scared of these scenes. This is not good for business when the main idea they want to ram into peoples’ skulls is that all is well and only a few are not satisfied.
The strength of the pressure of the workers can even be seen when an attempt was made by some elements in the union leadership to betray the workers. The union leaders agreed to call off the strike without any concentrate gain for the workers; this was done behind the backs of workers.
The workers moved massively against the leadership; this forced the leadership to immediately retreat back to the side of the workers by renouncing the agreement.
The demands of the workers are quite justifiable in spite of the criminal claims by the government and management of the hospital. The HATTIS agreements were signed over twenty months ago and hospital management had spent hundreds of millions of Naira on questionable projects – their own privileges, etc. Actually, the funds for the payment of the arrears had earlier been paid to the hospital but the Prof. Odukoya led management was said to have diverted the funds for other purposes. The Obasanjo regime has also spent, and is still spending, billions of dollars on waste and corruption.
The Obasanjo regime, in line with the World Bank-IMF policies of shifting the burden of the crisis created by the rich on the heads of the poor working people, has callously neglected the health sector. This is responsible for the hopeless state of the hospitals in Nigeria. They are nothing more than glorified death centres.
The NO FUNDS claim by management and Obasanjo cannot hold water, as funds exist when it is time to pay fictitious debts and inflated contracts.
The degenerate state of LUTH is not different to the sorry state of all the other teaching and general hospitals, not just the facilities but also the conditions of service.
The number of strikes breaking out in the health sector is on the increase. Unfortunately, the responses of the leadership of the trade unions (including the NLC leadership) are not up to the task of defending the interests of workers. In the places where strikes have broken out, it has been due to the pressures of rank and file workers, who have been pushed to the wall due to draconian policies aimed to kill them.
What is needed is a united front of workers in the health sector – doctors, nurses, health workers, laboratory staff, academic and non-academic staff, etc. A massive mobilization of all health personnel can defeat the regime. An instance where health workers go on strike and doctors work or vice-versa only goes to undermine the struggle for better wages and improved conditions.
What the Obasanjo regime wants is to isolate the various strikes in order to frustrate the workers and bash them when they are tired, as a victory for the workers would again expose the hopeless weaknesses of the regime.
A solidarity strike by all workers in the health sector would definitely put enormous pressure on the regime and it would be a catalyst for victory. Genuine workers’ activists must campaign for this line. However, only the ending of this obnoxious system of capitalism can bring about real change.
[Published in the July-August 2004 edition of the Workers’ Alternative]