The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the powerful workers lobby for the teaching staff of Nigerian tertiary institutions, has been on a nationwide strike for nearly five months over a dispute with the federal government about the poor state of infrastructure in schools and the non-payment of allowances and entitlements. The shutdown is set to possibly end this week. However, with mutual distrust on both sides, the agreement is shaky at best and it is unclear whether any deals made will last. The uncertainty in the mean time has been devastating for students, businesses and the lecturers themselves. Leaving many to wonder: even if a deal is brokered and the union gets everything it asks for, will it be worth it?
Indeed, are mass strike actions ever worth it?
Youth in Lagos demonstrate during the Nigeria Labour Congress strike in Jan. 2012. Courtesy: BBC
With powerful labour unions across nearly every profession, Nigeria has had a long – and often troubled – history of strike actions. Strikes by powerful bodies such as the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) or the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) - even if for just one day - can cripple the nation economically. Others, such as the Joint Health Staff Union (JOHESU) strike that took place for one week in August, can cost lives. In early 2012, the entire nation came dangerously close to violent revolution following a general strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) that lasted about 10 days over the removal of fuel subsidies.
Most unions say that they undertake strike actions reluctantly; they are forced into such extremes through the government’s failure to fulfil its promises and its obligations. They also complain that the government often ignores warnings, pushing unions into a dangerous game of “chicken” in which both parties stare each other down and see who blinks first. For its part, government representatives complain that such strike actions amount to blackmail – holding the nation’s economy and health hostage so that individual groups or members can illicitly enrich themselves.
However, these strikes are usually successful, with the government eventually backing down and giving in to most of the union’s demands. Thus, the unions get (or at least are promised) the increased funding, better conditions or review of a disputed policy that they were agitating for and the government can breathe easier knowing that a potential social crisis has been averted.
But the citizens, who are often forced to bear the consequences of these strikes, are no better off. Indeed, there are no numbers of how many lives are lost, how many careers are disrupted or how many people are permanently affected by these actions. These strikes may work in the short-run, eliciting big promises and occasional action, but given the current state of the nation’s material and intellectual infrastructure, they haven’t had the long-term effects that they should. In fact, they sometimes do more harm than good, with lingering bad blood on both sides that reduces the nation’s overall ability to function effectively.
It is unfortunate that the contract between public workers and their institutional employers has so broken down that unions are forced to throw what amounts to nationwide tantrums just to get its own government’s attention.
Surely there is a better way?