The internal crisis within the Steel and Engineering Workers' Union of Nigeria, SEWUN, took a qualitative turn in May of this year, when about ten units of the union made up of about 4,000 workers formally broke with the union and they all went over to join the National Union of Shop and Distributive Employees, NUSDE. The ten units of the union are all in the Lagos area.
The internal crisis had been brewing for the past few years; there are in fact internal conflicts in most of the unions in Nigeria. This is not too surprising as workers turn to their unions in times of crisis only for the labour bureaucrats to betray their interests on most occasions.
In SEWUN, the workers of these breakaway units came together after years of disappointing performance by the leadership of SEWUN. The steel sector in Nigeria just like other sectors is going through a hell of a time, as workers are subjected to untold hardship.
The leadership of SEWUN was accused allegedly of crude corruption, an arbitrary collection of check off dues in advance. The union is said to get about N3 million monthly from check off dues but the leadership continues to find it difficult to fund its activities. It was alleged that it finds it difficult to pay the wages of the lower rank union workers among other shortcomings.
There were numerous bribery allegations against the leadership. On many occasions, the interests of workers were consciously sold-out for a fee from the local managements of the factories involved.
Workers that dared to challenge the excesses of the leadership of SEWUN were on many occasions set up with the local management, a situation that led to the sackings of quite a few worker activists. In addition, the unelected top union bureaucrats arbitrarily victimized some elected union officials. There were numerous documented cases of arbitrary illegal suspensions of elected union officials by unelected union bureaucrats. Decisions were never democratically discussed within the union.
However, the main points that really angered the workers was the continuous betrayal on the part of the SEWUN union leadership in the face of numerous attacks by the government and the local managements of the various units of SEWUN.
There were cases of the numerous factory shutdowns; big steel corporations in Nigeria have been shutdown, sold or liquidated. Workers are owed months of wages or severance pay. During the various national strikes many companies deducted part of the wages of workers and the leadership did nothing. This accounted for why workers from some units did not want to join in some of the national general strikes.
Use of “casuals” (casualisation) still reins in the steel sector and the leadership was found wanting. It is important to note that Tower Aluminum still uses casual labour in spite of the fact the national president of SEWUN comes from there.
The internal struggle against the union leadership had been going on for months. Earlier this year, workers from the breakaway units of SEWUN organized public protests against the leadership. Worker presented their demands to the leadership backed up with an ultimatum in April. This prepared the grounds for the split.
By April, the amended labour bill was passed and in spite of the reactionary nature of the bill, workers exploited one of the provisions of the bill, which made it possible for workers to quit their membership of one union and join another as long as they follow a process. This involved them formally withdrawing from the union and formally joining the other.
This process was carried out in all the units that broke away from SEWUN and in all the units, one hundred percent of the workers formally withdrew their membership of SEWUN and formally joined NUSDE.
From reports, workers from these units perceive the NUSDE leadership as being very radical, better organized, and more honest.
However, the leadership of SEWUN did not take this development lying down. They accused the leadership of NUSDE of poaching its members and the management of some of the units made crude attempts to stop the workers. This failed. Even the registrar of the trade unions attempted to stop the process but also failed.
The leadership of NUSDE accepted the breakaway workers into their union and put up a defence for their action. However, the conflict continues.
Thousands of steel workers lose jobs
According to the Federal government, 6,968 workers in the three steel companies and the three inland rolling mills have lost their jobs due to the government's policies within the past year. Moreover, the government further claims that it needs N5.7 billion to settle the workers' outstanding salaries - the wages they owe the workers before they were finally sacked. Severance pay and other entitlements are not yet included.
Steel workers have been combating this regime for years over the various draconian IMF sponsored policies, which have further destroyed the steel sector. Unfortunately, the SEWUN leadership have been found wanting and workers within the past months have been asking questions within the union. This accounts for continued internal conflicts.
Internal conflicts in SEWUN continue
Since the pullout, the conflicts within the union had continued with other sections of the union coming into conflict with the leadership. Some even gave ultimatums to pull out.
As stated above, the pullout involved about 4,000 workers mainly based in the Lagos area. SEWUN still has thousands of workers around the country and a sizeable number are still based in Lagos. From reports, workers remaining in the union are still very dissatisfied with the leadership and the state of the union.
Workers must definitely wrestle their union away from the hands of these unelected or imposed bureaucrats, who are actually agents of the state and management. Leaving the union in small groups would definitely not make it easy to transform the union, as it reduces the forces of change within the union. In addition, going to another union may not be the solution, as even if the union is led by radical elements the structure and nature of the unions remain the same.
The best thing is for workers to fight to transform their unions from within, by booting out the corrupt leaders and unelected bureaucrats. Fighting for the democratisation of all decision-making processes within the union, i.e. the congress of the members must have the final say on all issues, ensuring that no paid-official earns more than the wages of a worker.
Workers must reclaim SEWUN!
Fight to save jobs!
Defend trade union rights!