Comrade Bolum Martin Nwachukwu is the Chairman, Delta State Branch of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the Delta State branch Chairman of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN) and the South-South Chairman of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria.
Nwachukwu is a leading trade unionist who throughout his career has shown strong will and courage. He is admired for his frankness and lucidity. As a trade unionist, his participation in local and international fora cannot be underestimated. He is a man of integrity and committed to his beliefs to always promote trade unionism in Africa. As an exceptional leader within the trade union movement he shows by his examples the way to other opinion formers in country – Nigeria, earning him an Honorary Fellowship of the European Business Assembly and a representative of African labour at the Atlantic Council, USA.
His contribution to trade unionism has been enormous, both locally and internationally. Nwachukwu’s latest significant contribution was undoubtedly his full participation in Atlantic Council meetings, where he discusses African labour matters with world leaders.
A true giant of the labour movement who never forgot about the underdogs, Nwachukwu is widely regarded as a pragmatist who understands the importance of communication and collaboration. Hence he always opinionates that labour unions in the country play important role in advancing and protecting the rights of all working people, not just those with a union card.
A fearless leader, who passionately recognizes the sacrifice, struggle and sweat of workers, Nwachukwu has his watchword as: “Let’s rise to every challenge. Let’s seize every opportunity. Let’s overcome every setback. Let’s win every battle. Let’s make Nigerian workers better, stronger, tougher, and more powerful than any time in our entire history.”
He is inspired by the words of the unionist and martyr Joe Hill, who so eloquently spoke of the power of workers, “If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains; every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.”
A bold and visionary labor leader even in the face of threats and actual violence Nwachukwu never wavered from his commitment to passive resistance.
In this interview with TIME AFRICA’s Editor-In-Chief, Comrade Bolum Martin Nwachukwu, explains that workers in Nigeria and their labour unions’ leaderships are on the frontlines, carrying the nation through economic ups and downs and through pandemics, and no politician has done so willingly as the strong, proud civil servants across the nation. Yet still, all too often the hopes, dreams and aspirations of working people continue to be crushed by government policies cladded with inequality, greed and perceived corruption.
As unions, he said, “we stand ready to seek for adjustments in grey areas as it affect salary harmonization, pension, gratuities and working condition of civil servants in Nigeria. A new day is dawning in Nigeria that will finally repair the crumbling workers welfares and create better working condition. We are working to build a stronger middle-class, and strengthen labour unions’ rights.
What kind of person can we say that Bolum Nwachukwu is?
A very simple man, a Comrade, a civil servant, Comrade Bolum Martin Nwachukwu JP, Justice of Peace, Delta State, a Knight of St Mulumba, a Christian, with a simple family, with a simple background. I am the Chairman of Delta State Council of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), I am also the chairman of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, Delta State Branch, and South South Chapter. There are so many other callings, but we can’t mention all of them. I am a man of the people, a man who stands out to look out for the welfare of the people, and of workers anywhere. That is my calling.
What is your relationship with the Delta State Government like?
Fortunately for us, we are lucky to have a governor who is labour-friendly, who does not wait for problems before solving them. We have never had a problem that is beyond him. Right from inception, he made us a promise, that making payment of salaries is his priority. He has lived up to that promise. In Delta State, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa pays salaries on or before the 26th of every month. Till date, he does not owe us. Areas of conflict, he tries to take care. We had issues with pensions, and when he came, he made arrangements for clearing the backlogs of pensions. We had problems with pension harmonisation, under him, we have been able to attend EXCO three times to discuss matters relating to pensions. We were able to do the harmonisation and bring it up to date. So he is a very labour-friendly governor who believes in the welfare of workers. This is a governor who has given us the most befitting and the most conducive working environment in the new Secretariat he has built for workers. This is an achievement we have dreamt of, for so many years. When the minimum wage issue came, he didn’t wait for us to fight. As soon as the thing was approved at the federal level, he set up a committee, and we had our committee, and we were able to get the minimum wage implemented the way it should be. He even gave us two months arrears.
So I will say our relationship has been a cordial one, we have been working as partners in progress, and trying to see that Delta State moves forward. He believes in the workers, and the workers solidly believe in him.
What is your relationship with the Nigerian Labour Congress NLC like, in Delta State?
Very cordial, we are brothers, partners in progress. Comrade Oforbruku has been a brother, a friend and a colleague. In Delta State, we do what we call organised labour. We don’t differentiate between the NLC and TUC. The NLC, TUC and the Joint Negotiating Council (JNC), we work together. Whatever is happening in NLC, TUC is interested, and vice versa. So do we also work with the JNC. We do things together and have always attained success, because injury to one is injury to all. Apart from that, we enhance common interest: that is what matters. This common interest as it affects the workers. Once it’s the workers interest, we drop our personal interest and make sure we get to the end.
Do they see the TUC as a rallying point when issues come up between them and the government?
Fortunately in Delta State, we have never had a serious challenge. Unfortunately if there are national challenges, we have to take them up in Delta State. So, not minding the good relationship we have with the governor, who handles whatever we tabulate before him, when it was time for us to call the people out, directed from national, we told the governor that this is a national call. When the national minimum wage issue came up, there was an aborted strike. Delta State had the strike, not minding that we had already being promised, and we believed that the promise will be kept. We told the governor that we had to go out and we did. We know that the people believe in us. You see, the problem in this country is that the people do not have anybody to speak for them anymore except labour. And labour has been overburdened and over saddled. Yes, we are the mouthpiece of the people as a pressure group, but sometimes, we are overstretched, but we are not complaining. We are part of the people and we must do the right thing. If there is need for leadership, then we come in. The idea of organised labour first is for the welfare of the people. Then some of the issues that affect the workers affect everybody, that is why you see us playing the front role, not to mention that the government of the day is such that they have seen us all (what is commonly referred to as ‘see finish‘).
What accounts for the perception in Nigeria that labor has lost its influence?
One clearly cannot describe the Nigerian labor movement as being in its prime, but we are on the brink of something new, different, and better. Most people outside the labor movement aren’t aware of what is really happening within the unions. They see that labour union consistently failed, is a toothless bulldog and they assume that the union isn’t popular or has outlived its usefulness. But the fact is that when nonunion workers decide to organize, they go through a terrible process of intimidation and propaganda. Given what workers go through, the remarkable thing is that unions win at all. We win quite often.
Organised labour in your country is said to be compromised?
No. The issue is this; it’s not the issue of being compromised. How many strikes have organised labour organised that brought results? None! Some people say it is compromise, but have they really looked deeper to see if it’s actually insensitivity of government towards its people? In time past, when the people move, government shivers. These days when the people move, government says, let them go, in few days they will come back because they will be hungry. What do you achieve then? Sometimes when you come out very hard and the people are insensitive, you look for other means of getting it. We have decided to apply a new way of getting across to government. But people do not understand it. They are so used to this fight, fight, fight.
What is this new way?
The new way is complete use of what we both know. Bring to the table facts and figures. Inform the people. I don’t call it propaganda, I call it information sharing. Let’s take for example, the last protest we were about doing, government was waiting. When we called that we were going to hold a protest on 27, government sat back because they thought it was going to be as usual. But what did we do? We decided to bring in facts and figures, sensitise the people themselves, give them facts and figures and make it difficult for even government to resist. We enlightened the people so much that government understood that if this thing is allowed this time, it’s not going to be business as usual. We quietly told government that we will start the protest, and we will allow it to be taken over, because it was no longer labour issue. It’s the issue of everybody in Nigeria needs to be liberated. You cannot pass this burden to the people, and they have no option than to push it off their head. The truth is this, you have refused to do the right thing, and you want to steal from the people, the pockets that are already leaking. It’s terrible. The last time they said they want to use 3 trillion to pay subsidy, we told them to give us facts and figures, they don’t have it. Those facts and figures ought to be there. Nigeria is sick. If you remember when Dr Ibe Kachikwu was the Minister of State for Petroleum, he gave us a programme. It was a workable programme. He gave us facts and figures, time bound. He went to the National Assembly to defend it, shortly after that, he was removed. Where is that plan of action? Where is that programme? You see, Labour cannot do the work of government, we can only talk. Labour does not have gun, we don’t have stick, we don’t have catapult, all that we have is mouth, to mobilize. That is what we are using more now. When you go out and protest, you keep the people hungry. When the people are hungry, they ignore you outside there. #EndSARS came and they saw what mass mobilisation can do, and where it was leading. Even at that, did they really do what they were supposed to do? So, we have to change strategy. Sometimes it is easier to rubbish a man’s reputation than to give him a punch. When you rubbish a man’s integrity even when he is pretending, he feels the pain inside. That is what Labour is doing now. We didn’t tell them what we want to do, they read in between the lines. What we said is that they should go and do the refineries and informed the people that refineries are workable in the country. We have passed the level of, I no gree I no gree, no. Government is used to that. It’s only a government that is sensitive that you tell that. These ones are ready to see you crying and say e go soon wipe him tears. Look at doctor’s, lecturers, judiciary, how many years of constant strikes? How long are we going to keep doing the same thing?
We now inform the people. The protest will now come from the people, not from labour. When you raise the people to do the protest, it becomes a mass action that is what government cannot resist. Government does not feel the pain. They don’t buy gas, petrol, kerosene. Everything is given to them. They don’t even buy food that is why they can afford to move with 40 cars in their convoys, filled with petrol we pay for. Even their salary, they don’t know what to do with it. Everything is provided for them. Until we change the psyche of the people, for the people to rise and see these people as criminals, things will not change, and the time is now.
Why do workers need a union?
I will put the case in two ways. On the one hand, all the traditional reasons for joining the union are as valid today as they were in the past. All over the world, workers need to have their economic interests represented in order to be able to bargain with their employers to ensure that they receive the best wages and working conditions. Look at what is happening, the poor wages, barely maintainable family income. The other factor is that civil service has changed. We have entered into a new arena. More and more people are coming to appreciate that workers really are assets; that we need to be concerned about and workers’ involvement in decision-making processes. Finally, we are starting to move away from Taylorist models, which divided work into its simplest constituent parts. In the new models, workers’ brains are valued and used. That is essential for the work-place of the next century—or the workplace of today, for that matter. Only a union can provide workers with the security and dignity that enable them to be true participants in the workplace, to be free to present their best ideas. And only collective bargaining can give workers the confidence to give their best. I think it is important that we get our arms around these ideas and use them for purposes of genuine empowerment and improvement in the quality of life.
How, then, are you able to explain the staggering decline in unionization rates of the private-sector work force?
Well, the figures on unionization rates in the private sector are quite misleading. It is true that the total percentages are depressing, but the civil service is so big and regionalized that the numbers don’t tell you very much. When you look, the percentage of the unionized work force is quite respectable by world standards.
What plan does the labour for political front?
We don’t have a political front yet, but we are doing something about that. The last national executive meeting we had, TUC and NLC are working together to out up a front to see how we can either revive Labour Party or something like that. But first, we are working with organizations to see how we can build a platform. So, we cannot have the party for 2023, but we are already working on it. We have a bureau for this, and we have asked all the States’ Labour chairmen in TUC and NLC to go back to their States and come up something. We are not looking at the way political parties operated in the past; this will be a social development party. We will come up with programmes that must start before ever you go and ask for the peoples votes. You must start up something. If we can get the government to even build modular refineries for the workers, it’s an in. We now look at what affects the people and start it off, not promisory. You put something on ground. The people of this country want to see something happening.
It is unfortunate our naira cannot buy us anything. There is a very big ill in this country. Young men are no longer interested in morality; they are no longer interested in working. All they want is quick money. That is why in this country, it is legalized to do yahoo and yahoo plus, ritual killing and nothing happens. 15, 16 years old boy killing to make money, what does he want to do with money? The system is decayed, it’s rotten, and it smells. So a party that Labour will form will be a party that will touch on the nucleus of these decays. We are not interested in somebody coming out because you are a Labour leader; you go there and join them. We have had it in the past. That’s not what we are looking at. We are not interested in breeding Oshiomoles, we don’t want people who would use Labour to climb, when you get there, you clamp on Labour. As soon as Oshiomole became governor, the first thing he did was to put NLC in the cooler. We are interested in people who really want to work and salvage this country. So we don’t belong to any political party now, but we are working on getting one, – it will be the people’s movement party, a Labour Party that’s truly Labour Party. You don’t need money to get in there and get a position. What you stand for, what you do will get you the people’s vote, not your money.
You talked about salary harmonization; it appears the Labour is not getting it
I will take it from the national level. We just came back from Joint Negotiating Council meeting; you and I know that in this country, the civil servants are the poorest paid. International Labour Law says, Equal pay for equal work. I go to school with you, the same degree, am a civil servant, you are in the private sector or you are in the parastatal, you are earning 10 times what I am earning. We go to the same market, we do the same work, and you can’t even do your own work without mine. While you depend on me, you earn far more than I do, just because I am a civil servant. I remain a servant in pay. So we have been fighting to harmonize salaries, and at that level, the President has set up a Presidential Committee headed by the Head of Service. They are working seriously on that. In time to come, the salaries will be harmonized.
Two, we have also looked at the new contributory pension scheme. Since that when you retire, you die. So how do we solve this? A gratuity is what workers look up to, so we are fighting to see how we can get gratuity back into the law. It is the obligation of the employer to pay gratuity. I contribute my pension, you contribute for me. That I can take as pension. But you have to pay that gratuity so that I can assess my pension and survive. So we are working seriously on that.
One touchy one is that it’s only in Nigeria that workers retire at the age of 60. That is why when a civil servant is retiring he is looking for teaching job, because teachers in universities get retired at 70. We are advocating that 60 years for civil servant is not tenable. The problem is that when you join the civil service, you are trained and groomed. As soon as you get to the peak, when you have to give what you have learnt, you are retiring. So, instead of concentrating on giving in your best into the system, you are retiring; you are not giving in your best. You look back, poor salary, you don’t have anything. You are looking for where to go to, and your children have nowhere to go. Your children can’t really get a job too, and the economy is hard and you are still the bread winner. So why would you have to retire that time? The fact remain that the best hands go when they are most needed, and you start training new people. It has been like that, so until we correct it, there will always be a problem. There has been a proposal to the government to check the law so that we retire at 40 years of service, and 65 years of age. If you retire at that time, you will be able to get to the peak. As an assistant director, level 15, you are already looking at retirement; so many people don’t get there. So we need to correct these things. These are some of the things the association is fighting for.
Again, we are fighting at the national level to ensure that you can settle in properly as soon as you retire. Before now in Delta State, we had a program we called Social Insurance Welfare Scheme. It was designed in such a way that once you retire, you get a certain percentage of your last salary as a take home, so that while you are pursuing your pension, you use that to relax yourself. Unfortunately, it died a natural death.
Today they say, plan for, plan for. When you don’t have enough money to eat while working, how do you plan for retirement? That’s why we are floating the idea of gratuity, so that when you take your gratuity, you can invest it while pursuing your pension. The major things that bother on retirement include health, feeding. As such, the State government floated a health scheme, so that when you retire, with N7000, you get good healthcare for the whole year.
What are some of your strategies for protecting workers’ interests at the bargaining table?
I have always believed that collective bargaining works well if both sides of the table see everybody as important factor. In collective bargaining, parties are inextricably tied together. You must make a deal.
We go in with the attitude that we have to persuade, that there are critical things that we have to do on behalf of the people. In the best of situations, we think about the interests of the country and bring to the bargaining table an objective view of workers’ interests. Workers want to know more and have a say in what happens. Workers bring a long-term perspective to the table. At any government policy and economic downturn, nobody takes a bigger hit in the end than the workers
So you blame the government for the labour’s problems?
Perhaps that’s my overly predictable predilection, but, yes, I do. As a nation, we have paid lip service to the idea that we should maintain and preserve our civil service. One cause of our country’s problems is that we spent ample time pretending that all is well. Now, in Nigeria, raising family for a civil servant is very difficult. Many of our retirees are living in poverty line on the streets, a much lower standard of living than they once expected. Let me be clear that there is nothing blessed treatment of civil servants, mixed or otherwise. The economy is taking a terrible toll on every Nigeria civil servant. But we have begun to put some things on the table that had been talked about in the abstract for a long time, which is salary harmonization, pension and gratuities. Strategically, we have to start thinking about the quid pro quos. If we were going to give something up, what were we going to receive in return? That kind of thinking expanded quickly.