Columns/Special ReportsOthers

Food Union in the Stomach of Rightwing Leaders

By Comrade Chinedu Bosah

Looking at the activities and the manner the National Union of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Employees (NUFBTE) is run, it is clear the Lateef Oyelekan-led leadership is running a union of pro-management and pro-state as workers’ interests are sacrificed on the altar of profit and self-serving interest. The interest of workers have been commercialized and traded off into the stomach of Lateef Oyelekan and his cohorts.   

Trade unions are formed by workers to enable it to resist anti-labour practices of the capitalist class, to protect wages and to defend the democratic rights of workers. In fact, Rule 2 (i) of NUFBTE’s Constitution states one of the core objectives of the union: “To secure the complete unionization of all NUFBTE workers employed in the Food, Beverages and Tobacco Trades, throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” In the area of unionizing all workers, Lateef Oyelekan has failed woefully as we have more workers who are none union members and are placed under precarious working conditions than the ones who are members and whose employment is regularized though under constant attacks. 

For instance, in Coca Cola Plc, where Oyelekan is supposedly in employment, the number of casuals and outsourced workers who are barred to join the union has grown from 1500 before he became the union president fourteen years ago to about 5000 at present while regularized workers who belong to the union have collapsed to 1,800. Casualization and precarious work in the food industry has increased from 48% to 80% in the last 15 years- something which is one of the ‘legacies’ of Lateef Oyelekan. Rotten collaboration between rightwing reactionary labour leaders like Oyelekan and company owners have created an army of casualized and contract workers who are denied trade union rights and are subjected to poor pays and poor working conditions. As comrades of the Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR) discovered during our interventions at Sumal Foods Ltd at Ibadan, rightwing trade union leaders partnered with the management to set up outsourcing companies that employed Nigerian workers as casuals in violation of Rule 2(i) of its constitution with the aim of making profit- a clear case of union leaders that are supposed to protect workers being the ones conniving with management to enslave workers. Some of these front companies are Dosumu Ltd, Bridge water etc.

If it is bad enough for the Food Union leadership to collaborate with companies owners to casualize workers, it is so bad that the same union leadership collects capitation (illegal union dues) from casual workers in a number of food companies and these funds do not go into the union books/records, it is part of the paddy-paddy ant-labour arrangement with the management. On the one hand, these casual workers are not union members, the union leadership work hard to place them in precarious working conditions and also draw from their poor pay in form of union dues which are never accounted for.   

This explains why the rightwing union leaders were miffed when the comrades of the Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR) solidarized with Sumal casual workers who embarked on a strike action on October 2, 2018, to protest their casualized status and poor working conditions. As usual, the rightwing NUFBTE leaders quickly aligned with the management and sponsored the police and DSS to arrest Comrade Abiodun Bamigboye (Coordinator of CDWR in Oyo) seven times because he gave solidarity to suffering Sumal workers. The management and the union have instigated and instituted two criminal cases at the magistrate court and 2 civil cases at the National Industrial Court (NIC) based on unfounded, frivolous and trumped-up charges and claims, a clear case of how the bourgeois rule of law is for the highest bidder. So brazen and shameless is the rightwing NUFBTE leaders that unionism has been converted to an organized business cartel.  

The food union is so juicy and profitable, after all, the union attracts huge amount of money running to tens of millions of naira on monthly basis and Oyelekan finds every motivation to extend his tenure and that of his rightwing cohorts by two years in violation of NUFBTE’s constitution.  Rule 6 (iii) of the union’s constitution states that National Delegate Conference shall be held every four years in the month of November with a caveat that the holding of the Conference shall not be delayed for more than three months and there are laid down procedures for the convocation of a conference. In desperation, Lateef Oyelekan led his yes-men NEC members on February 4, 2020, to agree to convoke an Emergency Delegate Conference with the sole aim of extending the tenure of the current leadership by two years without adhering to laid down procedure for which a Conference can be convoked. The cat was let off the bag recently when Lateef Oyelekan told the world that the tenure elongation was to allow the leadership to complete the building of the union’s hotel, what an outlandish, ridiculous and silly reason to hold on to leadership. This can be likened to a sitting president extending his or her tenure because of a bridge that is under construction. At least Oyelekan has beaten an average Nigerian bourgeois politician to shenanigan. Despite the fact that some union members under the platform of Redemption Group went to court to challenge the infraction of the constitution and got an injunction on August 19, 2020, Lateef Oyelekan went ahead with the conference held in the night on August 21, 2020, in violation of not just the union constitution but also in violation of the court ruling/order. It was alleged that NLC President Ayuba Wabba graced this illegal conference in ‘solidarity’.

Just like an average self-serving bourgeois politician, Lateef Oyelekan is a labour aristocrat whose living condition is far and above an average worker and disconnected from workers. Lateef Oyelekan goes around with police escorts which have become a stock-in-trade of some rightwing trade union leaders. In December 21, 2018, Oyelekan ordered his police escort to shoot at workers who protested to the union national secretariat to demand that the union leadership should stop backing management against workers and end intimidation of the branch leadership in A&P Foods Ltd in Lagos.

In 2010, the union leadership abandoned workers when the management of Dangote Pasta attacked workers and disbanded the branch a few days after its inauguration and when CDWR intervened, Lateef Oyelekan and other key leaders at the national secretariat responded that the union could not intervene because “Dangote is too powerful.” In 2009, Lateef Oyelekan backed the management of A&P Foods to convert 1600 casuals who were agitating to be regularized to contract (outsourced) workers and some workers alleged that some of the rightwing labour leaders at the national secretariat have interest in the outsourced company that was run by the then Human Resources Manager, Mr Victor Badaiki in proxy. In October 2016 when workers of BUA Sugar Refinery embarked on a strike, NUFBTE union leaders arrived at record time and called on workers to end the strike, this is a company wherein workers are not unionized despite efforts and pressure to get the workers unionized but union leaders refused to unionize workers. These are just a few examples from a plethora of cases and experiences of betrayal of Oyelekan’s leadership. It is often the case that top union leaders from the NUFBTE national secretariat visit management of food companies behind workers to collect products as part of their stomach infrastructure.

If democracy has been undermined in the larger society, it should have been preserved in the trade union movement, but this is to the contrary. In fact, most of the trade unions and NUFBTE inclusive have been converted to a monarchy with flagrant disregard to democratic rights of its members including suppression of their rights. In NUFBTE, if you express a contrary opinion different from the leadership, it is either you are expelled from the union or the management is pressured to sack you. The General Secretary of NUFBTE, Bamidele Busari is not spared and has been sacked illegally and brazenly. All union (NUFBTE) members who belong to Redemption Group have been expelled from the union while managements are being pressured to sack them.  As a matter of fact, the union leadership has succeeded in instigating a fake redundancy exercises in Seven-Up and Nigerian Breweries that have led to the sacking of 300 and 250 workers respectively targeting mostly workers who are opposed to Oyelekan’s leadership and assisting the companies to sack regularized workers and likely to be replaced with workers on far worse condition of service, a policy that will bolster the profit for the company owners and weaken the union.

The reality is that the degeneration of unionism in Nigeria goes beyond Oyelekan, Ayuba Wabba etc., it is a systematic takeover of the unions by right wing labour leaders in the last 3 decades and condemned it to platform that incongruously serves the interest of the class enemies (capitalists). Only a few unions like the Academic Staff Union of the University (ASUU) is different and resist government policies by carrying workers and branches along including when strikes are to be called off.          

The solidarity amongst workers to fight back has been thrown into the dustbin, the resistance of management and the capitalist state’s indecent labour practices have taken flight, rightwing union leaders have surrendered the union to employers of labour, autocracy has replaced democracy, rightwing labour leaders have become demigod, this is the long and short of what unionism has become. The rightwing leaders have become mercenaries to the bourgeois state and employers of labour while workers continue to bear the brunt.  

Only workers can rescue the trade union from this rightwing, reactionary, anti-workers, aristocratic leaders and bring about independent, democratic and fighting trade unionism positioned to defend the interest of workers and the working people. This can only happen through sustained campaigns and struggle. Genuine trade union activists, socialists and pro-labour activists should hold a conference to initiate such campaigns and struggle.  

If the leadership and members of the Redemption Group in the food union and any such opposition groups in the trade union movement must show the difference, their opposition to Oyelekan and other rotten leaders should be ideological and with the sole agenda to rescue the unions and transform them into fighting trade unions that resist exploitation and anti-labour policies and are run democratically. If this agenda is not pursued, we may only see a replacement of labour bureaucrats by another or accommodation of all bureaucrats.   

* Bosah is CDWR National Publicity Secretary 

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