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History of Trade Union in Nigeria

Do you want to know more about the meaning and history of the Trade Union in Nigeria? Then, this write-up is for you; happy reading!

The trade union, also referred to as a labour union, can be described as an association of workers in a particular trade, industry, or company created mainly to secure improvements in pay, benefits, working conditions, or social and political status through collective bargaining as it is generally believed that it’s achievable individually but more achievable collectively. 

Let’s trace the history of trade union in Nigeria

History of Trade Union in Nigeria

Trade unionism (also called organized labour) as an organized movement, originated in the 19th century in Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States. In many countries, trade unionism is synonymous with the term labour movement. Smaller associations of workers started appearing in Britain in the 18th century, but they remained sporadic and short-lived through most of the 19th century, probably because of the hostility they encountered from employers and government groups that resented this new form of political and economic activism. At that time, unions and unionists were regularly prosecuted under various restraint-of-trade and conspiracy statutes in both Britain and the United States.

While union organizers in both countries faced similar obstacles, their approaches evolved quite differently: the British movement favoured political activism, which led to the formation of the Labour Party in 1906, while American unions pursued collective bargaining as a means of winning economic gains for their workers.

Before the coming of the colonial masters, organizations of people that engaged in craft or trade have existed in Nigeria; these organizations could be referred to as trade unions because they were organized to regulate trade practices, offer mutual aid and fix prices –wages- for their services; such organizations included organizations of hunters, blacksmiths, carvers, and weavers as at then. These organisations consisted of tradesmen and their children or other blood relatives -usually sons-, there were no employment contracts as known today as the children learned the trades and took over from their fathers.

The functions of these organizations some of which still existed today in the villages included: settling disputes, regulating of the relationship between tradesmen, fixing prices and organizing the payment of tribute to the Oba – the King.

Organised trade unions otherwise referred to as labour movement officially started on Monday 19 August 1912 in Nigeria when workers in the then civil service organised themselves into trade unions as was done in Sierra Leone.

One Mr Henry Libert, a Sierra Leonean summoned a meeting of about thirty-three indigenous workers, and by the fifth meeting on 15 November 1912 after advice was received from Sierra Leone, the aim of the union was decided and this was to promote the welfare and interests of the indigenous workers of the Nigerian Civil Service. It was known then as the Civil Service British Workers Union but later changed to the Nigerian Civil Service Union shortly before independence.

It remained an exclusive union of Africans of 1st class workers until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This brought about an astronomical rise in the cost of living and the union had to seek the support of other workers outside the 1st class to agitate for a 30% increase in basic salaries as the war bonus which was granted by the colonial administrators.

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The union later discussed other grievances which included: discrimination in salary, scale in favour of Europeans against African workers performing the same jobs, and the abolition of the ‘frequent imposition of fines as a measure of discipline’.
With the passing of the Nigerian Trade Union Ordinance in 1938, the numbers of registered trade unions, as well as memberships, increased massively; for example, in 1940 only 14 unions were registered with 4,629 members but by 1944 this had increased to 91 registered unions with over thirty thousand members.

By 1975, under the military regime of General Murtala Muhamed one thousand trade unions were registered. That same year (1975), his government established a Commission of Inquiry to look into the past activities of the unions. Administrators were appointed to manage the unions as the unions were polarized and ideologically divided therefore creating labour problems for the country.

The unions were restructured into 42 along industrial lines and a Labour centre was created. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) was created in 1978 and the 42 industrial unions became affiliates. This was given legal backing through the Trade Union Decree. In 1989, the trade union was restructured again with 29 industrial unions affiliated to NLC through the Trade Union (Amendment) Decree 22 of 1978. However, the workers continued multiplying their union.

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Structure of Trade Union in Nigeria

The structure of Trade unions in Nigeria refers to the basis on which they were organized, be it, staff, industrial, craft or general union basis. The structure of Trade unions can also be based on the history of its formation, its membership and coverage. For instance, the Nigeria Union of Journalists is a professional union and only those qualified can belong to the union unlike the Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union of Nigeria which is a general union. The unions of different countries however have different lines of trade union depending upon socio-economic compulsions of industrialization and political and economic factors. The structure and types of trade unions differ from one country to another even from industry to industry within the same country. Nevertheless, the trade union can be classified on the following basis:

Roles of Trade Union in Nigeria

The roles trade unions play in Nigeria can’t be over-emphasized as they tend to influence policies, play a great role in safeguarding employees from any form of discrimination or harassment in organisations, ensuring good salaries and ‘fair treatment.

Generally, the trade unions perform five (5) major roles, these roles are the welfare of their members, industrial peace, democratic processes, productivity and economic and social progress. These roles not only bring about enhancement in the conditions of work, employment and wages of workers but also lead to great competence among workers.

One important role of labour unions is the effective promotion of collective bargaining agreements. In every industrial and economic setting, trade unions constitute an element of fundamental importance to collective bargaining, which is vital for industrial peace and harmony. Every trade union in Nigeria sees this as a major role they are expected to carry out. Trade union uses collective bargaining agreement to secure fair wages and benefits, as well as fair working hours, and better standards necessary for wage increases.

They also use the medium to stop employees from being fired without just cause, and other arbitrary and unjust actions of managers against the employees. Through the collective bargaining process, the union saves the employer much time that he could have used in negotiating with workers individually.

These times that are saved through the collective bargaining process can be employed by management to consider other challenges affecting the organization or to strategize ways to achieve a competitive advantage over competitors. In this role, the union is seen as a spokesperson for the employees.
Trade unions promote and sustain peace and harmony in the work environment because any decision agreed upon collectively by workers and management is bound to command the obedience of and respect among the general body of workers and employers also cannot afford to treat such decisions lightly.

The union can act as an indirect catalyst for the creation of a harmonious work environment. This role is always effective when there is continual negotiation with employers over issues that relate to employees’ work conditions to avoid employer-employee conflict. This role creates a feeling of self-respect and confidence among union members.

In Nigeria, the Nigerian Labour Congress, PENGASSAN, and others play this role effectively. This role enables the union to ensure cordial and good relationships between employers and employees in the workplace and this leads to a harmonious and conducive working environment. It is such an environment that results in higher organizational and individual productivity. This role helps to safeguard organizational stability, growth and leadership.

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Another vital role played by the Trade union is the Improvement of organizational productivity. This happens when labour/management conflict is mutually resolved. This means that the settlement makes the workers more confident thereby making them put more effort into attaining organizational productivity.

It is essential to note that trade unions play a serious and vital role in resolving labour/management conflicts. Unions also perform such roles as increasing workers‟ productivity or efficiency, improvement of workers’ discipline, improvement of workplace peace and harmony and participating in decision making with management.

Finally, the Trade Union is greatly interested in the welfare of its members. The union is always going a step further to ensure all of its members get their deserved entitlement and not just about getting it alone but getting in good time. The continual strike of ASUP at the moment is an indication that the union is seeking the welfare of its members. The agitation which resulted in the strike is nothing but a clear reflection of the union performing one of its roles – soliciting for its members through collective bargaining.

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Problems of Trade Union in Nigeria

Challenges are inevitable in every sector. They tend to come and pose as obstacles. Although the trade union has shown their strength on many occasions, the trade union is NOT exempted from this inevitability as we examine the problems of trade unions in Nigeria.

1. Small size

As of today, there are over a hundred trade unions throughout Nigeria. Unfortunately, most of these unions are insignificant due to their size and quantity. Because of these qualities, the result of the work of the trade unions is reduced almost to zero.

2. Inadequate finance

In furtherance of the above point, there are a lot of trade unions in Nigeria, but only some of them have a large number of participants, which directly affects the level of income. But the financial problem is present not only in small companies but also in large ones. Due to a significant number of participants, it is difficult to keep track of whether all taxes are paid, which is also bad for the general welfare.

3. Power Tussle

The war/tussle for a leadership position occurs not only at the top of power, but such manipulations take place even between members of trade unions during the elections, sometimes even with the use of weapons. Most union members usually put their interests and goals at the forefront and are not oriented towards the common goal.

4. Corruption

The reputation of some Nigerian trade unions has suffered greatly due to the high level of corruption inherent in both union leaders and their members. There were cases when trade unionists were accused of abuse of power, bribery, and theft of union property. For instance, there was a time in the country that a particular union was ready to go on strike till the FG attend to their need. knowing fully the hazard the strike will cause, instead of for the FG to address the union as a whole, the leaders were attended to and an end came to the proposed strike without them (the members) receiving their deserved entitlement.

5. Indifference, apathy, and lack of motivation

Virtually all union members have no special interest in the activities of their organization, so they are hardly present at meetings. The main reason for this situation is the lack of financial motivation and rewards, so employees see only disadvantages in joining a trade union.

Registration of Trade Union in Nigeria

Before an application to begin a trade union can be considered by the Registrar, it must be signed by at least fifty (50) members in the case of a Trade Union of employees, and in the case of a Trade Union of employers, the application form must be signed by at least two (2) members of the Trade Union of employers.

How do I register a Trade union in Nigeria?

Once the required signatures are obtained, the following are the typical steps that must be taken for the Registration of Trade Unions in Nigeria.

Step One

An application for registration duly signed is sent to the Registrar of Trade Unions stating the proposed name and reasons why the Trade Union wants to be established. The application is accompanied by the following documents as required by the Registrar:

  1. Two (2) copies of the association’s constitution/registered rules.
  2. Minutes of the general meeting where the decision was taken.
  3. List of attendants with signatures, address, age and occupation of each of the persons by whom the application is signed.
  4. List of association’s officials with an official title, address, age, and occupation of each official.
  5. Duly completed form from the office of registrar of trade unions (RTU) with five thousand nairas (N5,000).

Step Two

Recommendation of the application is made to the Honorable minister for conferment of approval. Approval is only given after ensuring that the application and rules of the proposed union have been satisfied.

Step Three

A publication of notice of application is made in the Federal Government’s Official Gazette for three months. During this period, objections to the registration of the trade union can be made in writing to the Registrar of Trade Union.

Step Four

Consideration of objections raised towards the registration of the union if any. If there are credible objections, the Registrar shall notify the applicant accordingly and shall take no further action in relation thereto until the application has been amended to his satisfaction or a fresh application is made. If objections are found baseless, Registrar shall go ahead to register the Trade Union.

Step Five

In the latter, the Trade Union is duly registered and a certificate of registration is issued to the duly registered union. This shall be conclusive evidence that the requirements of the law concerning the registration of the Trade Union in Nigeria have been complied with, and that the Trade Union is authorized to be registered.

However, If the Registrar refuses to register the union, he shall forthwith send to the applicants a notice stating the grounds of refusal and specifying the date from which the time for appealing against the refusal is to run, and also publish this in the Federal Gazette. Any official or member of the union may, within thirty days beginning with the date so specified, appeal to the appropriate court against the refusal.

List of Trade Unions in Nigeria

There are many numerous unions in the country that cut across some diverse kinds of fields:

  1. Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC)
  2. Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU)
  3. Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU)
  4. Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT)
  5. Nigeria Medical Association (NMA)
  6. Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP)
  7. Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff  Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN)
  8. National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD)
  9. Nigeria Bar Association (NBA)
  10. Nigeria Insurance Association (NIA)
  11. Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ)
  12. Nigeria Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW)
  13. Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN)
  14. Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN)
  15. National Association of Nigeria Traders (NANT)
  16. Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE)
  17. Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC)
  18. Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Universities (SSANU)
  19. Fisheries Society of Nigeria (FSN)
  20. Hospitality and Tourism Management Association of Nigeria (HTMAN)

Trade Union Act Nigeria

Every sector has one act (rule, laws) or the other laid down that must be strictly adhered to, the Trade union is also not left behind as we take a glance at the Trade Union Act in Nigeria.

Part One

Trade Unions

Registration of trade combinations as Trade Unions

I. Meaning of a trade union” in this Act.
2. Unregistered trade unions are prohibited from functioning.
3. Application for registration of trade union.
4. Matters to be provided tor in registered rules.
5. Procedure on receipt of an application for registration.
6. Restrictions as regards names of trade unions.
7. Cancellation of registration.
8. Proceedings on appeal against refusal or cancellation of registration.
9. Compulsory dissolution of trade union in certain circumstances.
10. Voluntary dissolution of a trade union.

General provisions affecting trade unions

11. Members of armed forces, police, etc., prohibited from ‘forming or joining a trade union.
12. Membership in trade union is not to be restricted on discriminatory grounds.
13. Persons convicted of certain offences are disqualified from holding office in a trade union.
14. Restriction on the number of trade unions of which a person may be an official.
15. Trade union dues are not to be applied for political purposes.
16. Trade union funds are not to be used for certain proceedings.
17. Deduction from wages of union members.
18. Payment of trade union dues to the Federation of Trade Unions.
19. Injunction to restrain misapplication of funds of trade union.
20. Membership of persons under 21 years of age.
21. Registered office of trade union.
22. Copies of rules to be sold on demand.

Benefits of registration

23. Trade unions are not unlawful as such.
24. Prohibitions of actions in tort against trade unions.
25. Recognition of registered trade union obligatory.
26. Right of member to nominate recipients of sums payable on death.
Change of name, merger, and alteration of rules of trade unions
27. Change of name of a trade union.

28. Merger of trade unions.
29. Alteration of rulers of trade unions.

Part Two

Federations of Trade Unions

30. Formation of Federation of Trade Unions.
31. Admission of further trade unions to membership of registered federation.
32. Application of certain provisions of Part I to Federations of Trade Unions at a time.
33. No person to hold office in more than one Federation of Trades Unions at the same time.

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Conclusion: History of Trade Union in Nigeria

The introduction of trade union and trade unionism to Nigeria has been problematic mainly because the practice was well established based on the socio-cultural realities of the people in the territories that later merged to become Nigeria before the coming of the British colonialists. The fact that an organised trade union in Nigeria was initiated by a ‘foreigner’, Mr Henry Libert in August 1912, suggests that Nigerians would have preferred to cling to their ‘ethnic trade unionism.’  We can therefore conclude that socio-cultural factors were and still are important in trade union and trade unionism in Nigeria. However, Trade Unions play a vital role in helping their members achieve desired notions, hence the importance can’t be over-emphasized!

If you have any contributions or questions regarding the history of trade union in Nigeria, kindly comment below

Gideon Agbaja
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