I started writing this post about 4 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. I am updating it once again, in May 2022. Currently, academic unions are on strike in both Nigeria and the UK. I have been updating and changing this post as the situation keeps changing in both countries. I have decided to publish this version as a preliminary overview. As developments develop, I may write additional posts as brief updates or observations on what is happening at that time. The picture is pretty grim for academia everywhere in the world. I have always been embedded in universities. I was born in one and apart from a year at the Nigerian Law School and my time in legal practice, I have always lived, worked or been at university. People may be able to tell from my work that I have a great passion for the future of universities and the role they may play in shaping new and just worlds. Or if they have any future at all.
One of the key ways in which this future has been shaped or abandoned, is through organising around conditions of university labour. Unfortunately, especially in the UK, though labour conditions [particularly of younger academics and university workers] continue to worsen. This aspect of university life as a pedagogic and public concern has not really been taken up to an extent where it can result in fundamental change. The labour union is often seen as not central to the existence of the university, and many university staff do not concern themselves with organised agitation for improved labour conditions. As someone who lived and studied in the Nigerian university system, the shock is profound. The first university strike I witnessed in the UK lasted for half a day and only a very small handful of staff participated. The first university strike I can remember in Nigeria was a non-academic union strike [I will explain further below]. It involved the complete shutdown not just of academic activity in the university, but all supply of water, electricity, as well as the access roads to the university. It lasted for a couple of weeks. Those differences are profound, produce profoundly different outcomes and I suggest stem from profoundly different outlooks about the relationship between the university, labour and the state. In this post, I want to reflect on the key differences between university unions in the UK and Nigeria and if these structural and ideological differences can teach us anything about organising within academia anywhere in the world.
A couple of caveats before I proceed. I am not arguing that either system is better. I am reflecting on what the differences tell us can be done within any system. There may be some mistakes here, due to my limited experience in some areas. I have only experienced Nigerian university unions from the outside. In the UK, I have not taken any official role in the union, so there may be some things I will not see as clearly. In either case, please do correct me in the same spirit in which this is written… in love, hope and solidarity.
The Unions and their Structures
In the UK, the University and College Union (UCU) represents “academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and training organisations across the UK.” The UCU is thus able to agitate for overall working conditions for most staff working within universities in the UK. In Nigeria, there are a couple of workers unions for universities. The most prominent is the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). As the name suggests ASUU represents the academic staff in universities – lecturers, teachers, and researchers mainly. Then there is NASU –The Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), which as the name implies, represents the interests of workers in the university who are not involved in academic work – for example, librarians, estate managers, hall porters, administrative staff etc. There is also a third union, SSANU – the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities. This last union represents senior administrative staff at university. In this essay, I will be focusing mainly on ASUU and their strikes as this is the major form of industrial action that disrupts teaching.
The first key difference between the two systems is their membership. In the UK, to be a member of the UCU, you must proactively join the union. In Nigeria, a member of staff is automatically a member of the requisite union. You cannot opt out.
Each structure and governance system has its limitations and advantages. The unions in Nigeria have a massive active membership. However, due to the stratification of the unions, the interests that they represent are often sectional and do not always focus on the university as a sector or the preservation of the role of the university in public life. In the UK, there is more scope to protect a wider range of interests within the sector.
Strike Procedure and Processes
One of the key actions a union can take in response to unmet demands is to withdraw their labour. The right to strike is a universal democratic right of all workers across the world. However, the way this works in the two different jurisdictions reveals some stark points of departure.
In the UK, the union ballots its members asking them to vote in favour of strike action. According to Section 226 of the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, in England, Scotland and Wales, ballots must attract at least a 50% turnout and the majority must vote yes for action to be lawful. Even where a strike is called, a union member can choose not to take part in industrial action.
There are no threshold provisions in Nigeria, so long as the union’s congress votes in favour of strike action, a strike is lawful. Where the union executive recommends an industrial action, it is unlikely that the members will vote against this recommendation. When a strike is called everyone who is a member of the union is on strike. As union membership is automatic, this means that that particular area of activity is shut down. So, when ASUU is on strike, no teaching happens. Members are not allowed to decide not to strike.
Allied to this is the length of the strike and the mandate to strike. In the UK, the union vote to strike only covers a 6-month period from the date of the ballot. The strike days are often between 3-30 days across this time period. In Nigeria, notionally a strike action can continue everyday, indefinitely from the date of the vote. ASUU in particular has been known to go on 12-month strikes, with some local strikes extending longer than that. Another vote will be called as to whether to end the strike. This key difference comes down to two main factors. Firstly, ASUU members are usually get paid while they are on strike. This means that the financial pressure to call off the strike action is not felt in the same way as it is in the UK. In essence in the UK, university staff QUITE LITERALLY cannot afford to strike for longer than they do. The second and allied point is that ASUU, especially, argues that their strike action is not a complete withdrawal of labour. Teaching ceases but research and administration does not. So, to a certain extent, the university is not in complete shut-down during ASUU strikes. NASU strikes can shut down essential services, but these are often supplemented, and teaching is not interrupted. I remain confused as to the disruption SSANU strikes causes. UCU strikes envisage complete withdrawal of labour for participating staff.
In the UK labour withdrawn during the strike period should not be delivered at the end of the strike period. In practice however, through mitigating action, the labour does get provided one way or the other. Ideally, this should be considered unpaid labour as withheld wages are not mitigated in recompense. ASUU strikes serve to pause teaching. No teaching goes on during an industrial action instigated by ASUU. When the strike is called off – no matter how long this is – teaching continues from where it stopped off. Exams have been known to continue midway after a 9-month strike.
The Relationship with the Student Unions
A final point of difference is the relationship between the university staff unions and the student unions. In the UK, the National Union of Students are notionally amenable to university staff strikes. This support is often shown through joining in with rallies and the occupation of university buildings. The student voice is listened to more in the UK than in Nigeria, so this support is often of great effect. Though with active student union membership so low, this does not necessarily mean that many students support strikes. Universities have been known to use this to divide student support. In Nigeria, the National Association Nigerian Students (NANS) often actively opposes strike actions, except where interests converge. They hardly ever do. NANS is an exceptionally strong advocacy group for students interests. Most of those interests place NANS in direct conflict with the workers unions.
Three General Observations/Questions
As previously stated, there is no intention in this essay to hold one sphere of union organising above the other – these are very different social spaces. However, I feel that they very difference between those spaces can tell us something about the ways in which effective unions can be achieved. I have formulated my initial reflections into three questions.
- The question of academia as labour/work: I have argued elsewhere that I think one radical thing academics can do is accept that we are workers, and what we do is labour. I believe that academics in the UK are more likely to think of our jobs as a noble calling. Therefore, we are more likely to open ourselves to labour exploitation in the name of collegiality and similar ideas. This is very much tied to education itself being perceived as a means to be socially agile. However, I argue that the social mobility claim misses the point of an entrenched class system with deep allegiances to maintaining power structures. As I see it, one of the problems with some of our ideas of “social mobility” is that it is predicated on receiving the opportunity to escape a cadre which continues to exist after your escape. A cadre to which you can ideologically continue to lay claim, if not materially. To see ourselves as workers is to understand our exact position within the system and through the system. Subjugation and not elevation.
- The question of different histories: In Nigeria, national labour unions arose mainly out of a desire to overturn the then “present system” of colonisation. In other words, strikes were a key part of the anticolonial movement and the idea that unions are antagonistic to government directives, though very diluted, is still part of labour landscape. For example, the 1945 General Strike, during British colonisation, the first of its kind in Nigeria had a devastating effect on the colonial regime. It lasted for 44 days in the Lagos and 53 days in the regions. It was initiated, organised, and executed by workers, and strongly supported by market women. Another key example of anticolonial labour organising was the November 1949 Enugu Colliery strike. Miners belonging to the Nigeria Africa Mineworkers Union at the British-owned Enugu Colliery, went on strike for better pay and working conditions. Markets and shops were closed in neighbouring towns and villages as local women joined them. The colonial police opened fire on the protesters and their supporters at the Iva Valley coal mine, and 20 coal miners and one bystander were killed. This form of union organising continued into the postcolonial period, with unions organising against government policies and actions. Against this background and history, it is unlikely that Nigerian academic unions (or any unions for that matter) would accept the threshold requirement, or the strike processes or procedure that holds sway in the UK.
- The question of the UK ‘class system’: It can be argued that where unions have arisen out of the sort of political history discussed above, their modus operandi may be more about holding governments feet to the fire rather than acquiescence with governmental directives that clearly seek to dilute the power of national labour unions. I am still thinking this through, but I think the question is more complex than this. Which is why I think the way in which class is understood and weaponised in the UK is important to understanding how to reimagine unions. Thinking through Hall helps me to trouble the closed framework that is often placed around conversations about class in the UK. “Race is the modality in which class is lived” (Hall et al., 1978, p. 394). Hall’s argument resonates with Ochonu’s who argues that class stratifications in Africa rely on and originate from the same logics that produce racial classification as a social construct and the attendant impoverishment by colonisation and racial enslavement. Therefore, my feeling on this is that unless labour unions, anywhere in the world can organise to disrupt and dismantle “present systems” that rely squarely on exploitation, wherever they are, there will continue to be limits to their effectiveness. The closer they acquiesce to the system they claim to want to stand against the less effective they will be. This has become apparent in Nigeria where post-independence and especially in recent years, a lot of the unions have got into bed with political power.
My fear is that it may be too late to correct course for academic unions in the UK. So many people are leaving the profession due to the fact that they cannot see how working conditions can be improved through the union.