By Hassan Ahmad Usman
Recently, I read a post on Facebook cautioning ASUU not to ignite the government into following the path of the former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in her famous face-off with unionists. Before then, I only knew of her being called the “The Iron Lady”, and that’s all. It prompted me to find out more about her struggle with them. I got a book, Margaret Thatcher: A portrait of the Iron Lady by John Blundell.
After winning the war of about eleven weeks against Argentina over the Falkland island, she made a famous statement in 1983: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands, and now we have to fight the enemy within, which is much more difficult but just as dangerous. These few men are the wreckers in our midst.”
The miners, led by Arthur Scargill under the NUM, started a strike action after learning of the National Coal Board’s chairman’s plan to close uneconomical pits. The NUM held a special place in the political landscape.
They were somewhat invincible. In fact, the unionists brought down a government a decade earlier before Thatcher’s. But as the book’s author opined: “I think it possible that her defeat of General Galtieri (in the war) emboldened her to take on the mineworkers with robustness she may otherwise not have shown”.
She welcomed the fight against the miners, defeated them and reformed the unions.
Now, let us relate the defeat of the NUM and ASUU’s likely end if they thread the same path. One of the early actions that Thatcher’s government took when the strike heightened was to promise a big Christmas bonus to whoever resumed work. It yielded positive results, and a war started between the striking and non-striking workers. Imagine the federal government promising to pay the unpaid salaries for six months to only lecturers that resumed. What do you think? There is already a push for a rival union.
Nigerian government can actualize the new union, which would automatically birth the beginning and end of ASUU. ASUU chairman’s recent labelling of universities not on strike as quacks is a big blunder. Other state universities felt insulted too. If the union keep on this trend, its end looms. A divided house is a recipe for a fallen one.
Another area is politicizing ASUU strikes. One mistake the union should not make is making the politicians understand that they can win elections with or without an ASUU strike. It’ll ultimately show that the public is not sympathetic to the union. Parents are already tired of seeing the unhappy faces of their wards. Like the NUM, their resolve would eventually wane after the election litmus test.
The NUM leader Scargill was embarrassed when the press revealed that President Gaddafi and Soviet President Gorbachev were sending large sums of money to the NUM. Indeed treason was in the air. In the case of Nigeria, it is nothing close to treason, but acting as an opposition party by the ASUU chairman while calling on Nigerians not to vote for the government that made their universities to be closed is an apparent derailment from the status quo. It gives the government reason to cling.
I’ve long wondered if ASUU listens to its ordinary members’ cries. Do they even have a voice? Yes, solidarity and loyalty are good, but how long can they be sustained with a hungry stomach? They are passing through a lot, and words of the mouth alone cannot keep them going. Just like NUM members that couldn’t hold on for long without cheques, ASUU members, too, are humans and any given opportunity thrown at them to abandon their war gear, they’ll heed without hesitation.
Prime minister Thatcher weakened the old arrangements that made membership in the union mandatory by giving more power and rights to individual workers. She went to the British public and the ordinary members of the unions. She explained that strikes affected union members just as much as the rest of the public. And she used simple examples to show how the kind of economic thinking represented by the TUC would keep Britain on the road to ruin.
Thatcher’s strategy was to break down the closed shop and bring real democracy to these institutions so ordinary members could regain control. As a result, union membership dropped from 51% when she assumed power in 1979 to just 18% in 1997, seven years after leaving.
Lastly, it is my utmost prayer to see ASUU get what they want from the government for the betterment of our education, for I believe they are doing it with good intentions and for the interest of all.
Hassan Ahmad Usman writes from Lafia and can be reached via email@example.com.