The guiding principle for the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) since the privatisation of the sector became inevitable was how to survive.
General-secretary of the union, Joe Ajaero, in this interview, further explained that there’s little or nothing a union in this age can do without being self-sustaining.
He speaks further on how the challenges of privatization, de-unionisation, threat to jobs made the union to reposition and is today a leader in investments cutting across agriculture, power, hotels, real sector and others. Excerpts:
Union and its activities, naturally, should be dynamic. We should not be fixated in the way things were done. Unions have grown over the years and, if you look at comparatively the way things are done worldwide, you discover that unions must do those things that will make them to survive the test of time. The electricity union in Japan is one of the biggest in terms of resources. This is because of its own history, because the management there is trying to come up with a policy of no work, no pay and the union has to sustain itself by making sure that they could pay staff salary even for three years, if the management decides not to pay. Because of that realisation, even the state there knew that they cannot be threatened and it would be dangerous if they go into any industrial action. If you go to South Africa, you will see that South Africa has repositioned in terms of stock, whatever. they were having almost equivalents of, the mines union, which happens to be our counterpart in South Africa, are having investments in stocks and whatever running into billions. They have guests house and school and they are doing business very well and then they have moved to the next stage of being political. The mines union and by extension are very serious factor in the ANC. It’s either they produce Secretary to the party or to the government. They’re people that you can’t equally do away with, especially giving their history because the mine union were critical in the political independence of South Africa because of the miners and the whole politics around South Africa and apartheid was around the mines and then it was purely economics. So the union grew as a result of that. That was similar to what we have in the case of Iva Valey, while it equally killed so many workers over 70 years ago. So coming to our own history, we realized that there’s little or nothing you can do without being self sustainance and we decided to reposition especially when we were threatened with the issue of privatization, de-unionisation by the those so called investors coming up and threat to jobs. So when that happened, we started thinking ahead, see whether we can run the union without necessarily depending so much on check off dues. We’ve started, we’ve had some investments. Some lucrative and some not lucrative. We were able to have a functional guest house in Benin, later we have another functional guest house in Ibadan. The guest house in Kaduna is nearing completion.The one in Owerri and Jos are waiting for furnishings. We also have another one in Onike area of Lagos State, that we are trying to convert it to into service apartments and make it function at the level of service apartments. The one in Abuja, we call it Villa NUEE, that one is functioning, commissioned. We have some other apartments, there is one in Abuja, six flats, that we collect about 2 millions per annum per flat. So annually maybe they give us N12 million on that,20 among others. We have another one in Ojo area of Lagos, a two storey building tenants and another bungalow tenants. Then we have a property that we bought waiting for appreciation about 100 plots of land near Aso Legislative Quarters in Abuja. In terms of properties, we have a lot. We have another one in terms of stores in Ibadan, where we can have over 20 or 30 shops, like malls. Then another one in Jos. In Jos again, we have the Acutrack Pole company where we produce electric poles fully functional in Jos that we supply to rural electrification agencies and all others. We have workers there and we ensure we produce standard concrete poles. We got involved in metering, but we were hampered by certain policies of government because the company we are working with wanted us to reduce to the issue of assembling and that was not what we were thinking of because we got a property in Abuja and other places and we have gotten Manufacturers Association of Nigeria’s certification and other certification in order to enable us go into production. But we discovered some companies like Conlog and others now want us to go into a kind of assembling and cooling and that is not challenging. That wasn’t the idea we had. While we were discussing, they were equally busy marketing those products to the Discos. So if they were marketing those products to the Discos, it then means that, we can’t be producing and they are marketing it there. So, that marriage we have with some of them didn’t last so much. Then we tried to venture into power generation by bidding for the Afam Power plant, and of so many companies that bidded, they listed about three and the company owned by the union was amongst the three. We didn’t shown up there, we were not there, they didn’t know it’s ours, it was a company we floated through limited liability company for the purpose of doing business. So when we went for the last stage and we suspected there was going to be foul play, because the BPE was entangled with lots of suspicions. So BPE quickly fixed the bidding in Transcorp. We protested, because one of the three that qualified was Transcorp, so why must they take it to their house. So they now changed it to BPE. But on the day of bidding again, they took it to Transcorp and at the end of the day, they announced Transcorp as the winner and the Union’s company came second in the bidding. Up till now, am not sure Transcorp has paid and some of us has to accuse DG of BPE because of where he came from is the same place as Transcorp’s owner. It was a case of nepotism, it was not based on clearly technical competence. This is because Transcorp is already handling the Ugheli Power station, wondering if they are going to give them all the power stations. We wanted to take Afam as a model to show that we are not just criticising, but we want to participate in it. We have done some others small small investment. Up till now we have acres of land in Okaka. Our Okaka farm project was so much, tractors and everything, but because of distance between here and Okaka it has been difficult for us to start again. But the land there is massive. Apart from the land being massive, we are equally involved in one or two stocks here and there. Now we tested this a bit. After the privatization, the first six months, the investors said there was no union. We have already prepared our minds to make sure that we sustained the payment of salary and everything even up to five to ten years. So that was where they were frustrated. Because ordinarily if we couldn’t sustain the Secretariat and our activities for first six months, we would have started having problems. So, but within that first six months, we started back again, one member, two members, three members and right now we are back, fully back. That’s the situation, it has a lot of advantages. The disadvantage is that to a very large extent, you will try to separate yourself from running the businesses directly because when that happens, there might be mutual suspicions on the way the businesses are run. Like the hotel in Abuja now, we have Villa NUEE, as a registered company that people are managing for us. Maybe we see alert, we don’t go there, we are not concerned about the way they run it or what they buy. Now the Acutrack has its own managing director. That was where the pole company fell in and that is also where we are trying to do metering and vending and other activities. We try to separate from them. The one in Ibadan is being managed through a concessionary arrangements, annually we get returns. So those small small funds coming in, if we pick them here and there, they sustained the union so much. So we can live with them to a very large extent especially at a point that check off dues was dwindling. Although, now we are building it back. I think it’s important, it creates jobs, most of the people that have left the unions or their jobs, if we can fix them there it serves a lot of purpose.
To a very large extent, I think we have close to 70. If I am not mistaken, as at today, we have close to 70 staff in all these areas because there are some other areas we have not opened. If we are successful in the power plant and the metering, but those are businesses in the pipeline. But we are equally being careful so that we don’t suffer from over-ambition and then we won’t be able to sustain it. That’s why we are growing gradually.
It’s not something I can just come up with because some of them, what you have this year is not what you are going to have next year ditto for the subsequent years. It all depends on the business climate. But frankly speaking, it’s small money, some of them requires money to flourish, by the time you look at the tear and wear and other things, you will discover that, paying salary, doing other things, you may have up to N30 or so millions that comes in plus minus.
Advice to position others
My advice is not just to individuals. I think unions should focus and have structures. Of late, unions are no longer driven by their Secretariat and when that happens, that union is gone forever. If a union have Secretariat, functional departments, things will move normally. But if it is just anybody that is elected or appointed as general Secretary or president, he will bring his own style and when he finishes people will start at fresh again, bring another style. You cannot sustain such in an organization. Now if you check the rate of growth and development of these unions, you discovered that there stability contributes a lot to their growth. There are unions that have high turnover of Presidents and general Secretary, within four years, they have three Presidents or general Secretaries. Those unions cannot even pay salary because they are not coordinated. It is only when you are stable that you can plan what you are going to do.
Likewise, unions that are not organising are dying. When you organise, go into aggressive organising, you have members and members transform to funds. Members transform to strength in case you want to take any action, you will have enough members. Some of them went into agreements with some organizations and they pay them protection fees. So if I go and meet with one organization now and they are paying me dues but I did not unionise them and at the end of the day they pay me some money, maybe as dues or whatever for me not to go there. In most instances, I prefer to have members there and if you don’t want to pay us dues that’s your business, the day we are ready we will shut down the activities of the company. That’s what some unions are doing, they get paid and they don’t have members, that is the problem. So all the unions that have stopped organising, that have stopped fighting, there’s nothing that will sustain them. If unions go into organising, they will be building their strength, they will be building their funds. When they now have strength and funds, they can now think of what to do with them. This is because you must first and foremost be able to pick your bills before you can talk of investment. You can’t be investing when you are owing secretariat staff, when you are staying in a rented apartment. Most of the unions are staying in rented apartments.