Trade Unions and Management in Nigeria. Structure und Development

Term Paper, 2021

17 Pages, Grade: 5


Table of Contents









The Nigerian industrial relations system in Nigeria aimed at the maintenance of a peaceful and harmonious industrial environment to foster employee satisfaction, increased productivity, economic growth, and assist all involved parties to achieve their objectives is menaced by incessant conflicts and disputes, making it a major topic of discourse and research in recent years.

The activities of the bi-partite body of employers and the labour unions cannot be understated in the maintenance of industrial peace and harmony, and are central to the happenings of the Nigerian industrial relations system. The paper thus examines the development of trade unions and management relations in Nigeria, the roles, functions and activities of parties involved with emphasis on the regulation of terms and conditions of employment, and the challenges hindering the effective functioning of the relations in order to proffer remedial measures.


The industrial relations system in Nigeria, like in most of the other countries of the world is made up of a tripartite body of the State, the employers, and the trade/labour unions. This complex interrelations in the Nigerian context has been a rocky one plagued with incessant conflicts and a high level of strike propensity, making it a subject of major debate and research in recent years.

Going by the Trade Union Act, The statutory definition of trade unions refers to trade unions as ‘any combination of workers or employers whether temporary or permanent the purpose of which is to regulate the terms and conditions of employment, meaning the principal purpose of trade unions is the regulation of terms of employment and conditions of work. This definition means trade unions also cover employers’ associations. However, employers’ and workers’ unions cannot combine to form one body of trade union due to the conflicting nature of their interests.

While the State is regarded as the principal actor and chief regulator of the system, the roles of the bi-partite bodies of employers and the workers’ representatives cannot be overemphasized in the prognosis and the course of events in industrial relations. Also, the state by reason of being the largest employer of labour and a supposed pace-setter in Nigeria incorporates it into many facets of analyses of the paper.

Thus, the objectives of the paper are to examine the subject matter of trade unions in Nigeria which is the regulation of the terms and conditions of employment, to provide a clear explanation of activities the unions engage in to actualize their goals and objectives centered on this key purpose of their existence, to discern their prospects and the challenges impeding their effective functioning, and to recommend reformatory measures.


2.1 Conceptual framework

2.1.1 Labour: The American Psychological Association (APA) defined labour as the aggregate of all human physical and mental effort used in the creation of goods and services. It is a primary factor of production. The magnitude of a country’s labour force is determined by the size of its adult population and the degree to which the adults are working or are prepared to offer their labour for wages.

2.1.2 Trade Unions: Sydney and Beatrice Webb defined trade unions as a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining and improving the conditions of their working life. Okogwu (1990) called it “an association of workers to promote and protect the welfare, interest, and rights of its members, primarily by collective bargaining” whilst its specialist or academic meaning is “the principal institution of workers in modern capitalist societies”. They are political institutions with elected leaders. They have political characteristics and seek to use political power to influence governmental agencies in their immediate interests. Their primary objective is bargaining effectively. Their functions of organizing, negotiating, striking, politics, legislation and governance are all harnessed in the service of this objective.

The Marxist school of thought gives a slightly different explanation of the concept, defining it as the major tool to achieve workers' desires of putting an end to wage slavery and radically transform society. It conceives trade unions as representing the means of actualizing the impending working-class revolution which according to the Marxian thought is inevitable in everycapitalist society. From there, it can be inferred that the interest of workers in industrial relations is represented by labour or trade unions, and trade unions are as much interested in economic and non-economic issues like power-sharing both in the workplace and in the larger society.

The Trade Unions Act in Nigeria however defines Trade Union as: “any combination of workers or employers, whether temporary or permanent, the purpose of which is to regulate the terms and theconditions of employment of workers whether the combination in question would or would not apart from this Act be an unlawful combination by reason of any of its purposes being in restraint.

2.1.3 Employers/Employers’ Associations: The employers are represented by their industrial employers' associations. Employers’ associations protect members against excessive demands from powerful unions, negotiate on behalf of their members, and render advisory and managerial assistance as the case may be. The role of the employers and the unions often determines the course of events in industrial relations.

2.1.4 Industrial Relations: It is the complex relationship between worker or labour unions, organization management and employers' associations, government, and the processes and institutions they have developed to structure them. As implied by the definition, the three main parties in industrial relations are the State/Government, the labour unions, and the Employers/Employers’ Associations. The government as a regulator and peacemaker sets the legal framework within which other actors conduct or relate with each other in practice.

2.1.5 Labour laws: Labour laws are regulations that moderate the relationship between workers, employer/employers’ associations, trade unions, and the government. A basic feature of the labour law is that the rights and obligations of workers are assumed from the contract of employment.

Labour laws have the uniform purpose of protecting employees’ rights and setting forth employers’ obligations and responsibilities. Other non-core functions are the provision of equal opportunity and pay, employee safety, workplace diversity, and inclusion.

The Nigerian labour laws came to be due to industrial conflicts arising from the inability of employers and employees to have proper dialogues concerning terms and conditions of employment. The government had to take responsibility for curbing the incessant conflicts between workers and management or labour unions and employers or employers’ associations.

2.2 Theoretical framework

This paper draws insights from three major theories of Trade Unionism.

2.2.1 Marxist theory: The theory as propounded by Karl Marx is that of political revolution and class struggles. The theory sees the workplace as consisting of two distinct social classes, the capitalists who are controllers of production processes and the working class also known as the proletariats. Marxists postulate exploitation of the working class by the capitalists which the State is in support. According to Marx, the unending conflicts between the capitalists and working class due to the conflicting nature of their interests (capitalist seeks maximum profit while the working class seek maximum rewards for labour) will ultimately lead to a revolution that will bring about a change in social order and abolishment of the capitalist system.

To Marxists, asides from the economic role of ensuring a fairer system of rewards allocation, the proletariats will have to be involved in political action in order to achieve economic equality. Marx emphasizes that trade unions are the school of socialism, and they should use their structural identity to merge with political structures to advance their course while they maintain a strong functional unity among themselves .

2.2.2 Lenin’s Theory: The theory is one that sees the trade union struggles as an economic and political movement like Karl Marx. It is however different in the sense that Lenin says that while the working class by nature of their needs meet trade union consciousness, they will still need external help and the contribution of intellectuals to achieve political consciousness. Lenin admits the need for outside help of intellectuals to provide education and organization on revolutionary leadership which will drive the establishment of proletariat dictatorship, making possible the establishment of socialism.

2.2.3 Sidney and Beatrice Webb Theory: The Webbs’ perceived trade unionism as an extension of democracy of the political sphere to the work community. They believe the goals of trade unions are not solely about wage increments and improved working conditions but also the society through the elimination of the capitalist society. They classified the goals of trade unions into short-term economic goals referring to day to day struggle for wages and improved working conditions and long-term political goal of the abolishment of the capitalist system.

The Webbs’ emphasize collective bargaining as the process that strengthens labour. They believe the maintenance of strong associations that can stand up to employers to the point of gaining acceptance and admiration by the community will be instrumental in organizing politically to achieve the long-term aim of abolishing the capitalist system.


3.1 Development of Trade Unions in Nigeria

The development of trade unions in Nigeria can be categorized into three parts namely

- The pre-ordinance period between 1900 and 1938
- The restructuring period covering 1939 to 1978, and the
- Industrial unionism from 1978 to date

The pre-ordinance period: In this era, it was mainly craft and trade organizations like the association of goldsmiths, hunter, etc. that were known before 3 unions namely the Southern Nigerian Civil Service, National Union of Teacher (NUT), Nigerian Union of Railwaymen were birthed. These unions tried their best in defending workers interests but did not have the legal backing as trade unions had not attained legal registration at the period.

They mobilized forces for lots of agitations concerning wages and Africanization of posts in the Federal Civil Service. The agitations led to the emergence of some unrecognized mushroom unions that showed interest in improving workers welfare and working conditions but were effective on collective terms. There was also no collective bargaining in this period as the unions were not legally recognized.

The restructuring period: Nigerian trade unions gained legal recognition in this period through the Colonial Trade Union Ordinance of 1938. The legislation was however loose and allowed for five or more persons to form a trade union which led to the formation of over 1000 mushroom trade unions that were badly managed and disorganized. These discouraged many from joining leading to the problem of member apathy and domination by the active minority.

The unions in this period solely relied on financial aid from foreign trade union bodies, there were no adequate facilities for labour education, there were inter-union rivalries and hostility towards each other, and union leaders lacked the skills and exposure to engage in collective bargaining effectively. All these led to the sanitization by the government in 1975.

Industrial Unionism: Due to the problems associated with the several unions formed in the restructuring period, the government had to set up a tribunal to probe activities of trade unions from 1960 -1975 and the report of the tribunal showed all was not well. Hence, the government dissolved the central trade unions and appointed an Administrator of Trade Unions to restructure the over 1000 mushroom unions into fewer industrial unions, and to evolve a single Central Labour Organization. These activities led to the regrouping into 70 unions, 9 of which were for employers’association which are now 23, 19 for senior staff unions which are now 24, and 42 for junior staff unions which are now 23.

The restructuring brought sanity into the trade union movement as the legal status brought relief to the union officials especially over several battles with many employers. Also, the establishment of the Nigeria Labour Congress as the central labour body fostered unity and reduced inter-union tussles, and the check-off that was made automatic boosted finances and endedreliance on foreign financial aid with member unions paying 10% of check-off dues to the NLC.

3.2 Trade Union Structure in Nigeria

There are mainly 4 types of unions in Nigeria namely Craft, Enterprise, General and, Industrial unions. However, only the General and Industrial Unions are still in vogue today. Some also add Professional unions to the list, Professional Unions are those that cater for the interest of professional employees, but in a strict sense they are not trade unions.

The Craft Unions refers to craft workers in single or related occupations such as electricians, plumbers, mechanics, etc. Enterprise unions are those organized on a one-company-one-union basis irrespective of the organization’s size and geographical spread, they were Prevalent in Nigeria in the 1970s. The Industrial Unions were based on industrial inclination and share a spirit of common employment or occupation both skilled and unskilled in a particular industry. The Industrial Unions is the structure currently operating in Nigeria.

Trade Unions can also be classified into Junior Staff Unions, Senior Staff Unions, and Employers’ Union. The Junior Staff Unions cater for employees at the lower echelon, Senior Staff Union

covers employees in supervisory and foreman ranks while and Employers’ Union caters for the general interests of employers and represent them in dealings with the labour’ unions.

In terms of governance and coverage, there are Branch, National, and Central Unions. The Branch level is at grassroots and plant level, the National is the nationwide organization of workers usually at industrial or sectoral level while the Central unions are the umbrella bodies covering both the junior and senior employees’ national unions. Currently, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) represents all junior staff as well as some senior staff unions; while the Trade Union Congress (TUC) represents senior staff unions affiliated with it.

3.3 Legal Status of Trade Unions in Nigeria

The main legal framework regulating trade union practice in Nigeria is the Trade Union Act, 1976; Trade Union Amendment Act, 2005

3.3.1 Registration of Trade Unions in Nigeria

The law requires that a trade union must be registered with the Registrar of trade unions and that the principal purpose is to regulate the terms and conditions of employment of workers before it can be legally recognized. Also, the application for the registration to the Registrar in the prescribed form must be signed by at least fifty members of the union in the case of a union of employees and by at least only two members in the case of a union of employers. Registration has to be approved by the Minister of Labour and Productivity.

Other provisions for registration are:

- No trade union shall be registered to represent workers or employers in a place where there already exists a trade union or in a case that a registered trade union already adequately caters for the interest of applicants who desire to register a new trade union
- Upon Registration, a trade union is conferred with the status of an incorporated body which can sue and be sued in its registered name, it can hold property in its name, and it continues in perpetuity no matter the changes in its membership
- Members are liable to pay subscriptions and levies under the union rules, but they are not liable for the debts of their union, nor could their personal property be available for an unsatisfied judgment debtor

3.3.2 Membership of Trade Unions in Nigeria

Freedom of Association is a constitutional right guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Thus, Trade Union Act provides that “a person who is otherwise eligible for membership of a particular trade union shall not be refused admission to membership of that union, by reason only that he is of a particular community, tribe, place of origin, religion or political opinion”. The major qualification is that the age of the applicant must be 16 years old and above. Other statutory provisions concerning membership are:

- A person under the age of 21 shall not be capable of being an official of a trade union
- Certain categories of workers such as the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Nigeria Telecommunication Ltd, armed forces, and the employees of which are authorized to bear arms are excluded from forming or belonging to a trade union of their choice
- Any employee who is a projection of management is prohibited from union membership

3.3.3 Cancellation of Registration

According to the Trade Union Act, the six grounds that must be proved to the satisfaction of the Registrar under which he must cancel the Registration are: that the registration of the trade union was obtained by fraud or as a result of a mistake; or that any of the purposes of the union is unlawful; or that, after receipt of a warning in writing from the Registrar, the union has deliberately contravened or continued to contravene any provision of the Act or the regulations; or that the principal purpose for which the union is in practice being carried on is a purpose other than that of regulating the terms and conditions of employment of workers; or that the union though still in existence, has ceased to function; or that the union has ceased to exist.

The Registrar must send a notice in the prescribed form to the trade union at its registered office whenever registration is to be canceled.


From the various contextual definitions of trade unions given in previous chapters, it becomes evident that the subject matter and primary purpose of the existence of trade unions (which includes both employers’ and workers’ association) is the regulation of terms of employment, conditions of work and employment situations in general to ensure peaceful organization which allows for smooth operations of the firm translating to improved productivity for national gains.

Trade Union and Management in Nigeria thus refers to the realities of the relations between the management representatives/employers’ associations and the workers’ representatives. Management and employers’ associations (which are also covered by the trade union term) are thus synonymous in this context of this paper by function in industrial relations. ‘Management’ could also include or refer to the government in instances where it acts as an employer in the relations.

4.1 Collective Bargaining and Management-Labour Relations in Nigeria

Collective Bargaining is generally adopted as the institution and means of regulating these employment terms and conditions as well as resolving industrial conflicts between workers’ representatives and management representatives, making it a major instrument in industrial relations.

Collective bargaining involves negotiations and deliberations on the improvement of the working conditions of employees generally. International Labour Organization (ILO) Collective Bargaining Convention No. 154 adopted in 1981 defines collective bargaining as “the term extending to all negotiations between employers. A group of employers or one hand, and one or more workers’ organizations on the other, for (a) determining the working conditions or terms of employment and or (b) regulating relations between employers or their organizations and a workers’ organization or workers’ organizations”. Collective bargaining is statutorily recognized as a veritable tool for the management of industrial relations and disputes in Nigeria. Universally, it is seen as a human right to association and represents the values of an effective democracy.

Collective bargaining operates and is built on the ideological foundation of voluntarism of the libertarian socio-political system based on the absence of coercion by any arbitrary state or collective body. It is a philosophy that holds that all forms of human associations should be voluntary with the state only acting as a mediator between labour and employers when the need arises. Voluntarism is based on good faith which allows trade unions and employers to negotiate and regulate their conditions of work without interference from the state or its agents.

When parties to collective bargaining meet and negotiate, a compromise is reached; this compromise which entails “give and take” for amicable resolution is what is termed collective agreement. The Nigerian labour law provides that collective agreements deposited with the Minister of Labour and Productivity within 14 days of reaching an agreement will be binding on the employers and employees to whom the agreement relates at the discretion of the minister.

However, at common law, collective agreements only become binding and enforceable when incorporated into an individual’s contract of employment. Thus, when employers need to incorporate all collective agreements into the contracts of employment of all relevant employees to ensure individual workers gain from negotiated terms. Collective agreements once incorporated into contracts of employment cannot be changed without fresh union negotiations.

4.2 Requirements for Successful Management-Labour Relations

Successful collective bargaining and management-labour relations require a balance in the bargaining power of both the employees and the employers, notwithstanding what may be the contents of the individual contract of employment. Emiola (2008) defines bargaining as the process of negotiating an agreement on the basis of ‘give and take’. Parties have to take it as a collective dialogue and adopt principles of constant compromises and concessions to reach a collective agreement on the issues under negotiation. It is also very important to note that collective bargaining is a formal affair and should be handled with attentiveness, professionalism, and pragmatism.

Employers need to find relief in seeing it as a simple concept which basically entails negotiating and updating employees’ terms and conditions of employment. It is an opportunity to discern the collective interests of employees which is crucial to providing competitive packages and fair working conditions. Trade unions can do a lot to ensure a peaceful work environment that allows for a smooth operation of organizations. All that is required is for the management to carry unions along in areas concerning terms and conditions of employment, be open to the worker’s representatives about operations, changes, and its resources, and ensuring sharing of profit with the workers.

4.3 Objectives and Functions of Trade Unions in Management-Labour Relations in Nigeria

For the workers’ representatives unions, the improved conditions of employment, favourable terms, and conditions of employment are the major targets of collective bargaining while to the Management or employer associations, it is a forum for promoting the interests of the employers and protecting employers from the demands of powerful unions by negotiating tactfully on their behalf. It is also worthy to note that the employers’ associations regulate all terms in the labour market.

Asides from the primary purpose of representing and bargaining on behalf of members for improved terms and conditions of employment, labour unions serve other functions such as the provision of financial assistance to members in times of economic distress, investigation, and settlement of disputes in a rational manner, provision of legal assistance, education of members in a bid to match management sophistication at the negotiation table, and provision of other social and psychological benefits to members.

4.4 Challenges to Smooth Functioning of Management-Labour Relations in Nigeria

While it is of the common belief that the employers’ associations are doing well with holding the side of the divide in Nigeria, the labour unions' effectiveness is often fettered by factors are poor education and exposure of the labour union leaders which makes the management representatives easily outwit them at the negotiation table. Also, issues like a lack of ideology, and internal power tussles make the brightest minds lose interest in the affairs of the unions, allowing for domination by the active minority that may be incompetent. Socio-economic factors such as financial meltdowns, unavailability of alternative jobs which are eroding the bargaining power of labour’ unions are other factors.

All these, coupled with the poor funding arising from the contraction of manpower due to the socio-economic hardships of recent years, and the decentralization of trade unions with the 2005 amendment act that made membership optional, and check-off not compulsory are hindering the efficacy of labour unions in Nigeria. Poor funding usually translates to the labour unions not being able to attract required paid officials and provide required training for representatives. It also impedes effective discharge of duties in the areas of provision of social and welfare services to members.

Regarding the trade union and management relations in Nigeria, it is crystal clear that certain lingering issues have driven a wedge between the harmonious relationship that should exist between management and labour especially in the public sector, and has contributed to the stunted productivity and development of the nation. These challenges such as insincerity of parties, employers use of informal means to determine terms of employment, parties adherence to firm inconsiderate demands, viewing negotiations as competitions, among others have accounted for the incessant labour disputes in the forms of strikes, picketing, lockouts, sit-downs, agitations, and demonstrations riddling the Nigerian industrial relations system. These causative factors are discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.

The insincerity of involved parties has particularly been a major cause of management-labour disputes in Nigeria. Employers, particularly the State in its role as an employer are often found culpable with insincerity in terms of fulfillment of pledges, honoring of collective agreements and memorandum of understanding (MoU) as well as policy implementation. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) for example has gone on strikes numerous times based on disputes arising from such issues. It is a case that has become so rampant that labour unions now operate with the belief that the only language government and employers understand in Nigeria is a strike. Such acts of insincerity can cause fairness concerns, leading negotiators to sometimes reject deals that would be beneficial to both sides, intentionally allowing negotiations to disintegrate into strikes. This is synonymous with being willing to pay good money to see those who treats one unfairly suffer.

The government’s use of informal means to achieve labour-management negotiations and unilateral determination of terms and conditions of employment relations is another deplorable act. These shabby practices motivate private employers to engage in similar practices, holding the belief that the government in its role as a regulator cannot do anything about it since the public sector is guilty of the same.

Overconfidence on any or both sides of the negotiation table can also lead parties to believe their contentions are stronger than they are, while underrating the other party’s willingness to stand their ground. This can cause collective bargaining processes to degenerate into trade disputes. Parties should thus endeavor to get outside opinions and objective evaluations of plans when collective bargaining gets heated, this will add some level of rationality to the proceedings and encourage representatives to offer alternatives.

While there are statutory provisions for the settlement of trade disputes if and when they occur in the Nigerian industrial relations system (with trade unions having to maintain the status quo and not embark on strike when the statutory machinery is in motion), that the existing statutory provisions for the settlement of industrial disputes have not been effective due to delays experienced by aggrieved parties, as well as the cumbersomeness of the procedure has made trade unions lose faith in the system and reinforced their belief that the only language government understands in Nigeria is strike. Industrial Arbitration Panel for example has 42 days within which to make its award normally, but experience has shown it takes up to 12 months to make its decision known to parties. Such delayed judgments in most cases only rile up contempt parties hold against each other and reinforces the win-lose inter-group relations.

On the part of trade unions, other factors include a lack of ideology, poor leadership, poor communications, the approach of labour-management negotiations with a win-lose inter-group relations model without due recourse to compromises and concessions, inadequate preparations, and not factoring the economic realities or standing of organizations into demands could all pose a threat to smooth relations.

The factors explained in the preceding paragraphs are those that commonly cause negotiations and bargaining processes to disintegrate into incessant trade disputes, especially strikes which is typical of the Nigerian industrial relations system. However, despite the many reported tangible and intangible costs of strikes, it indicates a key democratic concept in societies that value freedom of association, action, and expression. So while they never come without costs to involved parties, the right to strike has to be preserved in some way in a democratic society like Nigeria.


The paper has centered on the realities and variations of management-labour relations in Nigeria. Issues impeding harmonious management-labour union relations in Nigeria have been identified. The study thus recommends the following remedial measures to boost the effectiveness of the trade union and management relations in Nigeria.

- The government as an important stakeholder should act as a good example by respecting collective agreements, prompt payment of equitable salaries, and offset arrears. Private- sector employers fond of such acts should also follow suit
- Management should adopt labour-friendly policies that allow for carrying unions along in areas concerning terms and conditions of employment and strive to be open to them about operations, changes, and financial performance
- Parties to industrial relations should adopt a ‘win-win’ approach to bargaining and negotiations. Involved parties should be objective in their claims and rationally considerable in their decisions
- The State needs to demonstrate a political will to uphold labour standards by providing an adequate safeguard for workers by reviewing regulatory and legal frameworks which are not in tune with socio-economic realities as this is a major source of industrial disputes. Employers will find it easier to comply when there are legal frameworks backing claims
- Industrial disputes should be attended to as soon as it is noticed as delays in settlement or disposal of conflicting claims is a primary enemy of justice and harmony. There is also a need to check the excessive powers of the Minister of Labour to avoid them unilaterally dictating actions of the Industrial Courts through inflated jurisdiction

As a final note, peaceful and harmonious management-labour relations usually translate to increase in the fortune of organizations and the society at large. Trade unions can do a lot to ensure peaceful work environments. All that is required is for the management to carry the union along in areas concerning them, be open to the worker’s representatives about operations, changes, and its fortune, and ensuring sharing of profit with the workers. With such, the union representatives may become understanding and collaborate with the management for peaceful work environment.


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Trade Unions and Management in Nigeria. Structure und Development
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