Since the five-year moratorium on unionism was lifted at the Osun State University (UNIOSUN) in 2012, workers have been agitating for one thing or the other. The non-teaching staff are on strike.
To the management, a “handful of troublemakers” are stoking the crisis under the guise of unionism. Union leaders contend that the management is high handed and victimises workers, with the “no work, no pay”rule being its latest weapon to end agitation for the payment of outstanding earned allowances. ADEGUNLE OLUGBAMILA and ADESOJI ADENIYI (OSOGBO) report. With the “no work no pay” directive of the Osun State University (UNIOSUN), the battle between the management and the workers’ union over unpaid earned allowances appears to have heightened.
Agitation for the earned allowances and hazard allowance dates back to 2012 when workers first demanded for it. When the Vice Chancellor Prof Labode Popoola assumed duty in November 2016, he inherited the earned allowances for the 2013/14 and 2014/15 sessions as well as unremitted pension and tax deductions.
Though the payment was eventually approved in 2016, Governor Rauf Aregbesola, the Visitor to the university, suspended the payment because the state was battling to pay salaries.This provoked workers protests, which almost culminated in the cancellation of the university’s convocation last year.
The management insists that strike or no strike, academic activities must continue, while contentious issues should be resolved amicably. But the workers would have none of that. They said the strike declared on March 5, to press for the payment of their earned allowances must stand.
Workers, under the umbrella of the Joint Action Congress (JAC), comprising the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union and Allied Institutions-(NASU), and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), told their members not to sign the attendance registers opened in the six campuses of the university for those willing to work.
JAC is calling for the head of the governing council chairman Mallam Yusuf Ali, and the VC over plans to sack the union leaders. It also alleged corruption, high handedness and wastefulness on the part of management. The unions called for a probe of the financial activities of the 11-year-old institution.
They accused Popoola of squandering the N3 billion handed over to him when he took over. The VC denied the allegation, saying he inherited N1.8 billion.
Popoola claimed that some union members collected money from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), but did not use it for what it was meant.
Although the management set up a panel, which exonerated the VC, the workers still insisted that Popoola was guilty. It demanded that the panel should make its report public.
Last month, the House of Assembly, Head of Service and heads of security agencies intervened, asked the parties to sheathe their swords and allow the lawmakers probe the allegations. The workers obeyed them.
But the crisis resumed when the management was said to have suspended 10 union leaders over the allegations that they disturbed the peace of the institution with their protests.
After refusing to acknowledge the suspension letter forwarded to their email addresses, the management was said to have queried the workers and asked them to appear before the Staff Disciplinary Committee (SDC) to explain why they protested in the institution.
Last Friday, the management described the allegations as tissues of lies. They said those heating up the system were not workers, but a handful of trouble makers hiding under unionism.
Supporting his claims with documentary evidence, Popoola said it was corruption that was fighting back in the system. He challenged workers to come up with evidence of any shady deals he was involved.
Defending his honour, he said: “Allegations remain allegations and the important thing for me to say is that some of the things that are published by the media are untrue.
“Truth is, at UNIOSUN, we have a group of people, very few, but with entrenched interest. They are not even up to 20, yet they operate under the guise of unionism. They were in charge of administration before I came and they also wanted to control this administration here, but I think I am beyond that.
“I have never been corrupt. I fight corruption, so we have a situation where corruption is fighting back.
“By principle, I have never taken or given a bribe and I have suffered for it. No contractor comes to me for kickbacks because they know I won’t take it.”
Popoola also contested the figures he said workers claimed he inherited upon resumption of office.
“I didn’t inherit N3 billion (when I resumed). What I had in the papers handed to me was N1.8 billion, including money for TETFund (Tertiary Education Trust Fund), Needs Assessment, and grants owned by some researchers in this university. You can’t even touch them because they don’t even belong to the university. So, the university was bankrupt when I took over. We later found that there were debts owed up to N1 billion and the Council is aware of it. So, if some people under the guise of unionism will raise such allegations because they have issues with the VC, then something must be wrong somewhere,” he said.
He said despite the state owing salaries because of financial crisis, the institution’s finances had improved since he came, saying workers were paid as and when due. This, Popoola explained, was achieved by blocking loopholes and prudent management of resources.
“We have made money, close to N2 billion, through blocking of leakages. Overall, we have managed what we have prudently. No university pays salaries ahead of us. At present, we barely receive 25 per cent of our salary bill from the government, yet for the 18 months that I have been here, we pay salary by 25th of every month and it is full and not modulated.
“When I came here, we had a retainership with one of the networks where we were paying about N9 million. But I thought that was pretty high and I invited them here and we renegotiated; it came down to N6 million. So in a year, we are saving about N12 million. Second, to conduct exam used to cost the university between N10 and N12 million per semester; but I scrutinised things with my principal officers. Now we spend about N5 million. Interestingly, this last Harmattan semester exam, we spent much less. Third, I was handed a bill of N158 million for the accreditation of 19 programmes. I called all heads of departments to work together with us on this. We ended up spending N54 million and all the programmes were accredited,” the VC said.
Popoola said some of the union leaders who had problems with the institution were using unionism to evade justice.
“The rules are very clear. Unfortunately, someone like me will not sweep infractions under the carpet. For instance, we have about 24 workers who collected TETFund grants about three years ago and pocketed it. The rule is, you cannot keep TETFund money with you. If it is not used for its purpose, you return it. So, when TETFund wrote to us to account for it, what do you expect me to do as the chief executive of this place?”
But JAC, in its response, said Popoola was being economical with the truth.
“How can the VC say only a few members are making trouble in the system. Unions’ agitations are usually collective and whatever advantage derived therefrom is for the benefit of the entire workforce, the system, and even the students,” said the Chairman of JAC, Comrade Lekan Idiat.
Idiat said Popoola was biased against the non-academic unions.
“We have over 300 of our members across the three unions, but the VC is using divide-and-rule tactics against us. Last year, ASUU went on strike for six months and nothing happened, so why is our matter raising so much eyebrows?
“Let him provide documentary evidence against our members that he said are cutting corners in the system. As a union, we do not condone indiscipline. In fact, we supported the sack of some of our members that committed certain infractions sometime ago.
“If the VC said he was able to reduce huge amount the university used to spend on examination, and also that of accreditation, that should not be our business. As non-teaching staff, we do not have access to that money, it is the professors that collect examination fees, so he should not lump us into that,” he said.
Idiat said the allegations that their members collected TETFund money and spent it was not true.
“What happened was that at the point some of our members applied for this funds, naira was N250 to a dollar. Unfortunately, by the time the money was released the equivalent of naira to a dollar was about N500. Many of our members were then confronted with the rising cost of things which made unrealisable what the fund was meant for.
“But, at present, I can categorically tell you that, almost, if not all workers that took that fund, have refunded because the VC sent out a memo that the fund should be retired within 24 hours.”
He said what workers wanted from the management is to see them as partners in progress and not enemies in the development of the university.
JAC Secretary Dada Kunmi said the workers were behind their leaders, who were purportedly suspended by the management.
He said the management disregarded the order by the National Industrial Court in Ibadan, stopping them from constituting the Staff Disciplinary Committee.
He also accused Popoola of removing all the union members on committee, witch-hunting, and harassing the workers for exposing his alleged financial recklessness and maladministration.
But, contrarily, a lecturer, who did not wish to be named, claimed the crisis was a personal vendetta, arguing that the allegations levelled against the VC were false.
“All the crisis seen today in UNIOSUN is nothing but a personal vendetta and a witch-hunt against the vice chancellor.
“To the best of my knowledge, ever since the VC came around, he has been doing all he could to position the school among the best.
“He wants to generate more income to the university while trying to cut costs. This has put him in the black book of many.
“He is a human; no doubt, he might have erred but not on the allegations levelled against him that I am in the know of. The projects for which he is being questioned were not approved during his tenure.
During an interactive session with the Parents Forum last week, Mallam Ali said but for the intervention of security agencies, the striking workers would have disrupted the last accreditation between last November and December, and the Harmattan Semester examination which started on March 13.
He said a suggestion that the unions should allow low-level workers to operate skeletal services during the strike was rejected.
“The strike enforcement team of JAC moved around with whips, cudgels and dangerous objects to scare off and drive out willing regular staff, support staff and NYSC members. The unions moved around generator houses to ensure that support staff could not work. In some instances, they went away with the key to the storage tanks for diesel to ensure that diesel was not available to power the generating sets. Cases in point were Osogbo and Ejigbo campuses where the generators were shut during examinations and an organised debate session and the keys taken away.”
Some parents have called for an end to the crisis.
Alhaja Basirat Owolabi appealed to the institution management and the aggrieved staff members to allow peace to reign so that the crisis would not affect the academic pursuit of their wards.
“The aggrieved parties should not forget that when two elephants clash, the grass suffers. Every one of them should bury whatever they have against each other.
“They should pay particular attention to developments in the school. They are scholars and what we expect of them is an attitude that truly portrays who they are,” she said.
On his part, Mr Taiwo Fasoranti, a civil servant, described the crisis as shameful and unnecessary.
“My son whose mates have left school for service is still in school due to the inconsequential issues. It is either today ASUU or tomorrow SANNU. They have not portrayed the school in a good light.
“And considering the amount we pay, this is the least any parent would accept. The visitor to the institution and the governing council must as a matter of urgency wade into this crisis before it brings down the university,” he said.