SOCIALIST Labour congratulates the doctors, members of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), for their steadfastness and tenacity in maintaining their strike for over two months from 2nd August 2021. We admire the way that they have stood up against the insults and threats from the government. They also faced criticism from the more senior doctors in their parent body, the Nigeria Medical Association, despite it earlier threatening its own strike action. The doctors’ strike did not receive any formal support from the trade union movement. They also faced appeals from the Sultan of Sokoto and other traditional leaders to end their strike. Despite the National Industrial Court ordering members of NARD to return to work, the doctors continued their strike.
Despite all this pressure, the NARD strike lasted 63 days. This is a magnificent achievement. The Kenyan doctors’ strike in 2017 was said to be the longest ever doctors strike – at 100 days. The NARD strike has now been suspended for six weeks. This provides an opportunity for the government to implement more of their demands before the middle of November.
The doctors’ strike provides important lessons for the wider trade union movement. NARD deserved more extensive support and solidarity from all trade unionists. This would have enabled the doctors to have more clearly won their key demands. We would all have benefited from this victory, with improved funding for the public health service.
Doctors won some of their demands
The doctors are still negotiating with the government. “Some of the demands we made before we went on strike have been met and some are yet to be met,” said Dr Alapa of the Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi. There is an undertaking that no work no pay will not be applied, but Government was not ready to put this down in writing. This was an issue that prolonged the strike.
The residency training allowance payment is to continue to be paid globally and progress is being made with these payments. The Federal Ministry of Labour is to interface with state governments on issues affecting a few state governments. House officers are already being paid the arrears of their salaries.
At the root of the strike action, as with many other strikes, was the government’s constant failure to honour the previous agreements reached with NARD over its demands. The last agreement was signed after their previous strike in April.
Solidarity could have won greater gains
Yet again, the doctors’ strike demonstrated that one section of workers cannot win alone. We can only end mass poverty, inequality, unemployment and corruption if a culture of solidarity is re-developed. We need other trade unions and especially NLC and TUC to openly support all and every strike by their members and other groups of workers. We also need strikers to reach out for solidarity from the wider trade union movement and civil society.
JOHESU ought to be on strike for their own deprivations. The leadership is compromised by its lack of action over the last year and more. How can such a body take solidarity action in support of other unions?
NLC and TUC should have been defending their members’ health and fighting against the deplorable state of public health services. They did not provide any public solidarity to the doctors of NARD. This was perhaps informed by hostility from the leaders of the health sector’s unions that are affiliates of NLC or TUC. This disunity is unfortunate. As the saying goes, “the workers united will never be defeated – divided we fall”.
We can perhaps understand the NARD leadership for failing to approach the trade unions of other health workers that appeared to be outrightly hostile. But they could have reached out to other trade unions, issued more press releases and held town hall meetings and so on to mobilise public support.
JOHESU needs to fight for its demands
In these circumstances, it is unfortunate that JOHESU postponed its planned strike whilst the doctors were still on strike. JOHESU would have been stronger had it gone ahead with the planned strike on Friday 17th September and this would have also strengthened the doctors’ strike.
It is now well over a year since the JOHESU’s one week strike was suspended in September 2020. Since then, very few meetings have been held with the Government and almost no progress has been made with negotiations and the unions’ demands. The Government did start talks and made some concessions as the doctors’ strike was being called off. Only time will tell if JOHESU really makes progress on its demands. But the government is only proposing to spend 5% of its budget on health in 2022, compared to the international target of 15%.
NARD could develop into a trade union for doctors
Doctors are in different positions. Resident doctors have just finished their medical studies. They work hard and are not paid so much (especially compared with doctors in other countries). In contrast, some members of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) are medical directors of large public hospitals or run their own private hospitals – so they are junior members of the ruling class rather than being workers.
Members of NARD are not “purely professionals”, they acted like a trade union. But there is a conflict as some see themselves as professionals who have prospects of becoming senior managers or private bosses.
It is wrong of some health workers to see all doctors as being part of the problem. Some medical directors may be, but equally many members of NARD showed that they see themselves as workers – solidarity action would have strengthened this idea. This could also have led to the development of NARD becoming a proper registered trade union.
The striking doctors of NARD have yet to win their key demands despite a fantastic strike of over two months. Solidarity from the wider trade union movement could have led to victory as the first step to re-building public health services. Strikes are needed to change the chronic state of underfunding of the public health sector. Health services have effectively been privatised over the last generation and the public now pays at least 80% of the cost of their health services from their own pockets.
We hope that the doctors of NARD and other health workers represented by JOHESU make gains from their current negotiations with the government. But we believe that the fundamental change needed to the health sector will only be achieved through joint strike action of all health workers, with full solidarity of the wider trade union movement.
Biodun Olamosu, National Secretary, Socialist Labour