*National Industrial Court orders striking varsity lecturers to return to classrooms
*Issues an order retraining ASUU, its agents, privies from taking further steps to continue strike
*Says strike was detrimental to public varsity students that can’t afford private institutions
*Labour Minister lacks powers to order court to direct ASUU to call off strike – Femi Falana, SAN
By Kenneth Atavti
National Industrial Court, NIC sitting in Abuja yesterday ordered the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU to call off its over seven-month old strike.
The court made the order in a ruling that was delivered by Justice Polycarp Hamman.
The ruling followed an application the Federal Government filed for an interlocutory order to compel ASUU which embarked on industrial action since February 14, 2022 to return to the classroom.
Federal Government’s lawyer, Mr. James Igwe had prayed the court to order the striking varsity lecturers to in the interim, return to work pending the determination of the substantive suit before the court.
He maintained that the matter was not only urgent but of a great national interest as millions of students had been at home for over seven months.
“Sections 47 of the Trade Dispute Act, TDA gives your lordship the power to direct that no worker should continue to embark on strike pending when the applications are heard and determined”, Igwe argued.
He contended that under section 18(1) E of the TDA, employees could not continue an industrial action, when a matter is already referred to the Industrial Court for adjudication.
Igwe said there was need for the matter to be expeditiously determined to enable university students to return to school adding that failure to call off the strike would cause irreparable damage to not only the students but also to the nation.
According to him, since the dispute between the federal government and the lecturers is already before the court for adjudication, it would be proper and in the interest of justice for the strike to be suspended.
In his ruling, Justice Hamman held that the application was meritorious and deserved to be granted by the court.
While dismissing objections ASUU raised through its lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, the court held that the strike was detrimental to public university students that cannot afford to attend private tertiary institutions.
“The balance of convenience tilts in favour of the applicant.
“I hold that this application is meritorious and this application is granted”, Justice Hamman ruled.
The court, thereafter, issued an order, restraining ASUU, “whether by themselves, members, agents, privies or howsoever called, from taking further steps and doing any act in continuance of the strike pending the hearing and determination of the suit filed.”
It however declined to award costs against ASUU as the Federal Government had demanded.
Nigerian Pilot recalls that ASUU had embarked on an initial four weeks strike to press home its demands that included an improved funding for universities, as well as a review of salaries for lecturers.
It subsequently extended the action indefinitely on August 29, 2022 following the breakdown of negotiations between the union and the government.
While ASUU accused the Federal Government of not being sincere in its negotiation, the government, through the Ministry of Labour and Employment, approached the court to compel the striking lecturers to return to the classroom.
Specifically, it urged the court to, “interpret in its entirety the provisions of Section 18 LFN 2004, especially as it applies to the cessation of strike once a trade dispute is apprehended by the Minister of Labour and Employment and conciliation is ongoing”.
As well as requested for, “an order of the Court for ASUU members to resume work in their various universities while the issues in dispute are being addressed by the NICN in consonance with the provisions of Section 18 (I) (b) of the TDA Cap T8 LFN 2004”.
ASUU had in a counter-affidavit it filed before the court, opposed the suit on the premise that the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, lacked the power to order the court in the referral to direct it to call off the strike action.
ASUU’s lawyer, Falana, SAN, argued that such referral amounted to a directive from the Minister to the court.
He maintained that neither a Minister nor the President could wield such powers as to control a court of competent jurisdiction.
Also, Falana, SAN, argued that the Federal Government failed to follow the due process as stipulated in part 1 of TDA 2004.
According to him, the law provided that such matter must first pass through the Industrial Arbitration Panel, IAP before landing at the National Industrial Court, NIC.
Falana argued that ASUU would not have embarked on strike had it been the government kept to various agreements and Memorandum of Understanding, MoU it signed with the union in the past.
Justice Hamman dismissed the objections and ordered the striking varsity lecturers to, in line with provisions of the TDA, return to the classroom, pending the final determination of the suit before the National Industrial Court.