MONROVIA, Montserrado – Days after it announced that it has pulled out of a merger that formed the Agricultural Agro-Processing and the Industrial Workers Union of Liberia, or AAIWUL, the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia’s decision is being described as illegitimate.
FAWUL, Golden Veroleum Workers Union of Liberia, and the Metal Mechanic Electrical Communications and Allied Workers Union entered a merger last November that formed AAIWUL, a national trade union.
The merger was apparently in compliance with a provision of the Decent Work Act that provides for national trade unions to provide increased bargaining representation for workers, instead of having smaller company-specific unions represent employees.
In a recent memorandum to line managers on Tuesday, July 11, Firestone said it would resume its relationship with the workers through the executives of FAWUL and all its shop stewards as was done prior to the merger.
The company said it has received notification from AAIWUL’s legal counsel withdrawing its position as the sole bargaining agent for its workers.
“The withdrawal was done owing to the fact that several key things/steps were not followed to make the merger of FAWUL and GOVWUL legal,” the company disclosed.
However, the leadership of AAIWUL has now questioned the pronouncement of the FAWUL leadership pronouncement that it has pulled out of the merger.
AAIWUL’s constitution provides that no local member may withdraw its membership unless a notice of such intention is served on the executive board in six months before AAIWUL’s convention.
“The issue shall be properly placed on the convention’s agenda after it has been duly circulated among member organizations,” it says. AAIWUL is not expected to hold any convention until 2019.
AAWUL’s President Abraham Nimene said FAWUL has not however exhausted the constitutional requirement.
Nimene said AAUWUL’s legal council also acted in breach of the organization’s constitution by making withdrawal notification to Firestone.
For his part, AAIWUL Secretary General Edwin Cisco said the organization still maintains its bargaining rights for Firestone workers. Cisco, who has just returned from attending the constitutional convention of the United Steel Workers in Las Vegas, said FAWUL’s decision is due to lack of adequate information on the process of transitioning from a local to a national union.
He said workers in Firestone must understand that under the new labor regulation, employees would no longer represent their fellow employers to bargain with their employers. He said it is because of the lack of understanding of the new labor regulation that is causing confusion among workers.
He said AAIWUL is meanwhile embarking on an education campaign that would give union due payers in Firestone and other areas understanding of the benefits of joining a national union.
“The pulling out is because of misinformation, and it’s because of the misinformation we have to get on the plantation and explain to the workers that the establishment of this national union is in conformity with the labor laws of Liberia,” he said.
“We don’t want the workers of Firestone to not have representation, so we have to carry out the education for them to understand and ensure that AAIWUL remains and continues to be the representative of the workers of Firestone.”
According to him, all current members of FAWUL leadership are founding executive members of AAIWUL who are likely to be workplace representatives. Upon conclusion of its transition process, he said AAIWUL would notify Firestone of its local representatives.
He said as part of efforts to ensure safety and proper education for workers, he managed to secure a series of partnerships while on his official visit to the U.S.
Those included partnerships with the International Labor Rights Forum and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in an eye wash protection project that would educate and provide safety materials for rubber tappers.
Another included a capacity building project for workers in the oil palm sector. That training would enable workers in the oil palm industry to set up effective grievance structures to ensure industrial harmony.
Meanwhile, FAWUL’s President Harris Kerkula has maintained that his leadership has reassumed full responsibility to represent the interest of workers in Firestone.
Kerkula said they observed that key details of the merger with the two other unions, including members of FAWUL leadership losing their privileges with the company, were not explained prior to entering into the arrangement.
“For now, FAWUL is the legal representative of the workers of Firestone, until the end of our leadership tenure in February and the workers decide to join a national union of their choice,” he said.
On June 12, Firestone had informed FAWUL’s leaders to return to the respective posts they held before being elected. The situation apparently drew the call to pull out of the merger, as FAWUL’s leaders see it against their interest.
It is an unwritten tradition that Firestone workers who are elected by their colleagues to represent them in the union are relieved of their work with the company during their tenure. After their tenure, most of them are typically promoted, along with receiving salary increases.
But the recent communication from the company indicated that Firestone would not be applying that same practice for FAWUL’s current leaders. Additionally, AIAWU had not yet presented the names of individuals that would represent workers at Firestone.
Kerkula, who formerly worked with Firestone’s Estates Department as a rubber tapper, was asked to resume the same duty. He and the other leaders had been drawing dual salaries, both from the union and from Firestone. A return to their former duties would be considered as a demotion.
FAWUL’s leaders had previously defended their decision to merge with the other unions until they understood that their stature would be threatened under the merger.
Prior to FAWUL’s withdrawal from the merger, union dues from Firestone workers had been going directly to AIAWUL and Firestone’s management only interacted with the larger union’s leaders.
Meanwhile, some FAWUL members, including a member of the leadership, Rodennick Bongorlee, have threatened to other members of the leadership to court for what they said is a misrepresentation of their interest.
According to the due payers, the FAWUL leadership members misrepresented them by forcibly joining AAIWUL against their will and placed their dues and assets under the control of AAIWUL.
However, Kerkula clarified that going to AAIWUL was a decision agreed by executives and board members of FAWUL.
Although it plays a regulatory role, the Ministry of Labour has refused to comment on the ongoing development.
Assistant Minister for Trade Union Affairs, Emmett Crayton, told The Bush Chicken last Friday that the ministry was not aware of the developments at AAIWUL, and would not dare to get involved.
Featured photo by Jefferson Daryoue