Chapter Six – The Labor Movement

For the suffering masses, only the working class and the labor movement have shown that there is still hope for humanity. Within a period of two and a half years, the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) called two general strikes that were overwhelmingly supported by the working masses and youths across the country. Severally and collectively, the huge successes recorded by these strikes show two main points. One, it shows beyond all reasonable doubt that the laboring masses will not just passively sit down while their lives are being destroyed, in the name of privatization and deregulation, just to protect the unjust and obscene profits and privileges of the minority capitalist class. Two, these strikes have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that if mobilized around concrete, beneficial issues, the working masses across the country are capable of rising beyond narrow national or religious divides, to resolutely pursue a common agenda.

The June 2000 general strike was very unique in the sense that the strike was virtually supported by most Nigerians, including governors and members of the National Assembly. The strike was so successful that the government was forced to totally withdraw its price increases on kerosene and diesel while the increment of ₦10 on petrol was reduced to ₦2. As a matter of fact, an 100% reversal could have been achieved if not that the Adams Oshiomhole-led NLC leadership decided “not to humiliate” the Obasanjo government.

January 2002 General Strike

The January 2002 strike, from the beginning was a different ball game. The strike took place against stiff opposition of and condemnation by the vast majority of members of the capitalist ruling class. All state apparatuses of propaganda and coercion were used to ensure the failure of the strike. Scores of labor leaders and activists were arrested and charged to court in government’s desperate bid to break the strike. The Obasanjo regime eventually went to court to get the strike declared illegal, an order which was granted by the latter. Ostensibly because of this court order, the NLC leadership suspended the strike after two days.

Despite these insidious, anti-working class, anti-poor, capitalist orchestrated attacks, the call for a strike by the NLC was overwhelmingly honored across the country. Here are some of the headlines and comments made by some prominent bourgeois newspapers while reporting the strike: The P.M. News of January 16, 2002 screamed: “LAGOS, ABUJA, KADUNA SHUT DOWN”, while The Punch of January 17th, 2002, reporting the first day of the strike in its front page, used the headline: “Strike paralyses activities nationwide”.

According to The Punch reporters “social and economic activities across the country were paralyzed on Wednesday as the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) began a general strike aimed at forcing the Federal Government to reconsider the recent increases in fuel prices. Offices, banks, filling stations, schools and markets remained shut in most commercial cities while police kept watch over practically empty roads”. The Guardian reporters filled a similar reports: “A nationwide strike ordered by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to protest increase in the prices of petroleum products brought the Nigerian economy to a near paralysis yesterday. Workers in both the private and public sectors in most states of the federation responded positively to labor’s directive by staying at home. Traders locked their shops, while commercial motor operators went off the roads. Markets were closed and government offices deserted in most of the state capitals. Business activities were paralyzed and the highways void of heavy vehicular movement, a major feature of the state”.

Unfortunately however, this epic strike did not achieve any reversal of the increase in the prices of petroleum products. What happened? What went wrong? What effect is this result likely to have on future struggles and strikes? These and some other related questions need to be posed and thoroughly analyzed by socialists and labor activists in general.

The strike held in most parts of the country on the 16th and 17th January, paralyzing economic activities in the country. The enthusiastic solidarity of the vast majority of the Nigerian masses while the strike lasted is quite overwhelming. From the market women and men to artisans, farmers, etc, the condemnations of the increment of fuel prices were unanimous. On the 17th however, it was becoming clear that the strike was weakening. For instance, in Lagos, more people attempted to go to their work places while there were more vehicles on the road. It is however pertinent to ask the question: why was the strike beginning to decline? The answers to this question present important lessons for the working class in Nigeria on the program of the trade unions as well as tactics and method of industrial action as a means of fighting back the system.

First and foremost, the ambiguous position and pronouncement of the Nigeria Labour Congress leadership on the question of privatization, deregulation and commercialization prior to the strike did a lot of damage by creating confusion about the position of the NLC leadership and doubt about whether it was prepared to fight back. The NLC leadership supports the idea of deregulation while opposing increases in the prices of petroleum products. For any informed observer, it is clear that price increases is the natural end of any process of deregulation, commercialization and privatization.

The NLC leadership’s participation in the National Council on Privatization that has been overseeing the sales of public assets has also had the same effect. Secondly, unlike the period before the 2000 price increase of petroleum products when the NLC had embarked on mass education and conscientization of workers and the masses through rallies, leaflets, posters, etc, the last strike action was devoid of any sustained attempt at educating the masses and carrying them along. The period between when the NLC Central Working Committee took the decision to embark on strike and the actual commencement of the strike was too short for any meaningful mass education and mobilization of the masses to have taken place. Also contributing to weakening of the strike is the lack of grassroots action committees. These committees would have served as the vehicle for mass mobilization and education of the masses. These local action committees will give directives and take leadership of the masses in various localities to prevent the struggle from being hijacked by agents- provocateurs and thugs. The action committees could also organize the provision of the essentials of daily life such as food supply, fuel, transportation, etc., Among other things, this will show in practice the ability of the working class to manage the economy and organize society.

Thirdly, the peculiar economic circumstance of an average Nigerian needs to be considered in the use of strike as a method of political struggle. The vast majority of Nigerian masses are daily wage earners either as market women/men, self-employed artisan, peasants, etc. For this vast majority of the working people, eking out an existence is a daily struggle. Survival for them depends solely on going out daily. The daily wage earnings of a majority of the masses cannot meet their basic daily needs talkless of saving for the next day or a week. Under this condition of enormous daily economic stress, sustaining an indefinite strike that would require people to stay at home for days is a Herculean task. To be successful, an indefinite strike has to be led with determination and linked to a program and strategy for ending the present status quo and the transformation of society. Socialists advocate limited strike actions (say of 24 or 48 hours duration) as they serve as means to mobilize the masses and warn the employers/state. After a number of protest actions, the question will naturally be posed of the need to step up or escalate the action to a higher level. But we oppose the idea of limited actions or an indefinite series of limited protests being used by labor leaders as safety values to let workers vent their anger. Equally counter-productive is the stay-at-home character of the strike. This tactic of an indefinite ‘stay at home’ strike always isolate the workers at home and thus weaken strikes.

Given the above weaknesses in the tactics of the NLC leadership, adherence to the strike by the working masses would most likely had increasingly declined if it had not be called off in deference to the court order.

But of even more crucial and fundamental importance is the program and policies being advocated by the NLC leadership and its general outlook. More than what any theoretical exposition can achieve, the January, 2002 general strike showed that in the final analysis, capitalism can and should be overthrown and not reformed by the working masses. As far as Obasanjo and his clique of local and foreign capitalist elements are concerned, wherever capitalist profits and privileges are at stake, the working masses can go to blazes! While it lasted, the strike totally paralyzed economic and political activities in all the key sectors across the country. Yet, Obasanjo and his capitalist backers arrogantly and callously ignored the opinion of the vast majority of the working masses who participated in the strike.

This does not mean that mass struggles cannot, both now and in the future, win temporary concessions from the capitalists. Under the impact of mass struggles, the capitalist class can retreat and give temporary concessions in order to buy time as Obasanjo did in June, 2000. It is most likely that if the NLC had fully mobilized the masses, both politically and organizationally, and then defied the undemocratic court order, Obasanjo regime might have been compelled to grant some concessions.

It should be stressed that the vicious response of Obasanjo and the ruling class is nothing but an open declaration of class war by the minority capitalist class against the vast majority of mankind, the ordinary working class people. Therefore, labor also needs a leadership that is not only courageous but one which combines courage with sufficient revolutionary vision required for victory in the inevitable struggle between capital and labor.

The NLC Leadership

Unlike the ponderous, openly right-wing leadership of the NLC of Pascal Bafyau’s era, the current NLC president, Adams Oshiomhole, has brought robust flair to debate on labor and other relevant socio-political issues. This feature was effectively utilized during this struggle, just as in other NLC campaigns. Cogent facts and figures were brought out by the NLC to show the unjust nature of the increases, as well as their counter-productive nature.

However, the NLC leadership’s propaganda and program suffer from a fundamental weakness. Every one of its program and policy is always based on the illusory perspective of wanting to make capitalism and its managers perform better, in the interest of the working masses! The NLC leaders have retreated from their mid-1980s acceptance of socialism as the objective of the labor movement and today see no alternative to capitalism. Hence, the labor leaders are unwilling to let struggles develop to a point where they challenge the whole capitalist system.

As mentioned earlier, its opposition to the price increases is neither principled nor consistent. Yes, the NLC leadership has waged marvelous campaigns against the deregulation of the oil sector. The same leadership is however in support of the privatization of NITEL, NEPA and other public enterprises regarded as “non-functional”. Not surprisingly, this contradictory position has taken toll on the leadership’s consistency. Prior to the increase which provoked the strike in review, Oshiomhole has been quoted several times stating that the NLC will not object to marginal increase in the prices. Naturally, there was some kind of confusion and resignation amongst the working masses when the new increases were first announced by the government.

Government and strategists of capital no doubt must have envisaged a failed strike action given the apparent contradictions and confusions inherent in labor leadership’s positions. Against this background therefore, the huge support given to the NLC’s strike call by the vast majority of the working masses across the country, reflects more the deep-seated anger of the masses against the corrupt gang of capitalist elements in power, than an acceptance of the inconsistent ideological standpoint of the NLC leadership.

As socialists have always maintained, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with public ownership of society’s economy and resources. However, for such public ownership to fully flourish, there must be actual “public” working class democratic control and management of all publicly owned resources and properties. Wherever publicly owned resources and properties are left under the management and control of individualistic, bureaucratic, capitalist elements, it has always produced disastrous consequences against the economic and political interests of the working masses. Under this kind of arrangement, corruption, nepotism, red-tapism, mismanagement, etc, are bond to be the order of the day. It was precisely this lack of working class democratic control over the nationalized and centralized economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that led to the eventual collapse of these Stalinist entities.

For the same reasons, NITEL, NEPA, etc, are not working not because they were not being given sufficient money to operate but because most of such money were usually stolen, in the best spirit of “private enterprise”, by its self-serving managers who are in no any practical sense accountable to the masses who constitute the bulk of their expected customers.

While emphasizing the obvious financial bankruptcy and corruption which permeate the publicly owned corporations, the NLC leadership has never shown equal zeal in stating that similar conditions are ravaging the private sector. The NLC leadership, for instance, has conspicuously kept silent on the collapse of ENRON, a private transnational energy giant, based in the US, originally contracted by the Tinubu government in Lagos State to provide Lagos with electricity generated on barges. This is not accidental. The collapse of ENRON represents a fundamental repudiation of the bourgeois myth that capitalists are better managers of economies.

If, as being advocated by Oshiomhole, the oil sector remains public, under capitalist management, very little or no benefit of this will accrue to the masses. Even if just to provide excuses to take it over, the other dominant capitalist sectors of the economy will one way or the other sabotage such isolated public ventures.

For one, such isolated public enterprises will of necessity depend on the rhythm and vagaries of capitalism. This will always have negative implications for the masses. Inevitably, such capitalist run state enterprises will have numerous reasons while the prices of its products and services have to go up too. If government pumps money into such enterprises, this, as usual, will be stolen by its unaccountable capitalist or quasi-capitalist managers. Needless to stress, this kind of situation will always provoked revulsion of the masses and sooner than later, the capitalists will capitalize on this to once again raise the slogan of privatization of state enterprises.

On the other hand, if government refuses to pump money into the publicly owned enterprises, then its capitalist managers will claim the right to charge “appropriate” fees for its products and services so as to be “competitive” and remain afloat. The lesson here is that once you back capitalism in any form or content, you will always be confronted with its anti-poor, anti-working class logics. For instance, to ensure available and affordable petroleum products for all, the entire commanding heights of the economy need to be nationalized and democratically controlled by the working masses themselves. Only a socialist society can provide the socio-economic framework where production and services will be primarily planned for use and satisfaction of the needs and aspirations of everybody. Under a genuine socialist government of workers and poor peasants, there will be less need and opportunities for profiteering and racketeering, which are the hallmarks of the prevailing unjust capitalist system.

Unless this outlook forms the basis of Oshiomhole’s NLC leadership, its seemingly radical, progressive stance on certain issues affecting the working masses will always inevitably end in cul-de-sac and even outright betrayal of the masses.

Take the minimum wage issue as another example. The labor movement under Oshiomhole’s leadership has waged a lot of campaign on this issue. Since he took over at the NLC, official minimum wage has increased from ₦3,500 to between ₦5,500 and ₦7,500 for private and public sector respectively. Regrettably however, this has not brought about any fundamental relief or improvement in the living conditions of the masses. While of course, as usual with capitalism, a tiny layer of the working masses may have achieved a noticeable improvement in their living standard, it has been a different ball game with the generality of the working masses.

On the basis of this increment, hundreds of thousands across the country have been retrenched by the different sections of the employers, on the pretext that those being sacked could not be conveniently paid by their employers as a result of this increment. For this same reason, a state of virtual embargo against new employment reigns. Even thousands of those that have been unjustly retrenched, like those in Lagos State, are yet to be paid their terminal benefits one year and a half after their unjust sack!

As usual, the capitalist governments’ excuse is that there is not enough money to meet workers’ basic and legitimate aspirations. Meanwhile, no matter how broke the government is, top officials and their capitalist contractor and friends will always find enough money to meet their own selfish ends. Governor Audu of Kogi State (one of the poorest states of the country) recently admitted owning a house each in Washington and London respectively. The one in the US is estimated as $1.7million. But if workers demand an increment in their wages, all bourgeois ideologues will instantly claim that there is no money to do this.

Therefore, the minimum wage issue must be seen by socialists and working class activists as an issue that can never be satisfactorily resolved in favor of the working class within the framework of capitalism. One, whatever concession the capitalists are forced to concede in new minimum wage will always be negated by other counter-productive measures. This could be in form of backlog of arrears of salaries and allowances, mass retrenchment of workers, commercialization of indispensable social services like housing, health care, education, water, electricity, telecommunications, etc. Presently, Anambra and Enugu States are in arrears of payment of salaries and allowances of their workers for over six months. Local government workers in Oyo State recently embarked on strike over non-payment of salaries for eight months.

In Osun, Lagos, Oyo, Plateau and other states, tens of thousands of workers have been unjustly sacked by their respective state governments over the last increment granted in year 2000. Sadly, because the NLC leadership regards conflicts between employers and the workers over the minimum wage issue as a “family quarrel”, it has failed to fashion any coherent strategy and tactics to respond to the socio-economic consequences which followed the last minimum wage increment.

In The Guardian of April 1st, 2002, Oshiomhole was reported to have given the following ultimatum to the Anambra State government: “We are giving the government 14 days within which to find the money to pay its workers otherwise we will mobilize actions in such a way that he (the state governor) cannot gain access to any of the neighboring states on his way to Abuja”. This is a very good radical talk. What however is required are concrete actions not only against the Anambra State government but against all states and institutions that have not complied with the year 2000 increment.

Unless this is seriously and energetically pursued, there will be great difficulty in getting the enthusiastic response of the workers to the current agitation by the NLC leadership to get government to effect 25% wage increment as agreed in the year 2000 agreement signed with labor. One, the central government has already started to say that it has no money to implement this agreement owing to a drastic fall in its expected revenues as a result of the current global capitalist recession. Two, states will argue that the central government has no power to dictate to them how much workers in services at the state level must earn. Meanwhile, both central and state governments are united in looting treasuries to satisfy their own needs while at the same time implementing policies which raise the cost of living.

There can be no meaningful, beneficial results for the working masses as a result of a minimum wage struggle that fails to take the above issues into serious consideration. As usual, the NLC propaganda has been pointing out several areas of wastage which, if plugged, can enable government to generate enough resources to pay the new rate being demanded by the NLC and more. For the purpose of galvanizing the anger of the workers against the callous response of the employers to the new minimum wage increment issue, this is a very good propaganda.

However, experience has shown that the kind of reckless spending which the NLC propaganda has been pointing out, are precisely the central feature of capitalism. Capitalism is nothing but “organized”, “legalized” robbery. Therefore, this kind of propaganda can only be useful to workers if they are presented as one of the reasons why capitalism has to be overthrown.

Unfortunately however, the current NLC leaders use this kind of propaganda to give the impression that adequate minimum wage can be won within the framework of capitalism. This is a fundamental error and it accounts for the leadership zigzags on minimum wage and its fall outs.

Labor politics is equally fundamentally flawed. Truly, Adams leadership has consistently raised criticism about corruption in high places. It has even organized protests and demonstrations against perceived corrupt tendencies of members of the National Assembly at a time. Sadly, this critique is usually done with a view of getting capitalist state functionaries or sections of them to effect necessary changes.

More than many, Oshiomhole understands the anger and fighting capacity of the working masses. These, were amongst other things, what he told The Punch of February 2nd, 2002: “Nigerians are angry over this increase and they are ready to protest it and they did … with all the instruments of propaganda at their disposal the electronic media, and NLC that did not have such, yet the people still stayed away. To get our people Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, Kanuri to stay at home. Is there any of our leaders who can tell people don’t go out tomorrow without using the police and the army to block the road or arrest people? How many of them can do that? For me, this is one action that shows that our leaders have lost touch with the ordinary man … and our people would follow those who they believe are fighting the right cause, regardless of the position of their leaders”.

Sadly however, the NLC leadership fails to draw the appropriate conclusion that what the laboring masses need is a clean break with the policies and parties of the capitalist class. In an interview, Oshiomhole announced that the NLC leadership would work to crystallize a pro-workers, pro-masses political party. In the same interview, Oshiomhole says that the envisaged party would not bid for power in the year 2003 elections. This unfortunately will create the inevitable situation where the exploited working masses might be compelled to vote for one pro-capitalist party or another, of course to their own eternal disadvantages.

Eventually, the NLC sponsored Party for Social Democracy (PSD), one of the parties unjustly denied recognition recently by the so-called Independent National Electoral Commission. But because of its pro-capitalist program, its lack of a fighting strategy and the lackluster record of labor leaders, this party so far has not attracted support of even workers, talkless of other strata of the oppressed masses.

There is the need to return labor to its best radical past. In 1986, the Babangida military junta organized a political debate to decide which ideology should form the basis of the economy and society in the aborted 3rd Republic. The emphatic response of the NLC and several other working masses organizations was a demand for socialism. In 1989, the NLC leadership took initiatives to form the Nigeria Labour Party (NLP). This precisely is the kind of strategic and ideological re-focusing which the laboring masses require today but which is lacking. The trade union movement needs to be rebuilt ideologically and organizationally, with education programs and mobilization activities. There must be grassroots democracy in the unions, with rank and file control over the policies of the unions and the leadership. Opportunist and corrupt leaders should be replaced democratically. To reduce the corruption and careerism which have eaten deep into the unions, labor leaders at all levels must be democratically elected and received no more than the wage of an average skill worker.

However, socialists and working class activists must not regard these fundamental shortcomings of the Oshiomhole leadership as a personal or national peculiarity. Rather, this should be seen as part of the world-wide, right-wing ideological retreat by the labor leadership following the collapse of the Stalinist states erroneously equated with socialism. Therefore, part of our central task today is to fight for the acceptance of basic socialist explanations and approaches in the day-to-day struggle of the working masses, in the trade unions and within youth organizations like NANS.

Without this kind of approach, the current NLC’s leadership’s selective economic and political radicalism will soon completely run out of steam. It is never given that a correct political understanding and bold leadership will always automatically win every struggle. Even then, it will be easier for workers to recognize the reasons why a particular objective cannot be attained and what should be done to achieve same. Sporadic campaigns against the privatization and deregulation of the oil sector while giving support to privatization of NEPA and NITEL will always leave workers confused and ideologically unprepared. Again, unless the conclusion is sharply drawn that the working masses need to carry out protracted mass struggle and strikes with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the prevailing unjust capitalist system, they will very soon become lukewarm to or wary of struggles and general strikes that may seem to them as having very little chance of achieving any concrete and beneficial objective.