THE LABOUR MOVEMENT AFTER NLC’s 10TH DELEGATE CONFERENCE
THE LABOUR MOVEMENT AFTER NLC’s 10TH DELEGATE CONFERENCE
Labour Must Fight Consistently for:
* Improved Living Standards for All Workers
* Oppose Neo-liberal Policies of Privatization of Public Assets
* Build a Fighting Working Class Party to Take Political Power
By H.T Soweto
The 10th Delegate Conference of Nigeria’s largest labour centre Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has come and gone but the lessons of this conference will no doubt remain for long. Held at the prestigious Thisday Dome in Abuja between Monday 1st of March and Wednesday 3rd of March 2011 with the theme “Building a new Nigeria: The Role of the Working Class Towards National Transformation”, the conference had 40 affiliate unions with 1, 993 delegates and well over 500 union members, observers, left activists and trade unionists in attendance.
One unique aspect of the conference was that workers’ delegates fought for a radical and fighting labour leadership. To socialists, this is an affirmation of our arguments that the central labour centres – NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) inclusive – have not fought consistently in the last 12 years against government neo-liberal policies of privatization, deregulation and other attacks on workers living standards.
At the end of the 3-day conference, Joe Ajaero, the General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) so far the only union consistently opposed in words and actions to government neo-liberal policy of privatization – won election as the Deputy President of the NLC against Peters Adeyemi, a sitting NLC Deputy President. Also, the incumbent NLC President Abdulwaheed Omar and the National Treasurer Ayuba Wabba were returned unopposed while two sitting Deputy President Promise Adewusi and Kiri Muhammed Shuaibu won re-election.
JOE AJAERO: VICTORY BOOSTED BY ANTI-PHCN PRIVATIZATION STRUGGLE
Joe Ajaero is the General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), the union which has consistently campaigned against the privatization of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). Where the central labour leadership of the NLC and TUC maintained a generally ambivalent position on government privatization policy, electricity workers have organized several strikes, rallies and protests against privatization of the PHCN individually and in alliance with the Joint Action Forum (JAF) – the civil society component of Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO).
It was the depth and scale of the movement of the electricity workers that forced the Abdulwaheed Omar-led NLC to publicly support their demands. Even though this expression of support by the NLC was merely verbal instead of a correct policy of organizing solidarity protests and strikes to force government to meet their demands, it however shows just how much effect the movement of electricity workers had on the top of the labour hierarchy and much more the rank and file workers. Clearly, it is this independent class struggle of electricity workers against privatization that counted in Joe’s favour in the election. Joe’s victory is a further manifestation of Nigerian workers’ desire for the NLC to mount a much more effective campaign against government neo-liberal policies of privatization of public assets and deregulation of the oil sector.
A FIGHTING AGENDA FOR THE NEW NLC LEADERSHIP
Therefore, if the new NLC leadership wishes to satisfy workers’ aspirations, there clearly expressed support for a consistent struggle against neo-liberal policies ought to be the starting point. To start with, the new labour leadership must not for once assume that the struggle for a living wage has been won with the paltry N18, 000 new National Minimum Wage recently approved by the Jonathan government. On the basis of the present inflation rate, high cost of food and basic necessities of life as well increasing cost of education, health care, fuelling generators and transport, this new minimum wage will hardly improve the lots of workers, their families and dependants. This is because as government was giving this paltry concession on wages, it had already increased the burden of working class families by its abandon of the funding of social services like education, healthcare etc which necessarily strains to the utmost the little wages of workers.
Therefore labour must not only insist that the new N18, 000 minimum wage be implemented, labour must equally demand that wages must be reviewed upward according to the rate of inflation and other economic indices. At the same time labour must demand that no worker be laid off in the course of the implementation of the new national minimum wage by government and private employers of labour.
However, verbal threats and boardroom meetings alone is will not to ensure implementation of the new minimum wage by federal, state and private employers of labour. This is why labour must formulate an action plan which will involve picketing, strikes, protest and demonstrations to enforce compliance as well as defend jobs and guarantee upward review of wages in line with inflation rate and other economic indices. However without a radical alteration of the unjust economic system of society, it will be hardly possible for workers to enjoy decent living standards. This is why labour must link the demand for improved wages and working conditions with the need for a socialist plan of the economy and democratic running of society.
Quite unlike labour’s ambivalent position on deregulation which stylishly supports this policy but with a proviso that refineries must be made functional first and basic infrastructures improved; the new NLC leadership must unequivocally oppose deregulation as a solution to the problems of the oil sector. Labour must clearly identify the problems of the oil sector and provide alternative solutions from a consistent working class perspective. Giving such proviso to a clearly anti-poor and capitalist government to build refineries and improve basic infrastructures before deregulating the oil sector is not a correct and workable working class policy to defeat neo-liberal policy. Much worse, it gives the impression that a capitalist government can achieve any of these and blinds workers to the possibility of a better alternative way of organizing society. The new labour leadership if it is to be any different from the past must address the issue of deregulation from the above viewpoint by clearly opposing deregulation with a call for immediate nationalization of the oil sector under the democratic control and management of the working people. Equally it must back this demand with protests, demonstrations and strike actions nationwide.
Unlike what government spokespersons like to say, the problem of the oil sector is not just about establishing a regulatory framework to control prices alone, it is more about removing the cabal of indigenous private oil marketers. Despite years of efforts at price regulation and establishment of regulatory frameworks, domestic prices for petroleum products have continued to rise while huge billions of dollars made from exportation of crude oil have failed to translate to real economic growth, development in basic infrastructures as well as improved living standards for the majority.
Equally, about $10 billion was spent by the Obasanjo administration for “Turn Around Maintenance” (TAM) of the refineries with no meaningful improvement in their performance. The present Jonathan government has equally committed millions to the refineries with the same result. Despite all these, Nigeria an oil producing country – continue to import petroleum products as much as it imports food and agricultural products, automobiles, electronics, building materials, clothing and tooth pick!
In 2009 alone, Nigeria spent 200 billion US dollars on food importation while about N45 billion was expended by government on rice importation from Thailand, China and Malaysia. The reason for this is because Nigeria is a neo-colonial capitalist country which cannot achieve sustainable economic growth unless there is a decisive break from the gridlock of the world market by putting an end to capitalism, taking into public ownership the main levers of the economy starting with the oil sector and putting them under the democratic control and management of the working people.
In the oil sector, this will entail stripping the foreign multinational oil companies and the local oil marketers of their grip on the oil sector, taking over the oil blocks, exploration and production industries under the control and management of oil workers and establishing workers committees to fix prices and manage all aspects of the oil sector. It is only through this kind of workers’ direct control and management of the nation’s oil resources that can ensure that the proceeds from crude oil sale translate to real economic development, improvement in basic infrastructures and living standards of all Nigerians in all parts of the country and the Niger Delta unlike the current situation wherein only one percent of the population live in outrageous opulence at the expense of the majority.
In this same vein, labour’s response to government neo-liberal policies of privatization of public asset and/or Public Private Partnership (PPP) must be immediately reviewed by the new NLC leadership. Unlike in the past when labour usually oppose privatization of public assets in words but does little practically to resist it, this time around labour must launch a new “anti-privatization campaign” with the bold demands for all public corporations like the PHCN, steel rolling mills, water corporations and NITEL – all which have been allowed to disintegrate leading to massive job losses on account of mismanagement by government-appointed managers – to be placed under the full democratic control and management of elected workers’ committees.
Labour must not for a minute concede that public corporations can be better managed by the private sector nor give in to the illusion that the rights of employees of privatized companies can be guaranteed under a private owner. The example of NITEL whose staff, numbering thousands, have not received their gratuities and severance pay for the past few years when the company was first put up for sale is an example of why privatization can never be a genuine solution to the Nation’s problems. Labour must insist that workers management and control of all public corporations is the best way to save these corporations, ensure quality service to the public and save jobs. This campaign must be backed up with bold actions like leafleteering, nationwide rallies and series of one-day general strikes linking all workers in yet-to-be privatized as well as privatized companies.
Also labour must intensify the campaign against casualization and work assiduously to unionize workers in the private and informal sector many of whom, as the economy continue to degenerate, are facing serious attacks on working conditions and wages.
However, all these monumental struggles cannot be seriously waged without labour strengthening itself through full democratization of its structures. This must include purging labour of the bureaucracy or labour aristocracy which stifles the ability of rank and file workers to organize and take initiative on issues such as working conditions and wage dispute. Rank and file workers must be given full democratic rights to exercise control on the leadership as well as in the formulation of labours’ response to government and employers’ anti-labour policies. As important as labours’ summer schools are in the process of workers’ education, real knowledge of how to defend jobs and fight for decent life can only be fully learnt by workers only in the course of direct participation in struggle.
Therefore the new NLC leadership must not just see workers education as a function of labour summer schools alone but also as a function of their participation in debates and activities of the movement. This can only be achieved by drawing large layers of workers into struggle by involving them in taking part in the activities of strike committees which must not just be formed at the national secretariats but in the state and local structures of the labour movement. Also special committees like anti-casualization committees or other campaign committees must be replicated at state and local levels of the NLC to ensure that rank and file workers are able to take active part in taking decisions as well as in struggle.
WORKERS MUST FIGHT FOR POLITICAL POWER
Debates at the delegate conference were centered on labour formulating an alternative economic agenda for Nigeria. To socialists and labour activists, formulating an alternative economic agenda of labour is very important and crucial not just for the purpose of propaganda but also from the point of view of working out a frame work for an alternative society that can bring the best benefits and improvement to Nigerian workers and poor masses.
More than ever before, the living standards of workers, youths and poor masses have come under increased neo-liberal attacks by the Jonathan capitalist government. The major emphasis of government policy at federal and state levels has been cuts and bigger cuts in funding of social services. The National Bureau of Statistics put unemployment in Nigeria at about 19.7 per cent a level much higher than the global average. According to the bureau, almost half of 15-24 year old youths living in urban areas are jobless.
Despite the statistics being deployed by government officials to prove otherwise, more than 70% of the population is poor. The standard of living has plummeted with increasing number of Nigerians feeling they were better-off 12 years ago. Road, communication and electricity infrastructures are largely undeveloped, damaged or unavailable in many communities in Nigeria. Conducive housing is a luxury for the superbly rich and the top-layers of the middle class as many working class families live in hovels and slums. Education and health care infrastructures remain deplorable.
There is equally a sharp inequality in income distribution as seen in the worsening living standards of the bottom 30% and the top 10% of the population. For instance, about 17, 474 political office holders cost the country 30% of annual budget while 80% of oil revenue finds its way into the pockets of multinationals and indigenous big business through a thousand and one routes. In Forbes latest rankings of world’s richest men, Aliko Dangote, president of Dangote Group, topped Africa rich list with a net worth of $13.8 billion in a country where poverty rate is an amazing 70%.
Therefore instead of entertaining the illusion that a pro-rich capitalist government can drive real economic growth that benefits majority instead of enriching a few, labour must recognize the inability of capitalism especially in a third world country like Nigeria to guarantee for workers, youths and poor people a better life than the life of impoverishment, homelessness, destitution and unemployment amidst inexhaustible oil and mineral wealth and that only the socialist reconstruction of society is the solution.
Labour must therefore adopt a bold working class method and approach of clear and unwavering opposition to capitalism and neo-liberal policies and instead counter pose the program of nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working people as the best way to rebuild the Nigerian economy, industrialize and create gainful jobs, provide free education and health, generate sustainable food production and electricity and decent life for workers, youths and the poor masses. For this to happen, workers must take political power from the capitalist ruling class and form a democratic government that will implement the above programs and defend it against the onslaught of the deposed ruling class and imperialism.
FOR A NEW POLITICAL PARTY OF WORKERS AND POOR PEOPLE
On the political level, 2011 is another year of missed opportunities for Nigerian workers. Against the background of the absence of a real working class political party and the unattractive character of the Labour Party (LP), millions of Nigerian workers and change seeking youths were faced during the April 2011 elections with the fruitless task of choosing “the most manageable” out of an array of anti-poor bourgeois candidates.
Despite illusions, Goodluck Jonathan’s victory will in no way signify a change in government neo-liberal policies and attacks on working and living conditions. Indeed, on the basis of the unstable economic prospect of Nigeria and for the self-serving interest of politicians who have come to power, workers, youths and poor masses are to expect further attacks on working and living conditions as well as the increase in the already alarming income inequality in society. The illusion in Jonathan myth spurn by a coterie of praise singers and professional spin doctors will soon unravel faster than imagined.
Yet as unimpressive as the result of the 2011 election turned out to be, hidden under the cloud of illusion which surrounded the elections were the weak sparks of a palpable mood for change. If a real workers political party with bold economic and political programmes different from that of the bourgeois political parties had existed in the elections, it is very possible that it could have drawn under its banner the huge layers or workers and youths who are searching for a radical change in the conditions of the country. But in the absence of real alternative, this weak sparks were extinguished under a flood of ethnic and religious prejudices and illusions.
Workers who are facing job losses in PHCN, NITEL workers who have been abandoned for years, civil servants who are weighed down by poor wages and a fraudulent pension scheme, students who are suffering increasing school fees, jobless youths, artisans whose conditions are worsening as a result of the absence of electricity, farmers who are forced to eke out a living on a few plots of land while the country import food – all these people will not consciously vote political parties and individuals who fully support neo-liberal policies that has kept them in such deplorable conditions if labour had provided an alternative political party to vote for.
Indeed, never before has labour had the potential and wherewithal to liberate the working and toiling masses and never before has it failed so woefully. The Labour Party (LP) which was formed by the NLC in 2004 have not being built as a truly working class political party, instead, it has been converted to the second-eleven of the bourgeois parties. Expectedly, the Labour Party (LP) had an uninspiring showing in the April 2011 election. It seemed generally agreed that the party has now been fully taken over by anti-poor politicians. Even the NLC leadership, according to NLC General Secretary John Odah’s speech at the conference, could no more ignore the rapid degeneration of the party that it has established a political commission which will serve as a link between the NLC and the Labour Party (LP) and advise the NLC on how to build the party.
Labour activists and socialists applaud every step the NLC wish to take to reclaim the Labour Party. Indeed, such steps are long overdue. However, given the entrenched stranglehold of the anti-poor politicians on the Labour Party, it appears more profitable for the labour leadership to devote more energy to the formation of a new mass-based working class political party which can be rapidly built right from now so that the next general elections by 2015 will not catch the working class napping. If built as a fighting party which intervenes in the day to day struggle of the working class and youths and links their economic demands with the need for workers to take over the running of society, a new workers party can quickly grow rapidly to become a mass force capable of taking power come 2015.
For this to happen, labour must avoid the mistakes made in the case of the Labour Party (LP) of keeping out socialists and left activists from the party while relying on right wing careerists to build a party of labour. On the contrary, labour must first and foremost build this new workers party as a fully mass-based and democratic party where socialists and change-seeking labour activists alike can play active role.
Secondly, labour must draw up for the party a revolutionary program of democratic socialism which aims at deposing capitalism and forming a democratic workers and poor people’s government that upon coming to power will nationalize the commanding heights of the economy under workers democratic control and management, provide free education and health care, build conducive housing, create decent jobs, rapidly industrialize the economy, improve the condition of women in society through legislation and social programs, replace the standing army with the armed people, recognize the rights of all sections of the country to self-determination etc.