FORMATION OF NEW LABOUR CENTRE AS CRISIS IN TRADE UNION MOVEMENT DEEPENS:
FORMATION OF NEW LABOUR CENTRE AS CRISIS IN TRADE UNION MOVEMENT DEEPENS:
DSM CALLS FOR UNITED STRUGGLE AGAINST WORKING CLASS EXPLOITERS
FIGHTING LABOUR MOVEMENT URGENTLY REQUIRED
Recently, a factional leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) led by Joe Ajaero broke away from the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) with some industrial unions to form a new federation known as the United Labour Congress (ULC).
This development has perhaps put an end to the immediate crisis that has gripped the leadership of NLC since its last 11th delegate conference in February 2015 which eventually produced two factional leaderships. But it does not indicate a resolution of the crisis in the trade union movement.
For the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and working people, it is very disturbing that at a time when labour should be concerned about how to provide a bold leadership for the working class, what has preoccupied the minds of both the Ajaero and Ayuba Wabba camps of the labour movement for the past one year are claims and counter-claims about the last delegate conference.
This internal feud was one of the factors that weakened the badly organized general strike in May last year against fuel price hike. This was in stark contrast to January 2012 when millions of Nigerian working masses, youths and students, market women and artisans as well as the rural and urban poor, participated in strikes and demonstrations against increase in fuel prices by the erstwhile Jonathan government. While in that movement the NLC and TUC leaders lagged behind the working masses’ spontaneous actions, the fact that then there was a united labour platform strengthened that struggle. In fact there would have been total reversal of the hike that time, had the labour leaders not capitulated and thrown away the possibility of victory. The January 2012 mass action showed again the potential and power of the working classand also the inability, or refusal, of the current trade union leaders to ultilise that strength.
While the Buhari government is daily showing its incapacity to solve Nigeria’s crises and attacks on workers living conditions are continuing, up till now there has been no serious response from the labour leadership (whether that of Ajaero or Wabba) except occasional press statements threatening actions that usually rarely take place. Currently in over 27 states of the federation, workers are owed salaries of upward of 7 months while pensioners are owed over 70 months of pension. While recognizing the few weak attempts by the NLC national leadership to intervene, the predominant situation is that workers and their timid state council leaders were largely abandoned to confront their state governments on their own. The result is that nothing much was achieved in the few states where workers went on strike for days or even, in the case of Oyo, for seven weeks last year.
Now the strike wave has gone down, albeit temporarily, but the problem persists. Many working families are in desperate conditions. So bad is the situation across the country that many families can barely afford a square meal. Against this background, one would expect that the labour leadership should have its hands full trying to march workers out in struggle while actively working to build a mass workers’ political alternative that can lay the ground for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
HOW SHOULD WORKERS RESPOND TO ULC’S FORMATION?
Now that the Ajaero faction has declared a new labour centre, socialists and working class activists are discussing what should be the appropriate response to this development. For us in the DSM, while it is desirable to have a single labour centre for all workers because it allows for unity of actions and struggles, the democratic rights of individual industrial unions to form or join a trade union federation of their choice must be respected. We reject any attempt by the capitalist state to regulate how workers organize in unions or federations.
However, the formation of a new trade union federation must be on the basis of the need to promote and defend the interest of workers and the poor masses, and a product of democratic decisions of the rank and file workers. This is the only way a new trade union federation can be different from the one it broke from. Otherwise, the result would not be in the interest of workers. Indeed, if a trade union federation has become irreparably rotten, socialists and labour activists could support or demand the formation of a new one that bases itself on a genuine working class principle and struggle. Regrettably however, given the activities of its leaders since the 11th delegate conference, nothing suggests that this is the objective of the formation of the ULC.
Nevertheless, we hold that if the labour leaders in both NLC and ULC are genuinely interested in the cause and issues of workers and the poor masses, they would not have any problem coming together in a united struggle to uphold and defend the interest and rights of the working people. Multiplicity of labour centres does not automatically undermine the unity of the working class. Where labour leaders are primarily devoted to defending the interests of their members, it would be possible to unite across organizational barriers to plan, harmonize demands and implement strikes and mass actions jointly. An example is the working relationship that exists between the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) such that both labour federations have often jointly organized strike actions on fuel price hike and minimum wage negotiations.
Unfortunately, from the series of developments since the controversial delegate conference, the activities of the leaders of both camps seem to be driven by self-serving desire to outwit or outmanoeuvre one another and gratify their vainglory rather than the interest of workers and the poor masses. They see struggles more as competitions between the two camps while the objective of the action is relegated.
This explains why both factions held parallel May Day events in 2015 and 2016 and could not hold joint struggles against fuel price hike, electricity tariff hike, unpaid salaries etc.
The May 2016 struggle against fuel price hike was especially a sad development. The role of the Ajaero faction was highly reprehensible. Rather than join the ranks of workers on strike, the Ajaero faction opted to hold meetings with the government to discuss palliatives to cushion the effect of the anti-poor policy. Once the strike threat had disappeared the government lost interest and, to date, has done nothing. However, the Wabba group did not cover itself in full glory for its half-hearted commitment to the strike it had called. Specifically, while the Ajaero group did not support the strike action, the leadership of the mainstream faction led by Wabba did not also adequately mobilize affiliate industrial unions and workers for the action, giving the impression that its strike call was just a limited gesture.
From the foregoing, it is therefore not out of place to conclude that the split in the NLC may not be about how best to defend the interest of the working people, but simply a tussle over the very privileged and elite positions in the labour congress between the two camps of officials.
FOR UNITED STRUGGLES OF THE WORKING CLASS
As things stand today, it is the government and capitalist ruling elite that will benefit from the split in the NLC at the gross expense of workers and the masses. Already the prospect of winning a new national minimum wage is bleak given different proposals put forward by the NLC and the ULC together with disturbing signs that suggest the two centres are not ready to work together. This will give the government that is not prepared to increase the minimum wage in the first place a valid excuse as all trade union federations are required to present a harmonized demand at the tripartite discussion of government, private employers and labour.
We call on the leadership of the NLC and ULC to put aside their inter-personal skirmishes and ego tripping for the overall interest of workers and the poor masses who have been seriously battered by the current crisis of capitalism. Therefore, they should be ready to unite on the basis of a pro-working people program. Such a program should include, for instance, harmonization of minimum wage demands and joint struggle for its actualization along with the immediate payment of all wage and pension arrears and an end to fuel and electricity price hikes.
More importantly, we call on rank and file workers, as well as trade union activists not to allow the self-serving division at the top of labour officialdom to endanger their collective interest for a better life and decent jobs as well as working class solidarity. They should demand within the labour movement joint and effective struggles uniting workers in both federations against current excruciating economic hardship, capitalist neo-liberal attacks, unpaid salaries, job losses, etc. and for a new national minimum wage. There should be no hesitation to form joint action committees at local, state or other levels between NLC, ULC and TUC affiliates to campaign and take action on issues that may arise in workplaces or the communities. If the trade union officialdom seek to block such initiatives then activists from different unions and communities can themselves take the first steps to form such bodies.
There is a danger that the split could become an excuse for labour leaders to justify their refusal to call for mass struggles and strikes even as hardship and hunger increases by the day. Working class activists must oppose this firmly. We must point out that while the disunity in the ranks of the labour played a role in last year May shambolic general strike against fuel price hike, it was not the only factor. Poor preparation and insufficient mobilization were additional factors. We therefore demand that struggle must not be put on hold because of a so-called disunity in the ranks of labour. The current situation urgently requires that labour calls for a new general strike and nationwide mass protest as part of a campaign to resist the growing hunger and impoverishment of working families. Despite the split, struggle can be successful if they are adequately prepared for with intensive mobilization through public meetings, rallies and leafleting across the country.
By and large, we hold that the major problem with the trade union movement in Nigeria is not so much about the factionalisation of the NLC or the creation of a new labour centre. After all, before the ULC was formed, there has been the Trade Union Congress (TUC) co-existing with the NLC. Rather, it is more about a trade union movement run undemocratically, with a leadership is largely aristocratic and pro-capitalist-oriented and whose interest and material condition is at variance with that of ordinary workers.
This is why we of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) have consistently demanded the rebuilding of the trade union movement into a democratic fighting platform that defends the interest of workers and the poor masses and advances a clear alternative program to capitalist neo-liberal policies.
Therefore, the challenge before the rank and file workers, activists, pro-labour organizations is to struggle for a democratically-led and fighting trade union movement whose priority is to defend the socio- economic and political interest of workers and the poor masses.