Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM

Workers Struggle in the past one year and the Tasks Ahead

Workers Struggle in the past one year and the Tasks Ahead

Kola Ibrahim

For the past one year, the working people of Nigeria have had causes to engage the capitalist ruling class of different shades and disguises in fierce battles. These battles are against the attempt of the Nigerian governments and their big business partners to drive down the living conditions of the working people or at best prevent workers from seeking improvements in their living standards in view of the ever-rising cost of living. These battles have ranged from continuous fight for a minimum wage to January’s unprecedented mass movements against the attempt at increasing the pump price of petrol (a staple fuel for most Nigerians and one of the major deciders of inflation) by as much as over 120 percent, under the guise of removing subsidy on the product. The working people and youths, through heroic actions have shown that they are prepared to defend their right to a decent living. More than this, they have expressed their readiness to struggle for fundamental change, and chase away the current set of bankrupt capitalist class, if given clear-headed and revolutionary leadership and platform. Therefore, as the Labour begins preparation for this year’s May Day, it is necessary to evaluate these struggles and draw out important lessons and tasks before the working people.

Minimum Wage: The Struggle Must Continue

Since December 2008 workers, through their unions – NLC and TUC, have been officially agitating for a minimum wage of N52, 200. Then, we in DSM, while welcoming this initiative, had proposed that the labour leadership must demand a Living Wage that will be linked with all the basic indices of living including inflation, cost of living and wealth gap. This position is vital because the capitalist politicians and their big business partners will always find means of eroding away any improvement in workers’ wage either through direct means (for instant, hike in fuel prices, electricity tariff, etc.) or through the workings of the capitalist system itself. More than this, we had proposed that the labour leadership should undertake an aggressive campaign including mass production of educative materials, rallies, protest marches, and a warning strike among others. While of course some rallies were held at the six zones of the country, these were not translated into a well-planned series of actions across the country, from grassroots to the national level. With such series of actions, it would have been definitely dangerous for the ruling capitalist class to ignore such movement.

But, as we in DSM stated in our various statements and publications, no amount of piecemeal gains can ensure a long term improvement in the living conditions of the oppressed people. Inasmuch as the lever of political power is in the hands of the capitalist class, the class enemy of the working people; and the economy controlled by them, there cannot be fundamental improvements in the conditions of the workers. This is a simple analysis: the more money going to the working people who create the wealth, the lesser is the profit and wealth going to the accounts of the capitalist class, in either big business or politics. Thus, it will be necessary for workers, through their unions not to limit themselves to mere salary increase, but link such with the ultimate task of building a mass working people’s party on a sound footing of democratic socialism. Such a party with such orientation will counter pose mass investments in social and public infrastructures, to the capitalist policy of commercialization; and public ownership of the economy under the democratic control and management by the working people themselves as an alternative to the capitalist policy of privatization and fraudulent public/private partnership. Such a party, under the firm democratic control of working people can easily struggle for power; with the goal of establishing, a working people’s government committed the welfare need of the oppressed majority. This to us in DSM should be the long-term approach of the labour movement.

However, the labour leadership preferred a negotiating and lobbying policy, which though by April 2011 – through threats of scuttling the general elections – led to the legislation of N18, 000 minimum wage, but something that fell far short of the N52, 200 demanded by labour. Worse still, this paltry increase, despite being a law, has not been implemented by most governments and private sector. According to labour itself, the federal government that first signed the wage bill to law has not implemented it, while only eight, out of the 36 state governments have implemented it (note that among these eight are those who only paid on papers). At a time last year, the Labour leadership muted the idea of organizing national strike to compel governments at all levels to implement the wage law, only for the leadership to call off the strike by midnight. When most of the state governments decided not to implement the wage law, the Labour leadership, rather than organizing national actions across the states to compel the state and federal government to pay, only asked the local labour leaders to take necessary actions. Meanwhile, it is a common knowledge that most of the labour leaders in states are pro-establishment in various degrees. Indeed, embarrassed by the odious sell out of workers by labour leaders in Ondo State last year, the national leadership of NLC had to intervene in the local struggle of Ondo State workers; and even suspend the local NLC leadership.

Therefore, it is clear that nationally planned actions are needed to win the minimum wage battle at national, state and private sector levels. This however does not imply that the Labour leadership will simply declare struggles to various states. On the contrary, it will mean workers will be mobilized, through popular activities like congresses, rallies, etc., to decide on how to go about the struggle, with the national leadership coordinating the movement on a national scale for effectiveness; of course without compromising the interests of workers on the altar of ‘being realistic’. It is this rank and file participation and mobilization that can ensure victory.

It is significant to note that workers are now independently taking up the gauntlet of securing their demands even when the labour leaders are becoming obstacle to achieving these demands. The recent action of the Oyo State workers, who shoved aside their pro-government, compromising leadership in their state NLC to demand a better wage deal, is a positive example. Rather than being under the stranglehold of a rotten leadership, the workers took up the state government that claimed to have implemented the new minimum wage, but actually shortchanged workers by implementing the new wage for those in levels one to four only. Ironically, the ‘official’ labour leadership in the state (NLC and TUC) accepted this rotten wage deal. It took the direct initiatives of workers to reject, not only the ridiculous wage structure, but also the labour leadership that accepted it. This is a worthy example for workers across the country. They must start to put their unions under their firm control. On the minimum wage, workers must start to compel their labour leaders to kick-start the struggle again. This must however be done on a democratic and mass based basis. This will mean that congresses must be called where workers will decide what they want and how they want the struggle to be conducted. Every decision on any negotiation with the governments and private employers must be put under the scrutiny of workers. This is to avoid the odious tradition where labour leaders negotiate rotten wage deals with governments and employers, at the back of the workers.

There is no excuse for any state or the federal government not to pay the minimum wage, as more money is now in the coffers of the governments than before. Even before this time, there is no excuse for non-implementation. In February alone, the three tiers of government shared close to a trillion naira. More than this, the labour leadership must kick start the campaign and mobilization for the immediate implementation of the earlier demanded N52, 200 minimum wage, in view of the spiraling inflation and increasing cost of living, occasioned by recent hike in fuel price. According to National Bureau of Statistics’ latest report, the recent hike in fuel price will increase inflation to more than 12.5 percent, while the poverty rate, already put at a conservative figure of 69 percent, is expected to rise as a result of same factor. Even before the fuel price hike, workers could hardly procure adequate living standard with the N18, 000 minimum wage (about N600 daily). Therefore, workers must utilize every avenue, including this year’s May Day to demand for better conditions of service and improved wages. They must maintain that the wage demand must not lead to retrenchment or withdrawal of the any of the benefits enjoyed currently by workers.

Anti-Fuel Price Hike Struggle: The imperative of working people’s political alternative

In a manner that defied all skeptical beliefs that tend to suggest that Nigerians cannot revolt, the working people and youths, mobilized in millions to resist another obnoxious and wicked attempt at making lives more unbearable for them by the anti-poor capitalist governments at all levels. They massively protested against the over 120 percent rise in the pump price of petrol – a staple product for the economy of millions of Nigerians. As against the excuse of the Nigerian government that the so-called subsidy must be removed in order to guarantee improved living for the majority, it has already been exposed by the government’s own probes that the subsidy is nothing but a ruse; the brazen robbery of the country by the oil importers, multinational oil giants and of course corrupt government officials. That Nigerians rejected this policy collectively, and were prepared to go to the extent of demanding the removal of Jonathan government is a reflection of the potential of the oppressed people to undertake a successful revolution if given a correct and revolutionary leadership. From every nook and corner of this country, working people and youths openly reject the government.

However, we need to ask why despite the huge enthusiasm of the working people, the bankrupt capitalist government was able to increase partially the fuel price or why was total victory not guaranteed? Why despite the huge show of strength by the oppressed people, the anti-poor government was still able to retain power, and organize another round of anti-poor policies? The answer lies in the strategies of the leadership of the labour movement and the pro-capitalist character it portrays.

The Jonathan government, in collusion with state governments and the big business, had since mid-2011 being singing the mantra of deregulation and total removal of subsidy. We in DSM canvassed a series of other actions which should include mass mobilization of the working and oppressed people through rallies at state and local levels, mass production of educative campaign materials, protest marches, etc. We proposed that these series of actions should be capped with Day(s) of Action that would include a 48-hour warning strike with mass protests across the country. Coupled with this is the need to form Action and Mobilization Committees that would include not only rank and file workers but other oppressed groups like the market men and women, artisans, peasants, youth and students, professional groups, socialist and left groups, pro-labour civil societies, etc across the nooks and crannies of the country.

We believe with such mobilization and activities, the capitalist government would think twice before going ahead with the plan. If in the end the government introduced the policy then, after such mass mobilizations, it would be possible to launch a struggle that could defeat the policy and even overthrow the government. On the contrary, the labour leadership concentrated on lobbying various sections of the capitalist government, of course with regular press statements and threats against the government. However, this method only inoculates the working people from organizing against the regime. As we said in many of our statements and publications that only strategies that seek to mobilize the mass of people for demands that threatens the foundation of the capitalist system that can defeat anti-poor government. While there is no crime in negotiation, without a reliance on the mass initiative of the working people, negotiation will become a tool of blackmail against the labour leadership by the capitalist class.

On the contrary, for a labour leadership that has a pro-capitalist orientation, it will be a herculean task to defeat capitalist policies on a long term basis. For instance, with the rot in the oil industry, which has led to deliberate collapse of the refineries and subsequent importation of the petroleum products, it is necessary for labour movement to demand immediate nationalization of the oil industry under the democratic control and management of the working people themselves. With such democratic public ownership, it will be easy to plan on how to satisfy the energy needs of the whole population and then utilize oil resources to develop other sectors of the economy – a task the capitalist economic relation will never be able to accomplish. However, the labour leadership, based on its pro-capitalist orientation cannot raise this demand. While the labour leadership showed intention to lead the opposition to the fuel price hike, on the other hand, it supported deregulation policy, which is the underpinning idea behind the fuel price hike. The labour leadership is part of various committees and commissions that superintend over deregulation and other anti-poor policies like privatization, commercialization, etc. With such background, it will be difficult for labour leadership to lead, sincerely the struggle of the oppressed people to logical conclusions.

For instance, if the labour leadership believes that the oil industry should be handed over to the profit-motivated private sector, it cannot justify why government must hold on to the price of the oil products. It is the failure of the labour leadership to reconcile its pro-capitalist orientation with its opposition to fuel price hike that led to the defeat of the struggle. It is this that made the labour leadership prey to the blackmails of the capitalist government. Therefore, unless the labour leadership withdraw from the pro-capitalist direction it is leading workers, and withdraw from all the committees and commissions that supervise or organize these capitalist policies, it will be very difficult to resist attacks on the living conditions of the oppressed.

The Question of Political Power

One major reason the January anti-fuel price hike struggle could only achieve a partial victory is the lack of preparedness of the labour leadership to mobilize for political power. The infamous statement of the labour leadership that it is “not seeking a regime change” during the course of the struggle, smacks of high level of ignorance or deliberate ideological perfidy of the labour leadership. It was glaring, even from labour leadership’s proclamations that the governments at all levels are collectively working for the interests of the capitalist big business, against the working people. Therefore, it is logical that the best way to secure fundamental and sustainable living conditions for the mass of working and poor people is to oust the set of capitalist politicians in power. For the mass of working and oppressed people, they are more than prepared, even when labour leadership had refused to provide a political platform for change. On the contrary, the labour leadership at the peak of mass consciousness issued a statement meant to assure the Jonathan government that it is not threatened. The capitalist class is not foolish; based on compromising pro-capitalist ideological orientation of the labour leadership, the capitalist class only needs to corrupt the labour leadership, and make it to operate within the precinct of trade unionism. It is therefore easy for the labour leadership to be easily blackmailed of wanting to hijack political power.

We in the DSM have always underlined the fact that there is no way the working people can secure a permanent improvement in their living conditions when the levers of political power is controlled by the capitalist class, whose sole aim is the maximization of profits at the expense of the oppressed people. Therefore, only a working people’s government operating a democratic socialist principle can serve the interests of the working people. It is thus necessary for a serious labour leadership to build a working people’s party, which for us, should be premised on sound foundation of democratic and revolutionary socialist principle. We proposed that working class, being the most organized and historically positioned to lead a genuine working people’s revolution, must take the lead role in building such a party. The central labour leadership, we propose, should call a summit of the trade unions, pro-labour civil societies, socialist organizations, mass organizations of other oppressed strata – market men and women, artisans, professionals, youth and students, etc., to strategize on the formation of a working people’s party that will wrest power from the hand of the capitalist class. Such a party, if formed, will serve as a fighting platform of the working and oppressed people from the grassroots to the national level. The failure of the labour leadership to build such a party that led to its being blackmailed by the capitalist government.

In the press statement issued by the labour leadership in suspending the strike, it was stated that the strike had achieved its aims because the government had promised to fight corruption, make oil wealth available for the people, and all the sorts. Events so far have rendered such opinion useless, as rather than abate, attacks on the working people have increased. For instance, there are reported plan of the government re-introducing the fuel price hike by April, while electricity tariff will also be hiked as high as 80 percent by the middle of this year. Along with this is the planned muzzling of the labour power with the undemocratic bill sponsored in the National Assembly to make ballot an essential rule for strike to be called. We of DSM have indeed consistently canvassed rank and file workers to play active roles in decision making process of their unions in order to build fighting trade unions that truly exist to uphold and defend the interests of workers and the poor in general. The bill is however meant to use various divisive tools like ethnicity and religion, to divide workers at periods of struggles. The bill’s supporters favorably mentioned the anti-union laws that have been passed in Britain, clearly their plan is to shackle the unions. Given the fact that it cannot be said that elections to the National Assembly or Senate are models of democracy, it is absolute hypocrisy for these people to start to lecture the trade unions. The unions are not perfect, but the decisions on how to democratize decision making in the unions is the sole right of workers and not that of the capitalist government and politicians.

The Immediate Tasks Ahead

It is vital for workers to begin the process of fundamentally improving their working and living conditions. The Jonathan government has not hidden its resolve to inflict more anti-poor neo-liberal attacks on the working people. This has meant the labour leadership has to wake up to their historic and organizational responsibility of defending the rights and interests of the working people. As said earlier, the minimum wage has not been fully implemented by both government and private sector employers. Besides, the government has announced the plan to make Nigerians pay higher tariff for electricity they have never enjoyed. According to the government, this is necessary in order to attract investors into power sector. The electricity workers have been isolated by the non-charlatan attitude of central labour leadership to the struggle against privatization of PHCN. It is also a fact that the government has not abandoned the plan to further increase the fuel price above N97. This accounts for artificial scarcity which has become continual since the government was forced to N97 from N141 per litre of petrol by the historic January struggle.

Therefore, the Labour must come up with a comprehensive programme of action to fight against the various attacks and anti-poor policies of the government. Labour must initiate a fighting programme for full implementation of the minimum wage as well as against the outrageous electricity tariffs and fuel price. There must be a principled opposition by Labour to the anti-poor policies of deregulation and privatization. Workers must mount a consistent pressure on Labour leaders to withdraw from all anti-poor capitalist committees and commissions like the National Council on Privatization (NCP), among others. They must demand that the whole oil industry must be put under the democratic control and management of the working people and relevant professionals. Also importantly, Labour should consistently demand that the public resources should be committed to the provision of free and quality public education and health care as well as adequate electricity, decent housing and jobs.

However, given the pro-capitalist character of most of the current Labour leaders, it is unlikely they would appreciate the imperative of embarking on a serious Labour campaign around these issues and demands. Indeed, at the last delegate conference of NLC held in March 2011 where a new leadership emerged, one of the resolutions, arising from the secretariat report, mandated the leadership to come up with a similar programme of action. Well over a year on now, there is no evidence of anything being done in that respect. Therefore, it is important for workers and genuine trade union activists to agitate and work towards building a fighting labour movement which is ready to provide uncompromising leadership in the struggle for improvement in living and working conditions and against anti-poor capitalist neo-liberal programme and attacks of the government at all levels.

Besides, even if the labour seriously embarks on this campaign, it would be illusory to expect capitalist politicians to govern and use the resources in the interest of the vast majority. However, as the struggles around minimum wage and fuel price have shown the ruling elite could be forced to grant some concessions. But this cannot be on a lasting basis. This thus necessitates the workers, trade union activists and socialists to agitate for trade unions to begin to play crucial roles in the building a genuine mass working people’s party that will put massive investment in social and public infrastructures on its main agenda. This will mean guaranteeing free and quality education for all, free healthcare at the point of use, secure and decent jobs of all able bodied people, adequate wages and better working conditions for the workers, mass public housing, etc. None of this can be guaranteed if the mainstay/pillars of the economy are in the hands of handful few capitalists. Therefore, working people, while building their party must realize that, only a publicly owned economy under the democratic control and management of the working people can ensure better working conditions.

The struggles of the last one year have shown the enormous strength of the working people to fight for a better society; it is important that workers learn the lessons of these struggles as a basis of moving forward.