Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM



Struggle won two out of seven month salaries’ and pension arrears

For a 24 hour general strike for full payment of salaries and pensions arrears in 27 states

By Abbey Trotsky

The seven weeks old indefinite strike embarked upon by the mass of Oyo State workers to protest the government’s plan to sell-off some public schools in the state under the pretence of a Public Private Partnership, PPP, as well as non-payment of over 6 months’ salary and pension arrears being owed by the Ajimobi-led government was unilaterally suspended by the labour leaders on Monday, July 25, 2016.

This was after the labour leaders, led by the National Vice President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Solomon Adelegan, signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, with the state government. More than five days after the suspension of the strike, a majority of workers continued to insist on no resumption until they see a bank alert to show the actual payment of the two months’ salary arrears offered by the state government.

Though, the workers refusal to comply with the directive for the resumption did not last long, the point is that it remains an indication that the decision of the labour leaders to suspend the strike was not acceptable to a majority of workers and supporters of the suspended struggle. It also showed a mass objection to the character of the MoU as well as the way and manner it was signed by the labour leaders.

Scandalously the labour leaders suspended the strike without recourse to the congress of the striking workers where the MoU could have been democratically discussed. In fact nothing at all was ever presented for consideration at a workers congress, including the offer from the government prior to a meeting where the labour leaders eventually signed the so-called MoU. Actually an emergency congress was held on the very same day that the MoU was signed but the workers were kept in the dark. Instead, the labour leaders kept assuring workers up to the time they left for the meeting with the state government that no agreement would be signed until the congress approved one. This top-down, autocratic method is unfortunately typical of many trade union leaders. We saw it earlier this year when the NLC, without preparation, called an “indefinite” general strike and then quickly called it off.

Added to this is the fact that the MoU signed by the labour leaders is at variance with the minimal demands of the striking workers. Except for the withdrawal of litigations filed against the labour leaders by the state government, other items of the minimal demands which included immediate payment of at least 3 out of the 6 months’ salary arrears owing when the strike started in June and pension arrears; reversal of the decision to sell off some public schools; adequate funding of the education sector including payment of living wages and other incentives for educational workers were completely missing in the so called MoU.

According to the media report, the MoU has it that government will pay just two months out of the minimum of six months of salary and pension arrears. The two months, which is to cover both the January and February salaries and pension, will be paid within two weeks of the agreement and on the receipt of the state’s share of federal allocation. The January salaries and pensions are expected to be paid from the N3.49bn reportedly available in the government’s coffers.

The N3.49bn is made of the sum of the N2.1bn received from the federation account in the month of June and N1.39bn, being the first tranche of the budget support facility received from the federal government. It is on the basis of the expectation that allocation from the federal government and budget support facilities for the month of July will be of the same value of N3.49 that the government agreed in the MoU to pay the second month which is the salary and pension for the month of February.

Unfortunately, there was no commitment in the MoU over the demand for the immediate reversal of the plan to sell off some public schools in the state. Instead the government requested in the so called MoU an apology letter from principals, teachers and students of some public schools where students protested against the government plan.

The only reported aspect of the MoU that appears favourable to workers is the clause that government “will” prevail on banks to grant workers with loan obligations a moratorium of two months on the January and February salaries and pension expected to be paid by the state government. However, the question of a moratorium, if even it is accepted by banks, will not on its own automatically bring any relieve to suffering workers unless and until the two month salary is paid together. Unfortunately, more than a week after the suspension of the strike workers are yet to receive bank alert for the payment of one month salary let alone the two months promised by the state government.

This development has no doubt further made more Oyo workers and residents to question the sincerity and integrity of the Senator Ajimobi-led government in the state which has failed over a period of six months to pay both workers and retirees in the state their legitimate salaries and pensions based on a flimsy excuse that there has been a decline in the state allocation received from the federal government.

Labour Leaders desperate for easy ways out

It so disheartening to note that when the mass of striking workers were still committed to fight on especially at the tail end of the seven weeks’ old struggle, the labour leaders were not only unprepared to deepen the struggle.

They consciously rejected many and several suggestions that protest rallies must be organised in some strategic towns outside Ibadan. Instead of organising these kinds of activities which could greatly help to build fresh support while sustaining the existing support for the struggle, the labour leaders were busy holding all forms of fruitless meetings and discussions with some so called “elders” in the state. Many of these elders are either contractors or political acolytes of the governor and ruling party in the state. Many of them are paid agents of the state whose job is to deliberately engage the labour leaders in many of these talks so as to prevent and distract them from organising activities that will help to pile-up huge pressure on the state government to accede to all demands of the striking workers.

One other significant event that happened in the course of the struggle which further showed that the labour leaders were no longer prepared to deepen the struggle but just interested in organising activities that will just keep workers busy why they kept searching for easy way to end the strike was the attendance register opened at the NLC Secretariat by labour leaders just for the striking worker to come write in their names. This particular activity brought about massive turn-out (far more than the one recorded during the mega rally) of workers who come to NLC Secretariat to register their name in a single register opened by the labour leaders.

This massive turn out which occurred around the same time the state government reopened public schools and ordered striking teachers to resume was a clear expression that workers were determined to fight on. Although facing hunger and deprivation, yet for many workers, the options were clear: either they saw the strike through to the end and thereby inflict a defeat on an anti-poor and arrogant government that has nothing but disdain for workers or they accepted a rotten compromise that would not last. A class-conscious labour leadership would have based itself on this mass upsurge of support to call for bolder actions including mass protests rallies in the surrounding towns in Oyo state in order to widen the support for the strike within the state while calling for national solidarity actions. But none of these happened precisely because rather than willing defenders of the socio-economic interests of the working masses, the labour leadership in Oyo state was forced to struggle by a combination of factors not least their arrest by the state and the explosive anger among rank and file members of the unions.

The labour leaders also contributed money to buy 15 bags of rice which were shared for workers around the same period to ameliorate their suffering and the condition of hardship imposed on them as a result of non-payment of their salaries for over six months. There was a huge expectation among large proportion of workers that the kind of example set by the labour leaders would attract bourgeois politicians to come and also donate some food items to ameliorate the suffering of the striking workers.

Interestingly, while the Academic Staff Union of Universities ASUU, University of Ibadan Branch that donated additional 20 bags of rice in the principle of the working class solidarity to the striking workers, any expectation that bourgeois politicians would come and donate food items was dashed as none showed up.

Now it seems that the Oyo TUC has condemned “in strong term the agreement between Oyo Government and NLC. It is totally condemned and vindictive. We shall not accept these conditions. It is a fraud and we will not be part of such agreement that is inimical to the future of workers” and “has issued a five-day ultimatum to the state government to ‘immediately offset’ a backlog of eight months’ unpaid salaries to workers” (The Nation newspaper, August 2, 2016). Fine words, but many Oyo workers will ask why are the Oyo TUC leaders only saying this now? Is it to distance themselves from the widespread anger directed at the Oyo NLC or are they serious about continuing to struggle?

Lessons and tasks of rebuilding labour movement

One important lesson to learn from Oyo struggle despite the rotten deal and character later exhibited by the labour leaders despite their initial display of determination is the importance of active involvement and participation of workers in sustaining a struggle and movement. The suspended strike in Oyo State was not “a sit at home” kind of strike as in the case of states like Ekiti, Ondo, Nasarawa, Bayesa, Kogi and many other states across the country. The Oyo Struggle is a clear example of how and important ways to encourage workers to participate in events, discussion necessary at every stage of the struggle.

Added to this is the fact that the way the struggle was terminated is once again an indication of the limit at which a single and isolated struggle no matter how determined may go without running into danger of being defeated or ending in rotten compromise. This is one of the reasons the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) has continued to call the national leadership of the NLC on the need for a 24 hours general strike and mass protest in solidarity with workers and retirees in over 27 states who are owed a backlog of salaries and pensions. We call on labour activists to support and echo the demand for such a general strike now as workers from state after state are embarking on strike action over a common issue that requires a joint action.

However, one important lesson of the suspended Oyo workers strike is the fact that a successful struggle requires more than just a determined leadership but also a radical one with a clear strategy. Workers in Oyo state and many other states had shown that that the working people will always be prepared to fight back against any attack on both their living and working conditions if provided with a radical leadership and a fighting programme. To achieve this and to help rebuild the labour movement requires both discussion on the lessons of struggles and the building of an active rank and file that can be the basis for a fighting union leadership. However it is not just a question of electing such a leadership, the rank and file need to be active to ensure that leaders do not buckle and make rotten deals under the combined pressure of the bosses, the ruling class along with conservative and pro-capitalist labour leaders.

The Oyo State workers’ struggle provided members of DSM who intervened all through the period of the struggle an opportunity to reach out to a wider layer of workers and working people at large in the state with socialist idea as a first step to win them over to the side of the effort to build a formidable socialist force in the state. Over 500 copies of special edition of Socialist Democracy produced with various analyses on the Oyo Struggle were sold.

The task right now is the need for possible programme and activities like public symposium to x-ray and discuss the entire struggle with a view to draw out the key lesson that will be of great value to the task of rebuilding the labour movement with fighting leadership as well as a mass working people’s political alternative.