AS THE STRUGGLE FOR N30, 000 MINIMUM WAGE MOVES TO STATES: VITAL LESSON FOR THE LABOUR MOVEMENT
With the signing of a deal between the Federal Government and the labour centres on Friday 18 October 2019 over the relativity or consequential adjustment for grade levels, the struggle for the implementation of the N30, 000 National Minimum Wage has without doubt entered a new stage. Unfortunately, any jubilation over this concession without sober contemplation of the strategy so far deployed by the labour leadership to pursue the minimum wage struggle will prevent any useful lessons to be learnt and doom the movement to commit past mistake. This is especially important given the reluctance of most State Governors to fully implement the new agreement.
According to the agreement signed between the representatives of the Federal Government and the Joint National Public Service Negotiating Council, a resolution was finally reached “when labour accepted a 23.2 per cent salary increase for workers on level 07; 20 per cent for those on level 08; 19 per cent for level 09; 16 percent for levels 10 to 14 and 14 per cent for levels 15 to 17” (The Nation 19 Oct 2019). For Marxists however, the criterion for judging the success of any struggle is not simply the size of what has been won but the balance of forces. While applauding any concession won no matter how little, at the same time we must not fail to raise open and comradely criticism given that more could have been won but for the mistakes of the leadership.
A Mistaken Approach
All through its negotiation with government, the labour leadership operated without a scientific and coherent working class ideology and programme, something which repeatedly left them floundering in the face of opposition. Rather in all their speeches and utterances, they expressed illusion in the existence of a mythical social partnership between labour and capital. This is what is at the root of the weakness of the minimum wage struggle.
For Marxists, labour and capital are placed in a position of mutual antagonism in the workings of the capitalist system. Workers’ labour turns the wheel that produces both use value and a surplus value which helps the producer to compensate for capital originally advanced, replace machineries, pay wages and rent while still leaving a lump sum which the capitalist class appropriate as profit. This leads to a continual struggle between workers and capitalist producers over the division of the surplus value produced in the process of production. The less the workers earn, the more profit capitalists are able to appropriate. When times are good or when they are under extreme pressure the capitalists can give concessions, but when the economy is in crisis the capitalists will go onto the offensive and, one way or another, seek to drive down the workers’ share in order to preserve their profit. Exploitation of workers and this continual struggle is therefore an inseparable character of capitalism and it is why there can be no talk of social partnership. Of course in a country like Nigeria the capitalist class actually produces very little, they mostly directly or indirectly live off the income from oil exports, a reason for their “do or die” efforts to control the state machine. So paying higher wages to workers, even marginally, means a drop in the collective wealth they have earmarked to appropriate to themselves.
Real liberation from excruciating toil and poverty wage will only come the way of workers by putting to an end to the exploitative system of capitalism and enthronement of a democratic socialist society under which the key sectors of the economy will be democratically controlled and managed by workers. This is only possible when a workers and poor people’s government comes to power. In order to achieve this it is necessary to build a movement which has this as a concrete goal. This is not an abstraction. Every labour dispute, every struggle, every strike, every concession can be a step in the process of building a movement towards the victory of the socialist revolution. By striving and fighting to win the maximum concession or improvement in living standards possible at every stage of the struggle, the labour movement helps to raise the confidence of workers, demonstrate through practical experience the incapacity of the capitalist system to guarantee a better life and therefore prepare the consciousness of the working mass towards comprehending their historic task of changing society.
Unfortunately, it is the absence of this kind of scientific perspective among key leaders of the movement that in turn informed the mistaken approach and strategy employed by the labour leadership. This mistaken approach manifested in labour leadership shifting grounds on their original minimum wage demand in the false expectation that workers’ demands should be moderated in order not to hurt the economy.
When labour began the struggle for a review of the N18, 000 national minimum wage, it put forward a demand for N56, 500. This demand was in its view the best figure to ensure a worker in Nigeria is at least able to meet his or her basic needs given worsening economic indicators like inflation, currency devaluation etc. About a year after this demand was put forward, labour climbed down to a figure of N30, 000. This was soon followed by an agreement on consequential adjustment for grade levels of between 14% and 24% which in practice would translate to very minimal improvement in living standards. In reality, a majority of workers may not have more than between N7, 500 and N15, 000 added to their salary unless in cases where workers in the State civil service are strong enough to fight for a higher percentage adjustment.
Meanwhile between the time the labour movement began the agitation for review of the minimum wage and now, inflation had skyrocketed with prices of food and other goods shooting through the roofs, the currency has further depreciated while a slew of hike in value added tax, electricity tariff, bank charges and other neo-liberal government policies have either been implemented or being considered. No doubt, all these would further undermine whatever minimal improvement the N30, 000 minimum wage is able to bring to workers living standards.
Barking up the Wrong Tree
In a statement in which the October 17 agreement with the Federal government was announced, the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba appealed to traders and providers of essential services to “refrain from artificial inflation of the prices of goods and services. It makes more sense to sell more at a stable price than sell little or nothing at inflated prices. Certainly, we have learnt from our past mistakes that inflation of prices with adjustment in salaries is a roulette game in which the downtrodden masses are the victims” (The Nation 19 Oct 2019).
To start with, this statement confirms the lack of any coherent class ideology by a majority of those who are presently in the leadership of the labour movement. By making pious appeal to traders, the labour leadership is barking up the wrong tree. Individual small traders, market men and women and even transporters are not to be blamed for inflated prices. As small property owners and members of the oppressed masses directly dependent on workers’ wages for survival, the only way small traders impoverished by rising cost of public education, health, housing, clothing etc. can hope to improve their own lots is to take advantage of any opportunity to make some quick gains. Asking them not to increase prices without labour providing any alternative is akin to asking them to simply die of hunger. This is what makes a minimum wage increase so important for traders, shopkeepers, small farmers and transporters. But usually these gains are so minimal, and easily wiped out by other price increases, that they rarely translate to any real improvement in the living conditions of the small traders and their poor families. By making pious appeals to traders, the labour leadership is making an ideologically incorrect concession to capitalist or individualistic opinion which blames the greed of the poor for their own travails and not the capitalist system.
Should anyone be blamed for high prices, it is first and foremost the capitalist government and big traders with warehouses, big distributors and hoarders of every kind, big rice and produce farmers, international and local oil producers, Disco owners etc. who, alongside other factors, are the actual forces controlling the movement of prices and whose price increase small traders and retailers only pass to consumers. And appeals to these class of exploiters should not be made in the language of social pacifism but in the language of militant actions. This should include demanding setting up of mass democratic price control committees at workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods made up of workers activists and representatives of market associations, small traders, shop keepers, transporters and youth to win support for mass actions against hoarding and hoarders and price control at markets.
But only a labour leadership that speaks and advocates the interests of all layers of the workers and poor masses can command such an authority to win mass support to enforce price control on the streets. Such a labour leadership would have linked to the struggle for a N30, 000 minimum wage demands concerning mass unemployment, public education and health care, and opposition to anti-poor policies like increase in electricity tariff, multiple taxation of traders and shopkeepers etc. By linking to the struggle of workers’ demands that affects the conditions of other oppressed layers especially the vast number of unemployed youth, the labour leadership would have been able to cement the class solidarity that exists between the working class and the oppressed masses.
In the same statement, the NLC President Ayuba Wabba appealed to the government to “refrain from introducing counter-productive economic policies and decisions that would erode the recent wage gain achieved by workers. Any further increase in the prices of petroleum products, electricity tariff and personal income taxes would amount to collecting with the left hand what is given to workers with the right hand. The leadership of organized labour will resist such move” (The Nation 19 Oct 2019).
On the surface it would appear that this statement shows a radical labour leadership that is prepared to defend the gains of the N30, 000 minimum wage struggle from being eroded by “counter-productive economic policies”. But when one recalls that for about five years now the labour leadership has failed to seriously challenge any of the anti-poor policies of the Buhari APC government, only then would it become clear that all the labour leadership is doing is blowing hot air. Infact during the minimum wage negotiation, government approved increment of electricity tariff by about 30% and 55% without any resistance from labour beyond press statements.
At the moment, all the key sectors of the economy like public education, healthcare, electricity, water, transportation are either underfunded or in a state of decay so much that workers have to pay through their noses to access these services. With the collapse of public education especially, vast majority of working class and middle class families depend on private schools which charge a fortune. The same goes for public healthcare which is almost inexistent. In the absence of modern and cheap public transportation, workers expend a big proportion of their income on transportation. This is in addition to wasting several useful hours to and fro work daily because virtually all roads are in terrible shape. Electricity supply has so much collapsed that many working families no matter how poor still have to struggle to buy and fuel generators in order to ensure they do not fully descend into the dark ages.
Despite all these attacks and some of the mass resistance that has developed against them either by students, teachers, education workers, communities etc, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress (ULC) have failed to provide leadership by mobilising for united actions that can strengthen these struggles and ensure they win. To begin to convince Nigerians that it means the above statement, the labour leadership have to draw up a real programme of struggle to begin to mobilise on a consistent basis against all the anti-poor policies and attacks in each sectors in collaborations with unions, organisations and groups that are already doing their best to build resistance on the ground. Only this, and not issuance of threat, will provide a guarantee against an erosion of workers wage.
Strike Threat without Preparation
Another important lesson to draw is the question of the role of mass mobilisation and actions in any labour dispute. Throughout the negotiation, the labour leadership kept dangling the question of a strike as a threat but not as something it was prepared to actually carry out. This was in spite of the huge mood of anger among rank and file workers.
In fact, during the month of September, as the negotiation dragged on without any end in sight, members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and Campaign for Democratic and Workers Rights (CDWR) visited different workplaces in Lagos, Osun, Oyo and Abuja to circulate leaflets urging a one day warning general strike and mass protest. This was received enthusiastically by workers. On Teachers’ Day on October 5 2019, members of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) in Ajeromi Ifeolodun Local Government, Lagos voted unanimously in support of a warning general strike and asked their representatives to communicate their decision to their state and national leadership.
When eventually October 17 was named as the day for a general strike, something which the labour leadership later denied, one could see from the mood in the country and also the panic within government circles that it could have been a successful action provided it was seriously mobilised for.
We can go on and on to point to evidence that shows that the vast majority of members wanted a strike action. If the labour leadership had called and mobilised seriously for a warning strike with nationwide mass protests, not only could it have won a higher percentage adjustment, it also would have sent the right warning to the state Governors and private employers that the labour movement would accept nothing less than full implementation of the minimum wage without retrenchment. This would have helped to energise the base of the movement and prepare the unions at the state levels to be able to take up their state governments who are habitual violators of the minimum wage law.
The long and short of the above-outlined arguments is that the labour leadership as presently constituted lack a coherent and scientific working class ideology that can ensure that they lead serious struggles to defend the interest of the working class and other layers of the oppressed. As the struggle for implementation of the N30, 000 national minimum wage moves to States, this ideological weakness which is even more graphic among state leadership of the labour centres and union affiliates can further inhibit the capacity of the labour movement to win the best possible concession for workers.
Not only will Nigerian workers have to confront in the weeks and months to come vicious and anti-poor State Governors who have become accustomed to short-changing workers with the connivance of labour leaders but also there are in many states a big accumulation of unpaid arrears of the old N18, 000 national minimum wage. Some states are owing arrears of 22 months, 48 months etc. In these states, any mobilisation to effect the implementation of the new N30, 000 minimum wage may face not only the stumbling block of unwilling anti-poor state governors but also workers who are unenthusiastic to fight for a new wage when the old ones are not even paid. This means that the N30, 000 minimum wage may be un-implementable in many states. This is a price workers are paying for having leaders whose interests and moods are often at cross purposes with those they lead. Nonetheless, workers and activists have to continue to agitate and demand from national labour leadership centrally coordinated struggles for full implementation of minimum wage without retrenchment, including solidarity strikes and other actions, so that no categories of workers, be it in state or private sector employment, will be isolated or short-changed.
Ultimately, there is an urgent need to fight for the emergence of a Marxist leadership for the labour movement armed with scientific programmes of struggle. By Marxist, we mean a bold and courageous leadership that is able to fight for the best possible improvement for workers’ pay and conditions under capitalism while simultaneously building a mass workers political alternative for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a workers and poor people’s government armed with socialist policies.
However for such a leadership to emerge, workers activists need to be active in campaigning for the rebuilding of the trade union movement starting with demands for more internal democracy to give rank and file the right and power to determine union policies etc. A starting point is the need for activists to begin to organise within the unions to place demands on their leadership to organise serious struggles to consistently defend the rights and conditions of workers and for full implementation of the N30, 000 minimum wage without retrenchment.