Perspective is not an oracular statement, and nobody has a crystal ball to predict exactly the direction of event. However, perspectives give an idea of the way events are likely to move in the future. In Drawing up perspectives for the Nigerian Trade Union Movement, it is highly imperative to critically look at the present state of the Trade Unions and also study the objective conditions that led to this present state. Trotsky said seventy three years ago, “there is one common feature in the degeneration of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing together closely to and growing together with the state power”. This assertion is much more correct today than seventy three years ago when it was written. The situation in the ex-colonial countries like Nigeria is even much more terrible. This is because the ex-colonial countries are under the sway not only of native capitalism but of foreign imperialism.
Present State of Trade Unions and Labour Party in Nigeria
The present state of trade union in Nigeria is no doubt lamentable. The leadership is highly corrupt and completely disconnected from the workers they claim to be representing. Their role in the anti fuel price increment general strike in 2012 readily comes to mind. In fact, their action was what saved the corrupt Jonathan regime and allowed the fuel price increase to stay. The labour leadership for years has been consistently disappointing the populace. The way and manner they chickened out on the pension protest this year was also highly disappointing. Their position on the recent state of emergency in three states in north is also very unfortunate. Instead of labour leadership to maintain a class position that the government cannot be trusted to put an end to Boko Haram insurgency because of the most important fact that they were the one that created this gangsters. And that it is only the government of the workers and the poor people that can put an end to this menace, but they went ahead to support the government.
There is complete ideological collapse within the trade union movement. Most of the trade union leaders do not even understand the ideological essence of trade unionism. There is absence of internal democracy within the trade union. Ordinary workers have no influence on who become their leaders. In most instances, the state imposed their stooge on the union. The example of the last NLC election in Lagos state is a striking confirmation of how state manipulates and imposes their stooge on the union.
This present state of the union also has direct effect on the party that was set up by the labour leadership. i.e the Labour Party. The party has been completely taken away from its primary constituency, which is the working class and has been hijacked by failed bourgeois politicians that have nothing to do with labour.
This present lamentable state of the trade union has made many left elements in Nigeria to draw different conclusions.
Some argued that because the trade union leadership has been consistently disappointing the Nigerian people, they conclude that they will always disappoint the people. Therefore, they completely turn their back on the whole apparatus of the working class and look elsewhere for another class that can lead the people.
Some said that since the trade union leadership is corrupt and degenerate, the best thing to do is to go directly and penetrate the rank and file of the workers over the head of the leadership. What this people failed to understand is the fact that there was an objective basis for this degeneration. What need to be done is to carefully study this objective condition in order to draw up the correct future perspective for the movement.
How did we get here?
The present trade union degeneration has its root from prolonged global capitalist upswing. For a whole historical period, capitalism was growing. This period coincided with when the Stalinist degenerate regime, which was a caricature of socialism in USSR stagnated and eventually collapsed. Marxists throughout the world were on defensive. There was complete ideological collapsed. Many left leaning individuals who were looking up to Soviet Union could not give explanations for what had happened. Bourgeois apologists came up with many assertions. Notably among them was Francis Fukuyama who proclaimed “the end of history”, “Socialism had ended, history had ended”. Trotsky had long time ago predicted the collapse Stalinism in the Soviet Union, but unfortunately when it collapsed, the Soviet workers could not take power because the weakness of forces genuine Marxism within the workers’ movement. Rather power fall into the hands of the pro-capitalist wing of the same degenerate Stalinist bureaucracy who took the country via capitalist restoration. This coupled with the fact that global capitalist upswing was on still rise then gave rise to labour leaders globally moving more to the right or reformist. Reformist ideology and reformist labour leadership who believe that the contradiction between labour and capital can still be resolved within the confine of capitalism. Trotsky called this period “period of counter revolution in democratic forms”
This objective condition created the present crops of Trade union reformist leadership throughout the world.
Is this the first time in the history of Nigeria that the Trade Union Movement will be in this state?
This question became highly imperative because of the way and manner this present state of trade unions in Nigeria is being exaggerated as if this is the first time the union will be passing through this state. The history of the Trade Union Movement in Nigeria point to the fact that the movement in Nigeria has passed through similar terrible conditions. Examples abound in history to proof this. Before the 1945 general strike that paralyzed the colonial administration in Nigeria for 45 days, which was the first general in Nigeria, the state of Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUCN) headed by T.A Bankole, which was the first labour center in the country, then was very terrible. The leadership was extremely corrupt and was part and parcel of the colonial administration. When the then commissioner of labour told the TUCN leaders that the strike ultimatum had not followed laid down procedures, which requires a formal report to the colonial governor who has 21-days within which to act. The leaders agreed with him and went about convincing the unions to shelve the strike action. If not for the intervention of Imoudu, the 1945 general strike would not have taken place. On the eve of the strike ultimatum’s expiration, the national labour leaders issued a statement that the proposed strike, which should have come into effect from midnight of June 21 1945, has been postponed. This was when Imoudu intervened and said the negotiation has failed, so the strike must go on as scheduled. This statement coincided with the mood of the rank-file workers and Imoudu put himself at the head of the movement. This particular act was what earned him the title “Labour Leader number one”.
Also in 1976, the Muritala/Obasanjo regime banned NLC, and banned labour leaders that were perceived as being radical i.e Imoudu, Wahab Goodluck, etc, from partaking in trade union activities. The regime also promulgated a decree name as “disqualification of certain persons act 15” to back this act up. This was done successfully only because the collaboration with elements within the leadership of the trade unions. Five months later, this regime also imposed a wage freeze on workers and there was no resistance from the workers. General Babangida administration also banned NLC in 1988 and imposed an employer, Micheal Ogunkoya as Sole administrator. General Abacha administration also banned NUPENG and PENGASSAN and imposed sole administrators on them.
The above assertions are striking confirmation of the fact that the trade union movement in Nigeria has gone through several terrible periods in the past. One thing that stands out is the fact that despite all these vicious attack on the Trade union organizations, the unions always come out of it due to workers fight back. This confirms the fact that no power on earth can destroy the revolutionary will of the working class. We saw this in the 1981 general strike over the minimum wage and pension led by Comrade Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu. This strike took the Shagari administration by surprise. As far as the government and many in the society were concerned, the labour movement was finished since they have banned all the perceived radicals within the labour movement. After the ban was lifted in 1978, nobody paid attention to the election of Adabayo Sunmonu who was from the senior cadre of the civil service. What better way to bury the unions than to hand them over to a government employee from the traditionally conservative civil service but events and general strike put an end to this notion.
The history of the trade union movement in Nigeria also confirms the fact that when workers want to move, i.e. struggle, they always move through their traditional organizations. Despite the nature of its leadership, Trade unions have always led or been part of all the major mass movement in Nigeria. For example, the 1945 general strike that laid the basis for Nigerian independence, 1981 general strike, about nine general strikes under Oshiomole against fuel price increment and the 9-days general strike in 2012 against subsidy removal on fuel.
With all these magnificent movement of Nigerian working class, one would have expected that by now at least they ought to have a political party that they can call their own, not in the name but in contents. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Nigerian workers and the poor have been left for decades with no alternative party to turn to during election aside from choosing between various bourgeois parties, which practically stands for the same programme and interest. There have been various attempts in the past by the Trade Union Leadership to form a political party for the workers and the poor, but this has not been successful because of two reasons. One is the class collaborationist method of the labour leadership and two is the problem of the national question, which has always been playing a role in Nigerian politics. During the colonial rule in Nigeria, the main agitation was for independence and self-rule. The trade union leadership did not feel the need for workers to have their own separate political party. The main political party then, which was NNDP, also have labour leaders as their members. In fact, after the 1945 general strike, instead of leadership of that movement to use the achievement and the mood after the strike to launch a workers party, Imoudu that led the strike was incorporated into the executive of NCNC, which was a bourgeois political party. Also in 1989, Labour Leader formed the NLC, but the party was not registered by the then Babangida regime this was due to collaborative role the labour leaders played in watering down the programs of the party and choosing not to fight IBB for the registration of the party. They chose to play what they then called “politics of registration”. This ‘politics’ weakened the based of the party and when IBB banned all the parties then and formed two government parties, instead of the leaders of the party to continue building and maintaining their independent programme and action, they advised their members to move into SDP, which was a bourgeois party.
The first attempt to form a workers party in Nigeria was made by Wahab Goodluck in 1963. The Socialist Workers and Farmers Party, SWAFP, was formed. This party was formed by Nigerian Trade Union Congress (NTUC). Goodluck also contested in 1964/65 elections as a SWAFP candidate in the Lagos constituency. But unfortunately, the party did not have a national spread; it was restricted to the south-west. Workers in various regions belonged to their various regional political parties. This is the reason why the 1964 general strike called by trade union leadership, which was purely political strike, failed because workers belonged to different political parties. Most of them do not see SWAFP as their own political party. They rather joined their regional party.
The present Labour Party formed by the Labour leadership has not for one day took off as a genuine party of workers. Rather, it was formed by the Labour leadership, not willingly but because of the pressure from below and later abandoned to various careerists who are now using the party for their own selfish interest.
The present state of the Trade union is not something new and is not going to be permanent. There was an objective basis for this present state and that objective situation is now presently changing. Capitalism throughout the world is in crisis. The economic crises in Greece, Cyprus, Spain, UK, etc are striking confirmation of this fact. Capitalism has reached a stage where it can no longer grant concessions like it had done in the past. There cannot be reformism without reform. But this does not mean that the leadership of the trade union will now turn to revolutionary leadership overnight.
What it means is that they are now going to be under enormous pressure from their ranks to lead. Like Trotsky said in “Trade Unionism in the epoch of imperialist decay” that in this present epoch that is in the epoch of monopoly capitalism, trade unions cannot be neutral. It is either they are incorporated into the state or they are struggling to overthrow the state. The present reformist labour leadership are already incorporated into the state. Unfortunately, this reformist labour leadership at the head a movement of millions of workers. Marxists within this movement have the responsibility to win these millions of workers away from this corrupt leadership.
The way to do this is not by shrill denunciation of the leadership or by turning our back to the whole apparatus of the working class but by concretely placing demands before them. When we place demand on the reformist labour leadership, we are doing this not because we have any iota of believe that they are not going to betray because we know that the role of reformism whether left or right is to betray but because we want to expose them before the ranks and file of the workers and win them away from this corrupt leadership.
The decrease in the number of the organized Trade union cannot be a hindrance because this numbers are still the one creating the wealth of the society. In the 1945 first general strike that grounded Nigeria for 45-days, 42,000 workers participated out of a total population of 23 million, eight hundred populace. We also saw their power in 2012, during the anti subsidy removal general strike. Immediately the labour leadership chicken out of the strike that was the end. Even those that were boasting that even if Labour called off the strike, they were going to continue, were not able to do anything after the strike was called off. This confirms the fact that the working class is the most powerful class in the capitalist society that can successfully challenge the rule of capital. This is not accidental; it is basically because of the role they play in capitalist production. No wheel turns and no bulb shines without their permission.
No power on earth can stop the revolutionary will of the working class to change society. At an appropriate time, the workers will definitely hold their leadership accountable. Genuine Marxist can quicken this process by not turning their back to the whole organization or by setting up another organization for workers because their leaders are corrupt but by participating in the day to day struggle of the working class, shoulder to shoulder with them as they learn through the experience of their day to day struggle.