BY ISA AREMU, VICE PRESIDENT, NLC
The history of the country’s labour movement is linked to the history, progress and development of Nigeria’s economy in the last fifty years. Nigeria achieved independence through protracted constitutional negotiations that spanned a decade. The relatively peaceful road to independence in Nigeria contrasts sharply to years of bloody armed struggles that heralded freedom in OTHER countries. Nigeria’s relative peaceful road to freedom, notwithstanding, the long struggle to the independence was also characterized by mass resistance, mass strikes and protests, enormous sacrifices largely by Nigerian workers, their trade unions and labour movement. Colonial political economy was founded on the exploitative principle. The colony served as a source of cheaper raw materials for metropolitan Britain as well as A MARKET for ITS goods. To achieve this goal, the British colonizers built railways to facilitate the extraction of raw materials like cotton and ground nuts from the North, cocoa from the West and palm kernel from the East as well as mine products from Plateau. The first generation of workers emerged from the nascent colonial economic and administrative structures. Colonial authority preferred forced unpaid labour but was challenged by the workers. In essence, the colonial order prompted the emergence of early working class movement in Nigeria. In between the two world wars, (from 1919 and 1945) the British colonial economy intensified colonial exploitation through direct increased taxation, retrenchment of the workforce, wage cuts, casualisation and hourly payments. These periods also marked the radicalization of the country’s labour movement. The high point of labour’s resistance was in 1941 when Nigeria’s railway men led by Micheal Imoudu and the union’s secretary, Mr Adenekan matched through streets of Lagos to see Governor Sir Bernard Bourdillion. The protest led to major victories for the workers in terms of improved wages and abolition of hourly pay system. Subsequent labour agitations such as the 44 day strikes of 1945 led by labour NO 1 Micheal Imoudu and the 1949 Enugu coal Iva Valley massacre in which 22 coal miners were brutally killed by the colonial police for daring to demand for wage arrears. These agitations linked the demand for better working conditions in particular with the demand for independence in general. Nationalists like Dr Nmadi Azikwe and Obafemi Awolowo backed the demands of the trade unions, deploying their journalist prowess to pressure the colonial authorities to improve the workers’ lot. Today Nigeria prides itself with a tested and robust labour movement led by two labour Federations namely the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC). Of the two labour federations, NLC is the oldest. It was formed independently by the workers as far back as August 1950. IT WAS officially restructured in 1978 by the military regime of Murtala/Obasanjo. This means NLC is effectively 32 years old, a product of independent Nigeria. NLC is a mega labour centre in Africa with over four million members organized in 36 industrial unions across the public and private sectors of the economy. NLC is only rivalled in terms of independence and self assertion by South Africa’s labour Federation, Council of South Africa trade Unions, (COSATU). Since independence, the Nigerian trade union movement has led series of struggles for decent work agenda. The notable achievement is in the area of national minimum wage. From the Harragin, Turdo-Davis, Miller Commissions of the pre-colonial period to Adebo, Udoji, Shagari, 2000 minimum wage reviews and the current minimum wage Commission of the recent times. NLC has also led the resistance against polices such as fuel price increases without which the earning and purchasing power of the working class would have been eroded by inflation. The trade union has served as backbone for the first developmental effort of the newly independent Nigeria during the first and second Republics. Nigeria recorded dramatic growth rate in the first decade after independence, WHICH averaged 12 per cent and made it one of the fast growing economy surpassing then Malaysia, India and even China. This growth rate in non-oil sector especially in agriculture and nascent emerging manufacturing sector must be attributed to the productivity, patriotism and diligence of the country’s first generation workforce. During the civil war of late 60s, labour movement was a unifying force for national unity. Trade union movement remains today a formidable pan-Nigerian organization that unites all Nigerian workers for a common purpose regardless of their states and status. Significantly labour championed the struggle against military dictatorships with enormous sacrifices that included dissolutions of its elected executive councils. As a democratic independent organization that holds periodic elections and hold elected leaders accountable, THE labour movement is a leading civil society actor pushing for greater democracy in Nigeria. The challenge lies in how the labour movement will contribute to the growth and development of Nigeria in the next fifty years. As Nigeria marks 50th independence anniversary, government, employers and labour must search for a common ground to reinvent Nigeria for a sustainable development and social justice for all. Government and labour must work out a new development agenda that will make Nigeria one of the leading socially responsive economies of the world in the nearest future. As the country prepares for a historic general election, the nation looks forward to the labour movement that will constructively task the varying contestants to face up to critical governance issues as campaign issues and make sure that the vote of one man, one woman is truly counted in 2011.
Source: recorded live from FRCN daily commentary