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8 May 2017

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ANGER AND REVOLT BY WORKERS ON MAY DAY: Labour leadership under pressure to match workers' anger with bold actions

Prepare for 24 general strike and mass protest over unpaid salary/pension and for increase in Minimum wage without retrenchment

AN OPEN LETTER TO LABOUR LEADERS

The anger and revolt of workers across May Day centres on 1st May 2017 are dire warnings to the capitalist ruling elite and particularly the Buhari/APC government that the working masses will no longer accept their excuses for the impoverishment, joblessness and destitution which has been the hallmark of the administration since it came to power two years ago.

Most importantly, the revolt is equally a wakeup call and challenge to the labour leadership to take action or risk being replaced by leaders prepared to seriously struggle. It is the existing labour leaders' weakness and impotence in the face of unrelenting neo-liberal attacks on the living conditions of the working masses that is responsible for the explosion of anger and protests at May Day venues in Abuja and elsewhere across the country despite the best efforts of union officials to keep the May Day as a jamboree.

At Agege stadium in Lagos, a small crowd of protesters made up of dockworkers, Dangote truck workers, the scavengers association and civil society activists marched with placards making demands on government and the bosses. In Minna, the Secretary to the State Government (SSG) was forced to stand in the sun to address workers. In many other places including Edo and Kano, the simmering anger was unmistakable.

At Eagle Square in Abuja in particular, a larger-than-usual crowd of workers in their thousands thronged the May Day venue hoping to hear a definitive pronouncement from the Buhari government on the clamour for increase of the national minimum wage from N18, 000 to between N56, 000. Even before the May Day event started, the anger of the workers and the fact that the only thing on their mind was the issue of increase in the minimum wage was undisguised. They were however disappointed when the President, whose illness and possible incapacitation is being covered up by his aides and spokespersons, failed to turn up but instead sent his flamboyant Minister of labour and productivity, Chris Ngige – a move interpreted by many workers to mean that the government does not place enough importance on their plight and in particular their agitation for a review of the minimum wage.

Further provocative to the workers was when the Minister of Labour, while seated, asked a permanent secretary in his ministry to read his own speech since he was at the event as representative of President Buhari. This led to workers protesting, chanting solidarity songs, taking over the podium and halting further proceedings and sending the dignitaries which included the Minister of Labour, the Senate president and others scurrying out of the venue in fright. Indicative that the anger of workers is not just directed at agents of the capitalist ruling elite but also their own leadership, none of the labour leaders present succeeded in calming the workers. Not even the former NLC president-turned-ruling party politician, Adams Oshiomhole, was able to pacify the angry workers. As he mounted the podium hoping to test his popularity with workers, shouts of "thief!" rented the air. So serious was the situation and so fearless were the workers that a water cannon truck brought into the venue to dislodge protesting workers was taken over by the workers with the police begging to get it back.

The revolt does not come as a surprise. Over the past two years, workers have experienced serious worsening in their income and living standards. Many have lost their jobs and for those still having jobs salaries and pensions are often not being paid as at when due. Over 20 states are working workers and retirees several months of backlog of salaries and pensions. This is aside cuts in salaries, deductions and non-remittance of workers cooperative contributions and other stealing of workers income by state and federal governments. Meanwhile in the midst of the economic recession, the politicians and business elite are seeing their wealth increase. In 2016, a handful of bank executives raked in N10.34 billion as dividend income – a 20.5% increase over the previous year! This together with a two-digit inflation and consequential rise in the prices of food and basic needs have made a mess of the N18, 000 minimum wage last increased in 2011 while swelling a fighting mood among rank and file workers for a review of the minimum wage.

Workers however feel that the labour leadership has not been fighting hard enough on any of these issues. Refusing to challenge the capitalist system, the labour leadership despite occasional radical press statements has unfortunately bought into the argument that the economic recession is an acceptable excuse for non-payment of workers salary and pensions. This is why instead of shutting down states where backlog of salaries and pensions are being owed with strikes and mass protests; the labour leadership has generally adopted a so-called diplomatic approach in which governors are now allowed to pay workers whatever they can afford depending on their monthly allocation from the federal government. As a result, many workers are receiving between 50% and 70% of their monthly salaries in many states across the country. University lecturers have been suffering a pay cut since December 2015 while the federal government owes federal workers N200 billion arrears of promotion, salaries and death remunerations.

Only a labour leadership fated to go down into the dustbin of history will ignore this dire warning from the working masses clearly expressed in anger and revolt on 1st of May 2017.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) therefore calls on the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress (ULC) to jointly immediately prepare for united bold actions which should include, as a first step, calling for a 24 hour general strike and mass protest to demand full payment of salaries and pensions as well as halt to deductions and non-remittance of workers cooperative going on in the states across the country. Such an action should also be used to kick-start a nationwide struggle for an immediate and unconditional increase in the national minimum wage without retrenchment.

The approach adopted by labour so far which involves relying on sections of the capitalist ruling elite to support the demand for a new minimum wage will only end up in disappointment. Whatever support the National Assembly as a whole or some of its members may have given to the minimum wage demand is simply lip-service support motivated by the inter-party crisis within the ruling party and between the Federal Executive and the National Assembly. Only the mobilization of the mass of the working people in general strikes and mass protest can win increase in the minimum wage and ensure that its implementation across board both in the public sector and private sector without retrenchment.

If the labour leadership is not prepared to fight hard, then it is the responsibility of rank and file workers and activists to change them and replace them with those who share the life of workers, feel their pains and are prepared to struggle. Enough is enough of endlessly waiting for the bureaucratic labour leadership to act. Sometimes when they act, the labour leadership end up as a break on struggle as it happened during the January 2012 struggle against subsidy removal. Therefore to kick-start the struggle for a new minimum wage and ensure it is not abruptly called-off mid-way by the bureaucratic labour leaders, it is essential that rank and file workers and activists seize the initiative by building from below within the workplaces and affiliate unions independent platforms like strike/action committees whose members must be democratically elected by the workers themselves to coordinate the struggle and ensure it is not betrayed.

Dagga Tolar
Acting General Secretary, DSM