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7 November 2018
But for last minute suspension, a big general strike (certainly bigger than any other in the last three and a half years) could have rocked Nigeria starting in the early hours of Tuesday November 6, 2018. The strike was called off just before midnight on Monday 5 November 2018 after an 11-hour marathon meeting of the minimum wage tripartite committee. The key issue had become labour's demand for an increase of the current N18, 000 minimum wage to a higher wage figure of N30, 000. Labour had initially demanded about N65, 000 from which it climbed down during negotiations.
Although probably such a strike would not have matched the January 2012 general strike and mass protest in scale and fury; yet it could have become the starting point of a mass movement led by the working class and organized labour and been a bold example to the pauperized people whose frenzied hope for change three and a half years ago has been replaced by anger, disappointment and complacency. For a graphic illustration of the mood and possibilities if the strike had gone ahead, a brief report in the Guardian newspaper (7/11/2018) titled "Kwara workers refuse to suspend strike" tells of how many workers shunned their offices and workplaces on the day of the strike despite the announcement of suspension. According to the paper, "Checks by The Guardian in Ilorin, the state capital, showed that only one-third of workers at both the federal and state secretariats turned up. It was the same in places like the Governor's Office along Ahmadu Bello Way, ministries of finance, education, lands and housing, health and information. Many public primary and post-primary schools recorded scanty attendance of pupils, as many of the teachers shunned duties. Some of the workers, who spoke under condition of anonymity, expressed shock by the decision of labour to back out of the proposed strike, 'having initially directed us to stock our stores and pantries with foodstuff'."
Very clearly, the government and the labour bureaucracy knew they were on the eve of a major class confrontation. This explains the feverish effort over the past few days to both compel and cajole the labour leadership to suspend the strike. Seeing that a court order hastily procured last Friday would be defied, the regime reconvened a meeting of the tripartite committee of the minimum wage negotiation to resume negotiation. The meeting lasted from 11am to 11pm, on the eve of the strike.
This could have been the most combative general strike in terms of scale of compliance to be led by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and United Labour Congress (ULC) since the inception of the Buhari regime. At the November 5 joint meeting of the three labour centres and the Joint Action Front (JAF), the mood of activists of the affiliate unions was unmistakably combative. Unlike previous strikes, many of the affiliate unions had sent strike compliance notices to all their branches at least 48 hours to the strike. Also, rallies had been held nationwide on October 30 to mobilise the public. In speeches after speeches, workers leaders vowed to shut down their respective sectors. The airports and seaports were to be shutdown, government secretariats to be shut, all public schools closed, banks and finance houses to be picketed. The chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Lagos Chapter, vowed to pull the popular danfo buses off the road. This would ensure that the strike hit the massive informal sector if the threat had been carried out.
A central strike monitoring committee was set up to move round the city to enforce compliance and provide support to unions where needed. As the meeting concluded, every one scurried either home or to other meetings; loud rendition of the traditional solidarity song that often starts and ends such meetings carelessly forgotten. Everyone was going to have a short night's rest, if any. Activists of the airport unions were reportedly to sleep at the union offices. If they would ensure no plane flies, then they must rise before dawn. By 5:30 am, the working class everywhere would be asserting itself as the master of society.
On the long drive home, Lagos was bustling as usual but with an air of apprehension. Everyone, whether directly or indirectly connected to the strike, whether in support or not, was doing their best to prepare. Long queues were reported at Automated Teller Machines and last minute purchases of food items at the markets. On the car stereo, the dominant discussion was the strike. Usually at that time of the evening, Lagos radios often play music interspersed with general interesting and social discussions. The whole idea is to help tired commuters to bear the daily horror of long traffic as they find their way home after another day of toil. This night was different. The music played, loud and boisterous, but the discussion was mostly serious and political. The working class was stirring and the whole of society was held in a mood of expectancy.
But despite these positive signals, the readiness of the leadership was uncertain. At the strike meeting in Lagos, despite the air of battle-readiness, there were no leaflets and scant attention paid to logistics. Only the Joint Action Front (JAF) had printed leaflets in preparation for the next day. Key national labour leaders who would lead the strike enforcement at various cities were still holed up at the long meeting with the government in Abuja. If no agreement was struck, then they would have to find their way to their duty posts by midnight. But within the movement, everyone knew that true to type, the labour leadership could suspend the action midnight if it gets anything, even if only a verbal promise, from the regime because it understand clearly that this general strike represented a major class confrontation which could open a dam of discontent.
How did a struggle for minimum wage get to a point whereby it commands the attention of the entire population? Truly, the organized workers in Nigeria who are to directly benefit from the winning of a higher wage are a fraction of the population. But against the background of a neo-colonial capitalist economy where unemployment is at record numbers, it is only the wages of the workers which circulates into the informal sector. The Buhari regime prides itself on having pulled Nigeria from recession but vast layers of the population continue to see their living standard plummet. This year, under a regime that promised change, Nigeria became the poverty capital of the world. Therefore, a higher minimum wage is the only means through which the so-called exit from recession and consequential economic growth can get to many layers of the population especially those in the informal sector like traders, transporters, artisans etc.
Also, the minimum wage debate is in many ways a litmus test for a capitalist regime whose political representatives swim in opulence. Regardless of their attitude to the question, many could not stomach the spectacle of overpaid and overfed politicians claiming the government cannot afford a N30, 000 minimum wage in a country where a senator earns at least N13.5 million monthly allowance. All of these meant that the general strike if it had gone ahead had a chance of enjoying some measure of popular support. A successful strike would also have bolstered the confidence of the mass of oppressed people to confront the regime on other demands.
The current minimum wage is N18, 000 – an amount whose real value has been severely eroded by inflation and a fall in the value of the currency. As negotiation progressed, labour's negotiators climbed down from Labour's initial demand of N65, 000 to N30, 000 but even this inadequate amount led to furious protest from the Governors and the Federal Government. In accordance with Nigeria's labour laws, the minimum wage is meant to be negotiated every five years between the trade unions through the labour centres and representatives of the Federal Government, State governments and private sector. The current N18, 000 minimum wage was enacted in 2011 after two years of struggle and ought to have been renegotiated in 2016.
But the class collaborationist policy of the labour leadership manifesting in a sympathetic attitude towards the Buhari regime at inception meant that the government was given a large elbow room to maneuver and drag the process up till now. This class collaborationist stance which has always been the hallmark of the bureaucracy was given a boost by the general mood of hope and illusion in the new regime when it emerged in 2015. But as the regime's anti-poor and pro-capitalist character became more pronounced and mass disappointment deepened, the question of wages both in terms of backlog of salaries and pensions and the need for a higher wage figure became an issue capable of accelerating the mass discontent building up in society. Labour should not have accepted this over two year delay in increasing the minimum wage. This was not an abstract point to debate about, it had a real effect on worsening the lives of millions.
By the suspension of the strike, the regime has gained some more time but for how long before the movement breaks out again? This is because against the background of a stalling economic growth and unrelenting global crisis of capitalism, Nigeria's capitalist ruling elite cannot guarantee better living standards for the working class. Therefore any promise to pay a higher wage must be taken with a pinch of salt. Only mass struggle can force implementation. Without struggle, once the 2019 general elections are over, both the government and private employers of labour will certainly renege. This was the experience with the ongoing minimum wage enacted a few weeks to general elections in 2011 but which many state governments have defaulted on the implementation till date. In a situation where workers in over 10 states are still not being paid their back salaries, there is a danger that even if the new minimum wage is formally agreed, it is not paid.
According to media reports, as he announced suspension of the strike, the NLC president could not pronounce the figure that the committee agreed to. It seems there was no consensus on the minimum wage figure. The tripartite committee seemed to have struck a bargain to present to the President the figure of N30, 000 supported by labour and the private sector while equally noting that the Federal Government team strongly pushed for a lower figure of N24, 000 on the basis of "affordability" and "sustainability". The state governors had earlier argued that they could only pay N22, 500, citing their purported difficulty to even pay N18, 000 minimum wage. This suggests that most state governors will not willingly pay the new minimum wage. They could be silent on their objection now because of the incoming elections. Even the presidency has refuted the report that President Buhari accepted N30, 000 as the new minimum wage meaning a lower figure could be presented to the national assembly for enactment. All of these show the struggle is not yet over.
Today, November 7, the Nation newspaper quoted the NLC president as saying "payment of the new wage might be difficult at the beginning of implementation". This, coming out of the mouth of a labour leader, can only be seen as giving a green light to governments for further delays! Workers have to be prepared to return to the barricades again and again until victory is won. This is why instead of demobilizing, the intervening weeks need to be utilized by the labour movement to review, assess and map out a programme of action both on the minimum wage and to resist the pro-capitalist attacks on workers, students, youth and all layers of the oppressed masses.
Interestingly, the support of the private sector for N30, 000 means nothing in practical terms. They have no problem supporting a higher figure since many private employers of labour are always known not to pay minimum wage. In fact wages and working conditions in the private sector are some of the worst with casualization being the order of the day and the labour movement after winning an increase in wages rarely commits to ensure implementation at the different factories and companies. It is the federal and state governments that are the most pivotal stakeholders when it comes to winning a minimum wage demand and their hostility to N30, 000 only means that this retreat will be temporary. However, even if for the purpose of looking good for the next general elections, a new minimum wage of N30, 000 is enacted into law, it would take only serious mass struggle for implementation to be achieved. At the moment, more than ten states are owing several months of salaries and pensions.
Therefore, regardless of how the labour bureaucracy continues to maneuver, it would not be able to avoid calling for strikes and mass struggle again and again. Against this background, the suspension of the strike is only a short pause. But for future strike actions, which will be inevitable over implementation of the new minimum wage and other issues, to be successful, it would require the role of an active rank and file which mobilizes from below and is able to take initiative for every struggle including determining through democratic discussions at all levels of the movement when to call actions and when to suspend. A struggle or strike movement cannot be turned on and off like a switch, the failure of the May 2016 strike should be remembered as a warning of how not to mobilise.
Ultimately, except for minimal improvements here and there, the capitalist system cannot guarantee on a sustained basis a living wage for workers. Only the democratic and collective running of the economy by the working class under a socialist plan can ensure that Nigeria's massive wealth is judiciously used to meet the needs of all instead of the greed of a few. This is why alongside with a persistent struggle to win improvements for workers, labour needs, alongside combative unions, a political vehicle, a mass workers political party, to fight for the kind of Nigeria that can afford a living wage for workers. The Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN), registered by the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and others, can be a starting point if it is supported by the labour movement, the left and the working class at large.