Beginning from  today, we will be serialising OWEI LAKEMFA’s latest work: “One hundred years of trade unionism in Nigeria” for your delight.

INTRODUCTION: The Trade unions which have featured prominently in our national life from colonial times will be one hundred years old on Sunday August 19, 2012. In other words, the trade unions formally existed two years before Nigeria became a country.

In colonial times, the primary focus of the unions were inflation, cost of living, working conditions and higher wages. They were also preoccupied with issues like nationalism and the war against racial discrimination especially in wages paid African workers and their white colleagues and access to facilities like hotels and public places.

Other issues the unions took up were building Pan-Nigerian and Pan-African consciousness. Unlike most other organizations, the trade unions from beginning transcended the parochialism of ethnicity, religion and regionalism.

Protesters at the Gani Fawehinmi Park Ojota,Lagos

The trade unionists were passionately committed to the working people and the cause of liberation. They built a culture of collective leadership, mass meetings, rallies and aligning workers with the larger society. Workers were a major force and vehicle in the anti colonial struggles, the fight for independence and good governance.

In contemporary times, the issues in the trade unions remain the challenges of inflation and a living wage.They also face challenges of good governance, corruption, casualisaton, currency devaluation, factory closures, mass sack and constant increases in the prices of petroleum products. Over the ages, the Labour Movement has etched itself in the consciousness of the Nigerian people. Today, it remains a major movement that millions of Nigerians across all divides, look up to accept and defer to.  These series are a celebration of trade unionism in Nigeria in the last one hundred years.

Politics and the Unionist: Colonialism was about domination, subjugation and exploitation of the human and natural resources of the colonized. It was about enslavement, and the colonized  people accepting their  fate or be severely punished. Any dissent, even over working conditions was seen as protest, rejection of the colonial system or nationalist agitations, all of which were punishable offences. Therefore, to be a trade unionist, or defend basic rights under the colonial system was to be seen as a dangerous person.

So trade unionism was wedded to partisan politics; to be a trade unionist was to be a politician. So many of the leading trade unionists in colonial Nigeria were partisan politicians, and a number like Gogo Chu Nzeribe, Nduka Eze, Haroon Adebola and Samuel Udoh Bassey won elections into parliament at federal and regional levels.

Most successful trade unionist

Perhaps the most successful trade unionist who transformed into a partisan politician was Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo who founded the Nigeria Produce Traders Association. He was also Secretary of the Nigeria Motor Transport Union. When on July 31, 1943 at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos, Labour leaders gathered to found the first labour centre in the country, Chief Awolowo led his union to the event.

There, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUCN, was founded. T. A. Bankole was elected the new TUCN President, Chief A. Soyemi Coker as Vice President, M. A. Tokunboh as Secretary General, P. S. Taiwo, the Treasurer, and Chief Awolowo as Secretary/Editor of the TUC publication, The Nigerian Worker.

The publication was an instant success and a thorn in the flesh of the colonialists which branded it subversive and banned the publication. Chief Awolowo proceeded to London, read Law and returned to found the Action Group. He was elected Premier of the Western Region in 1954, a position he held until 1959 when he went to the Federal level as leader of opposition. His administration of the Western Region is regarded by many as one of the best examples of good governance.

Another quite successful politician who crossed from trade unionism was Malam Aminu Kano, a teacher and leader of the Northern Nigeria Teachers Association. He was a consumate mass organizer and mobiliser who transferred his skills to organizing the downtrodden. He became known as the teacher of the TALAKAWAS  (the down trodden) and was a Minister of the Federal Republic.

It is instructive that when in the 1960s the political class was in crisis and the credibility of elections was in doubt, the Tafawa-Balewa government reached out to a full time trade unionist, E.E. Esua, the then Secretary General of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, NUT, to head the Federal Electoral Commission.

Successful politician

Another trade unionist, Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, a former teacher at the Government Teachers College, Minna, and a former national officer of the Nigeria Union of Teachers also became a successful politician. He is currently the governor of Niger State. Perhaps the best known trade unionist today who crossed into politics is Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, NLC President from January 1999 to February 2007. He is currently in his second term as Edo State Governor.

The 1945 General Strike that defined a nation: Nigeria was amalgamated into one country in 1914. However, the consciousness of it being a country amongst the people was forged in 1945 when the entire populace responded to the first general strike in 1945. It was also a strike that struck the most devastating blow against colonialism in the country.

The events that led to this started with a February 10 meeting by representatives of technical workers. That meeting set up a Joint Executive of Government Technical Workers. On March 22, this body sent a letter to the colonial regime demanding a two shillings, six pence minimum wage and a 50 per cent increase in the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) back-dated to April 1, 1944.

The colonialists replied this letter on May 2, 1945. While it agreed that inflation was on the rise, the colonial government blamed the public for this arguing that “Unless the public is willing to do without, or reduce the consumption of commodities which are scarce, or to substitute other commodities for them, instead of taking the least line of resistance and buying (regardless of value and price control) in the black market, no benefit will result from increasing cost of living allowance.”

Seventeen days after the government’s reply, technical and manual workers held a mass meeting at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos. The communiqué of that meeting deplored “… the callous attitude of Govern­ment to the sufferings of the masses of African Workers.” It also accused the colonialists of practicing divide-rule tactics amongst Africans “by the extension of local allowances to Africans holding so-called European posts.”

Workers’ communique

The workers’ communiqué said that “…the situation can no longer be sustained.” It gave a one month ultimatum emphasizing that “not later than Thursday, June 21, 1945, the workers of Nigeria shall proceed to seek their own remedy with due regard to law and order on the one hand and starvation on the other” unless their demands are met.

These resolutions were passed to government on May 21. On May 23 leaders of the civil service met. At this meeting were the Civil Service Union president, J.A. Ojo and General Secretary, Osmond Osadebo; Union of Railwaymen president, C.O. Odugbesan, its Secretary, A. Oshosanwo; the chairman of the Committee of Africans Holding Superior Appointments, Mr. A. J. Marinho and the Committee’s secretary, Mr. S. O. Ogunyemi. They all signed a resolution endorsing the ultimatum for an all round COLA increase made by the Technical Workers.

On May 30, 1945 the colonialists met a delegation of the workers led by their President, T.A. Bankole. J.O. Erinle, A. Abosede and J. M. Osindero were on the delegation. Twelve days after this meeting, the colonial government sent a letter more or less reinstating its old position, but offering an increase of three pence on COLA for workers in Lagos and 20 per cent for workers in the provinces.This offer was rejected.

In the heat of this agitation, the British Colonialists devised a tactic by setting free Imoudu on June 2, 1945. The colonialists might have hoped to divert attention with this act. But as Labour Historian, Wogu Ananaba wrote, it was an action that acted as a catalyst. “There is little doubt that but for Imoudu’s activities there might have been no General Strike on June 22.”

Having taken so many wrong steps in response to workers agitation, it was not surprising that the colonial regime on June 11 took another wrong one. This time it wrote a letter to workers’ leaders arguing that to accede to workers demand would “result in the present circumstances in adding materially to the circulation of currency at a time when the objects on which the increase could be spent are remaining static or even decreasing in volume.”

Three days after this letter was sent, the African LOCO Drivers Union placed their management on strike notice with effect from the midnight of June 21. The Railway workers followed with their own notice. On June 16, 1945, a mass meeting of about 8,000 workers was held to consider the Government’s June 11,1945 letter. The meeting reiterated the strike ultimatum while leaving a window open for possible negotiations. That same day, the TUCN leadership held its regular consultative meeting with the Labour Department.

The 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. A meeting attended by 300 delegates was held that same day to deliberate on shelving the strike. While the Joint Executives of the Workers favoured a postponement, some, like the African LOCO Drivers union president, F. Modupe Alade not only rejected it but also asked their national leader, A. T. Bankole to step aside.

On June 20, the eve of the strike ultimatum’s expiration, the national  labour leaders issued a statement signed by J. Marcus Osindero, Secretary of the Workers Joint Executive and J. O. Erinle, entitled General Strike of the Association of Civil Service Technical Workers. The statement read: “In view of the subjoined communication from the commissioner of labour, the proposed strike which should have come into effect from midnight on June 21,1945 has been postponed for 14 days retroactive from June 19, 1945.”

Underestimation of Imoudu’s powers

Apparently, the strike leaders had misread the mood of the workers; a postponement was the last thing on workers’ minds. That same day, a mass meeting of the Railway Workers Union met at which the leaders of the labour centre; TUCN and the Joint Executive of the workers explained why the strike was being postponed. They underestimated the powers of Imoudu who was wearing a  war dress. He told the meeting that negotiations had failed, so the strike must go on as scheduled. After this, the workers got up and sang for the strike. This was the beginning of Imoudu’s sack of the TUCN leadership as the general strike took off.

On June 21, the day the ultimatum expired, a mass meeting of workers held from 5.30 p.m. at the St. Peter’s School, Lagos. The workers decided to commence the strike action from midnight. They also passed a resolution ordering their leaders to resign. The leaders subsequently resigned enmasse. During the meeting, the traditional ruler of Lagos, Oba Falolu arrived to persuade workers against the strike, he was forced to leave due to workers hostilities. The Amalgamated Union of Mercantile Workers held their mass meeting that same evening and decided to go on strike immediately.

The general strike took off on June 22 and went on for 45 days. They were days that shook the colonial administration to its foundations. The whole society was involved either in aid of the strikers or sometimes to sabotage it on behalf of colonialism. While many nationalists led by Herbert Macaulay, Azikiwe, Madam Adunni Oluwole and Obafemi Awolowo supported the strike, some particularly those of the Nigeria Youth Movement tried to sabotage it.

Historian, Mokwugo Okoye wrote: “After two weeks of the strike, a committee of gentlemen comprising Dr. Akinola Maja, Dr. K. A. Abayomi, S. L. Akintola and other leaders of the NYM were hired by the government to cajole the strikers back to work; but the men would not budge an inch without definite guarantees which of course the quixotic emissaries could not give, if they ever thought of the matter before hand. Troop movements were frequent and every artifice was tried by the government to break the workers morale, but these failed.”

The media was a study in contrast. The Daily Service, the NYM’s newspaper in its support of  the colonial authorities not only tried to rubbish the strike but went to the quite unprofessional extent of omitting any mention of lmoudu’s role in the strike.

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