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Why govt rejected initial minimum wage bid (9)

This is the ninth edition of the serial on OWEI LAKEMFA’s latest work: “One hundred years of trade unionism in Nigeria”. The eighth part was published yesterday.

GOODLUCK narrated what followed: “We were arrested but the strike went on because it was fully planned. We were taken to court but we were allowed bail. We came out and started to organise the strike in earnest. Bishop (S. I.) Kale intervened, he came to our mass meeting at 97, Herbert Macaulay Street.

He was booed and almost punched and I had to come to his rescue. He was my principal at CMS Grammar School. After this the government gave an ultimatum (to all those who heeded the general strike of June 1). All civil servants were to be given sack paper. We told them if they were given, they should keep them as souvenirs for the future.

Release of the Morgan Report
But government said if they did not go back within forty eight hours, it would dispense with all their services. We replied government that within forty eight hours, it should resign.”

Government, according to the Labour Ministry Permanent Secretary, M. A. Tokunboh, delayed in releasing the Morgan Report and White Paper. “Because of the revolutionary nature of the changes proposed by the Commission it was difficult for the Federal Government to take definitive position on them without the concurrence of the regional governments, two of which were in fundamental disagreement with it.”

On the third day of the strike, the government tried to take the sail out of it by releasing the Morgan Commission White Paper. But the differences in the views of the Report which was mainly in the workers’ favour, and the White Paper which sought to dilute it, merely added petrol to the burning strike.

Fundamental submission
A fundamental submission by the commission was that the worker is a citizen with a social background and has responsibility to take care of his immediate family. It, therefore, argued that “… even if a man is not ‘his brother’s keeper’ in so far as his extended family is concerned, he is very much the provider for his family, i.e. his wife or wives and children.

“And it must be borne in mind that the fact that a man has no education or special training to enable him to undertake employment other than at the bottom of the ladder does not and should not debar him from getting married and raising family.”

On this recommendation, T. M. Yesufu a member of the Morgan Commission wrote later that “Even within the African context, Nigeria was late to wake up to this reality. In the Sudan, an independent commission of inquiry emphasised as far back as 1948 that it was unable to accept the contention that men on the lowest wage level are, or ought to be, unmarried.

Therefore, the basic wage must be such as will suffice to keep a home together… Basic wages in Kenya were fixed on similar lines. In the Francophone Africa surrounding Nigeria, a system of family allowances to workers was instituted even at the height of the colonial era.”

Based on this stated principle, the Commission recommended that workers in the country should earn between N22 and N33.60 depending on what part of the country they live. This is in contrast to the then going rates of between N7.80 and NI5.17.

Yesufu’s analysis of this was that “…this wide extent of the difference between the actual low prevailing wages and the determined desirable social minimum wages, represented the degree of exploitation that had been built into the Nigeria wage structure over the years since the economic depression of the 1930s.”

The government threw out this recommendation arguing that by recommending a living wage, the commission went outside its terms. The Report, it said, had hiked wages by between 58 and 100 per cent whereas the cost of living index dictates that increases should be between 15 and 20 per cent. It, therefore, slashed the recommended salaries.

It also threw out the recommendation that the new wages should take effect from October 1, 1963. A nine month salary arrears government said, would disrupt its six-year development programme. So the new wages would take effect from April 1,1964. The White Paper also tore the recommendation that the new wages be made applicable to the private sector.

The government’s logic was that it did not consider it necessary to enforce minimum rates without due consideration of the peculiar circumstances within each industry and the ability of the employer to pay. It also dismissed suggestions that appropriate measures be taken to enable junior employees negotiate with their employers on the new wages issue. This, argued the White Paper, would amount to “state intervention” in collective bargaining.

The government, however, accepted recommendations such as the establishment of a National Wages Advisory Council and an industrial court to adjudicate on industrial disputes. The rejection of the commission’s main submissions and their modification angered the striking workers.

Workers with cost of living index during a strike

Attempt by Labour leaders to change government
M. A. Tokunboh, drawing from his official records as Permanent Secretary of Labour during the strike, wrote that this general strike”.. .lasted 13 gruesome days. It was the most serious confrontation ever experienced by a Nigerian government.

Demonstrations were organised in Lagos and other parts of the country against the Federal Government; there were confrontations with the police in the efforts to break up demonstrations and prevent pickets at factory gates.

Political party activists and thugs terrorised people and opponents; waves of violence were reported in many parts of the country; underground news-sheets of a political character calling for a change of government and the introduction of progressive measures were published; a section of workers called for a take-over of government by the Armed Forces.

Threats by letter and telephone calls to government by the functionaries were reported. Life became generally unsafe and people became frightened by the prospect of a prolonged strike. Every working activity within the country was brought to a standstill. Anti-Balewa politicians gave money to some strikers to prolong the strike.

The striking workers received some clandestine financial assistance from abroad. It was the greatest confrontation which seriously eroded the Balewa administration’s credibility and was on the verge of toppling it before the Federal Government yielded to the workers demands.

Position  of power
As an indication of its position of power, JAC agreed to call off the strike on June 13, 1964, after government had undertaken to negotiate the recommendations of the Morgan Commission and to ensure that the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association, NECA, was represented at the negotiation. Government also agreed to pay workers for the days of strike and to effect the withdrawal of cases in court involving some strikers.”

The political character of the 1964 strike was never in doubt. The writer, Robin Cohen quoted three main leaders of the JAC on this issue. First was Wahab Goodluck who asserted that”… in its development (the strike) had raised possible political action which with a development Marxist -Leninist party could have led to a proletarian revolution.

The second was Michael Imoudu’s contention that the strike was “… a test case between the workers and the government. The strike will lead us to take over the reins of government from them”..The third JAC leader quoted was Emmanuel Achamba who declared during the strike “We will take over the government without apology… Army or no army, police or no police, there is no harm in a citizen of this country trying to rule this country.”

Full scale revolution
There were indeed deliberate attempts to overthrow the government and transform the strike into a full scale revolution. For this, two radical trade unionists Jonas Abam of the Dockworkers Union  and Sidi Khayam of the Seamen Union, along with Comrade Adebayo, a teacher and Victor Lenard Allen an Irish and lecturer from Oxford University were arrested and tried. There was a comic aspect to this trial. While out on bail, an elaborate plan was hatched to smuggle Allen out of the country.

He was disguised and went all the way to Idi-Iroko, a border area with neighbouring Benin Republic. Unknown to the revolutionaries, the state security agents were involved in the ‘plan’. They simply picked him up at the border.

The unionists were tried and convicted. The Labour Movement distanced itself from the conspirators who during their trial got assistance mainly from outside Labour. This was to affect the unity of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, in later years when Abam became the Genral Secretary of the powerfull Dock Workers Union, DUN. Sidi Khayam later fell sick and died while Comrade Adebayo left home for a walk and was never seen again.

Radical historian, Dr. Segun O. Osoba wrote that the 1964 general strike was “… a reflection of the general mood of distress among the articulate and politically conscious groups in the country over the growing ineptitude, reaction and kleptocracy in the various governments of the federation. The mammoth strike, which probably involved more than a million workers all over the country, took only thirteen days (June 1-13, 1964) to bring the Balewa Government to its knees.”

On its knees, the government gave in to workers’ pressure. On June 13, 1964 the general strike came to a formal end with government’s guarantees that no worker will be victimised in any way over the strike, dismissal and warning notices given workers  would be withdrawn and that the strike period would be regarded as leave with pay without prejudice to the normal annual leave.

Primary causes  of the strike
On the primary causes of the strike, both sides agreed that a tripartite negotiation team made up of government at federal and regional levels, the JAC and the employers association, NECA, be set up immediately on the Morgan Commission Report. The negotiations began on the first work day after the strike.

The Government team was conscious of the fact that its very existence may depend on its outcome. The powerful Finance Minister who once headed the Labour Ministry, Festus Sam Okotie-Eboh, headed negotiations.

Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe who had presided at the failed Ibadan 1962 Workers unity conference, J. M. Johnson the Minister of  Labour, Waziri Ibrahim, member of the ruling NPC party and Minister of Health, with another party faithful, I. C. Obande, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s office were on the Federal Government team.

Messrs H. U. Akpabio,  Z. Mustapha Ismail and J. U. Umolu represented the Eastern, Northern and Mid Western regions respectively. The JAC delegation had its chairman Haroon Adebola who was also the United Labour Congress, ULC, president, as well as ULC General Secretary, Lawrence Borha and its deputy president Johnson Oladele James, Wahab Goodluck and Samuel Udoh Bassey, President and General Secretary respectively of the Nigeria Trade Union Congress.

Negotiations and agreements
Their counterparts in the Nigeria Workers Council, NWC, Nnaemeka Chukwura and Emmanuel Okongwu were also in the team as were the legendary Michael Imoudu and radical JAC activist, Emmanuel Okei-Achamba.The employers were represented by D. Fleming, C. E. Abebe, J. Ade Tuyo, D. A. Borrie and A. D. G. Paxton.

In a record fourteen days, negotiations and  agreements were wrapped up. Workers won all their major demands including Morgan salary increases and their applicability to the private sector. It was also agreed that “The Daily Wage System should be gradually abolished and all skilled workers should be transferred to the Permanent Establishment”.

The agreements also amended the Trade Union Act (cap 200) to “prevent employers from interfering unduly with trade unions (and made it illegal for an employer to refuse to recognise a registered trade union.”

The workers had won a decisive victory, the government conceded defeat and got recalcitrant employers in the private sector to implement the agreements. Its Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour wrote that the Agreements. “… ended the great confrontation that once again brought strength, power and recognition to the Labour Movement and set in motion a chain of events that changed the course of the country’s history.

“It was another lesson in the power of unity within the Labour Movement. JAC was the only cohesive force at the time in the midst of divisive and irreconcilable elements represented by the political parties.

“It was an uneasy atmosphere of peace after a devastating strike that became a political struggle against the Balewa government. JAC, therefore, assumed a role of importance in the affairs of the country as a factor representing the working people”.


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