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Labour leadership in the 21st Century: Challenges and transformation – Part 2


NLC, TUC during a protest.

An understanding of the nature of the Nigerian state as well as the international setting is very important to this conversation because they shape the content and form of trade unionism. Laski (1925) once observed in his Grammar of Politics that men conceived of the state in the context of their own experience. The Nigerian state is a neo-colonial state and its output as an entity is the reproduction of the conditions of oppression internally and internationally. Worse still, it is run by predatory feudal elites who do not pretend about development but fixated on some hegemonic control of the state apparatuses that reproduce underdevelopment in the country. For fifty-nine years on, they have not been able to industrialize the country, instead they are hooked to a mono-product, i.e., the sale of crude oil for survival. The question of diversification of the economy remains a rhetoric a populist trope in political campaigns. Without industrialization, the workers’ movement will remain castrated because as earlier noted the strengthen of the labour movement lies in the workforce. Without it, what you have is a sprawling mass of lumpen proletariat who are disoriented and fatalistic about their miserable existence. This probably accounts for the proliferation of religious houses in the country many of which now occupy warehouses of wound up factories. Let us graft this scenario to the international sphere.

We are in globalized world, where production of goods, services and capital markets are integrated with promises of convergence income disparity. For economic prosperity, it de-emphasizes the role of the state in the national economy and reduces it to that of watchman. Its political underpinning is liberal democracy which allows for periodic elections of political leaders in a multiparty environment. But in substance and in relation to underdeveloped countries like Nigeria, globalization means:
… a more liberal or shorthand name for imperialism, domination, exploitation, marginalization, and the overall reproduction of the injustices, inequalities, and poverty that characterize the relations within and between nations. This line of thought contends that globalization is not about people but about money. People are relevant only to the extent that carry credit cards, checkbooks, cash and huge lines of credit and are ready to spend.

Globalization is bound to ruin the environment, commoditize human relations, destroy the welfare basis of society, and consolidate inequalities. It would result in what Aime Cesaire calls the “thingification” of people: reducing human beings into “things” to be exchanged at the market place with profit and nothing but profit as the main consideration (Ihonvbere, 2002, p. 2).


For trade union, globalization and the new phase of productive forces has increased privatization and outsourcing of jobs thereby undermining union density (Murray, 2000). We all can now answer the question posed by Ihonvbere (2002), even though it was rhetoric: How is Globalization doing? Nevertheless, a notable development in the age of globalization is the advancement of productive forces, the means by which humans socially produce and reproduce the necessities of life. The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) drives the new globalization and today the industrial fourth industrial revolution that centres around artificial intelligence (AI) is already in the public domain and a pre-occupation of scientists of all hues. These changes in productive forces affect labour relations in different ways that are either positive or negative. Without doubt, we can see that the real challenge for trade unions inheres in the nature and character of productive forces, the state and international political economy.

What trade union is and is not
Madunagu (2004) was quite clear in his characterization of trade union. For him, trade unions are “economic groupings of the class created for the protection and expansion of workers’ rights under a given slave system”. Madunagu further distinguishes this from a political organization of the working class aimed at capturing political power. Madunagu’s definition fits somewhat the western model and that is what contemporary trade union in Nigeria is and has not gone beyond the western model of economism characterized by a narrow focus on workplace conditions, top-down mode of organization, low membership and commitment to what Fairbrother (2008, p. 213) has called “policies associated with economic instrumentalism and compromise.” This fact has earned labour leaders the sobriquet of ‘labour bureaucrats’. The trade union needs to go beyond economism to exert its social movement essentiality. This would mean questioning in fundamental terms, labour-capital relations while being locally focused, embedded in the workplace and the community to forge “…a distinctive and transformative union identity…” (Fairbrother, 2008, p. 213) in the context of the triple challenge which we have identified in the productive forces, the state and the international system. It also must cultivate the global attribute of social movement manifest in the conscious understanding of the relationship “between workplace, civil society, the state and global forces in ways that can lead to measures resistance to the deleterious effect of globalization. This new form of struggle being suggested is hardly possible if the ideological deficit in trade unions are not addressed. This deficit is addressed in what follows.

Ideology and class consciousness
Ideology is defined as “any comprehensive and mutually consistent set of ideas by which a social group makes sense of the world” (McLean, 1996, p. 233). The world view of the working class is material. This approach to making sense of our world is fundamentally dialectical. We understand the society in its dialectical unity and discover the laws of capitalist development and how it leads to the impoverishment of the working class. This understanding is important and without class consciousness which arises from ‘education for critical consciousness’ based on a materialist world outlook, workers will perceive the reality around them as arising not from the relations of production but a natural order of society. The leadership of the trade union needs to attain class consciousness before they can lead. Class consciousness will enhance an understanding of the totality of material life: the link between our role as workers, economy and politics and the global capitalist system. It is the only way that the union leaders can assume the vanguard role as the most advanced cadres of the working class movement, in other words, transit from being only a class in itself but a class for itself capable of assuming the historical role of changing the social conditions of oppression in society.

In the foregoing, we have argued that leadership is very critical to the struggles of the labour movement in the form of trade unions or trade unions as social movement. This submission is historically grounded in the ‘Eight-Hour’ struggle of the workers in North America in which August Spies and his colleagues triumphed while paying the supreme price. It is equally argued that contemporary trade unions in Nigeria are welded to economism, a western model of labour struggle that barely interrogates the structural underpinning of the plight of the working class beyond wage modulation. Since the 1930s, political organisations of the workers with linkages to the labour movement addressed the power question in Nigeria (Madunagu, 2004). However, despite the limiting factor of global capitalist hegemony, a transition from economism to further social engagement such that that interrogates the labour-capital relations in fundamental terms including the interplay of state and international social forces is imperative. This transition is hardly possible with an ideologically conscious union leadership. It is desirable and meaningful in the light of the shifting dynamics of productive forces on a global scale.

Akhaine delivered this keynote paper at the Trade Union Congress (Lagos Council) second annual workshop at Ikeja recently.


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Labour leadershipNLCTUC
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