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Labour leadership in the 21st century: Challenges and transformation

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
02 October 2019   |   3:03 am
As difficult union systems progress through the coming years, their liability to encounter snakes or ladders will depend, however, not on throws of the dice, but on certain dispositions and capacity to take initiates

As difficult union systems progress through the coming years, their liability to encounter snakes or ladders will depend, however, not on throws of the dice, but on certain dispositions and capacity to take initiates (Crouch, 2000, p.70).
In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founder of scientific communism had proclaimed in The Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the World, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains”.

It is a fact that the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and North America accentuated the class divisions in society, the workers versus the owners of the means of production, in other words, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Poverty was rife and there were corresponding idealistic and anomic responses from the oppressed in society.

Robert Owen sought to build a workers’ commune without addressing the cause of inequality and the luddites went after instruments of labour without a clear understanding of the historical dynamics of the period. The Paris Commune of 1871were more decisive as they sought to address the political question of power. Although the Paris Commune was short-lived, Louis Auguste Blanqui, the leader of that revolution and his comrades provided leadership (Marx, 1977). The working hours’ movement in North America sought to reduce the burden of the workers.

In Chicago, the ‘Haymarket Eight’, namely, August Spies, Albert Parsons, Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engels, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe provided a lesson in leadership: they led from the front, not from the rear. However, the twentieth century witnessed the seizure of state power by the toiling people.

The Soviet Union, Communist China and Cuba where the workers held sway are concrete examples. The point being made is that the communist alternative provided the bipolar platform for ideological struggle between capitalism and communism as well as the direction of trade union struggles in the global north and south. While workers and their leaders in the north largely oscillated towards economism, i.e. improvement in the workers’ conditions by means of wage increase and conducive work atmosphere, some in the south wanted to address the power question (Madunagu, 2004), The quest was undermined by the authoritarian post-independence neo-colonial regimes that led the countries. Of course, they were ideologically aligned along the bipolar divide despite claims of non-alignment. Bipolarity is over.

While there is an expectation of multi-polarity, a decentered power distribution in the international system, the ‘unipolar moment’ under the leadership of the United States has endured. Equally, liberal internationalism with the tool kits of liberal democracy and neoliberal globalism has hemmed labour within the confines of economism. It is in this context that we examine the place of labour leaders in this prevailing century. First, we address the social conditions of the working class in Nigeria today.

The social condition of the working class
To focus on the Nigerian condition is to address the social condition of its working people. The Nigerian condition is harrowing. In the last five years, social indicators for the country are negative. According to The World Poverty Clock, Nigeria now has the highest extreme poverty population in the world.

The Nigeria Bureau of Statistics put the unemployment rate at 23.1 percent as of September 2018. Children of school age who are out of school is put at about 10.5 million while social utility like motorable roads is not available. Above all, there is a lack of energy for domestic consumption and industrial production. Employment, as we know, provides the members of the working-class movement. Even within the limits of neo-colonial economic production, the lack of stability in energy supply has undermined capacity utilization (CU) in the manufacturing sub-sector of the economy.

In 1999, CU stood at 32.2 percent (Toyo, 2010) while the current is about 61 percent. This energy reality has led to massive divestment from the Nigerian economy and relocation of businesses to neigbouring countries like Ghana, Benin Republic, Ivory Coast among other countries in the sub-region.

Education, an important human development variable is underfunded thereby undermining the drive for human capacity development in terms of research and development. To worsen matters, the country harbours two major terrorist entities such as Boko Haram and ‘Fulani herdsmen’ whose activities have resulted in the death of thousands and a huge population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The security profile of the country is a major disincentive for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). It is empirically proven that FDI is the most sensitive thing in globalized capitalist production relations.

In specific terms, the employer-worker relationship is precarious. The workers in Nigeria are casualized/contracted especially in the manufacturing sub-sector. As at 2002, many companies like PZ industries, WAHUM Group of companies, Asometal Limited, Wempco Group of companies, Veepee Group of companies, Sona Breweries Plc. made effort to regularized their casual staff (Yaqub, 2006). However, this disease still plagues the labour market. As Crouch (2000, p. 71) rightly notes, an increase in the overall level of unemployment weakens the union since it is partly dependent on the conditions in the labour market for its strength.

To add to the list of woes of the Nigerian workers, they do not earn a living wage and the new minimum wage of N30,000 though engrossed by the National Assembly is deadlocked at the implementation stage. The plain truth is that N30, 000 is not a living wage with the high cost of living in today’s Nigeria. Even if it is implemented, it remains largely nominal and would be wiped out by post-adjustment policies of a massive devaluation of the naira and increment in taxes such as value-added tax, bank charges and sundry fiscal extortions including social costs of school fees and medicare.

In what may spell doom for the country, the prevailing administration is taking the country into another debt peonage. Against the background of about $22billion external debt burden, the administration is seeking another $2. 5 billion from the Bretton Wood institutions (BWIs).

Apart from aggravating the already overwhelming social crisis in the country, this will incapacitate the country and undermine its ability to maneuver in the international arena. Even in the midst of this dire need for scarce resources, misappropriation and outright looting of the national resources is an on-going venture for public officials. The future is not looking good. As we can see these issues converge around issues of politics and economy.

The challenge of state and global political economy

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.
To be continued tomorrow.

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