By Dr. Izielen Agbon
“History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation, but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Address at the AFL-CIO Fourth Constitutional Convention, December 11, 1961
Nigerian labour struggles for sustainable economic self development have always met with attempts by the Federal Government to control and contain them. These government attempts starts with appeals to workers as labour struggles intensify to work-to-rule actions, walk outs and strikes. The appeals are followed by threats of job loss, and harassment of trade unions leaders whenever the workers continue with their actions. Massive strikes of long duration are met with the arrest of strike leaders, job loss for strike participants and government’s Commissions of Enquiry. Often, a Commission of Enquiry is mandated by the government to investigate and enquire into the immediate and remote causes of the labour conditions and the ensuring labour struggles with a view of advising government of mitigating actions that can be taken to prevent labour struggles in future. Members of the commission are appointed by government. This has been the case since the colonial period.
The Commission of Enquiries sits at the pleasure of the government and demands the termination of the strike and all other forms of labour struggles as a pre-condition for it to begin work. Months are spent collecting data and submissions from the public. Finally, a report by the Commission is submitted to the government. The government then spends addition months studying the report of the Commission. Finally, the government releases a White Paper containing government’s position on the report and recommendations of the Commission. The workers are forced to accept whatever the government chooses to offer in its White Paper. Therefore, Commissions of Enquiry are part of the diversionary tools used by the government to control and contain intensified labour struggles. The Federal Government is very likely to set up Commissions on Enquiry on fuel prices and the national minimum wage later this year inorder to manage the resistance of workers against higher fuel prices and lower national minimum real wages. It is imperative that the Nigerian labouring classes look for historical lessons on how to manage government’s Commissions of Enquiry. The 1949 Railway workers struggle against the Brooke Commission offers us very useful lessons of how workers can neutralize the government’s use of such Commissions of Enquiry to defuse their struggles.
In 1949, the Nigerian railway workers demanded an increase in wages. The total receipt of the Railway Department had increased by 58%, from £3.623m in 1946 to £5.716m in 1949, yet the Railway Management refused to concede to any wage increase demand. Therefore, an industrial dispute was declared and the workers’ demand taken into arbitration. The results of the arbitration were unfavourable to the railway workers. Hence, the union rejected them and embarked on a “go-slow” strike.
A go-slow strike was a new tactic used by the workers in essential services to avoid the criminal codes. Theoretically, it was not a strike since the workers did not refuse to work. What the workers did was to work so slowly that no work was done for all practical purposes. A go-slow was not illegal under the 1947 criminal codes amendment.
Seizing the opportunity of the go slow strike, the colonial State appointed a Commission to enquire into ways of institutionalizing the struggles of railway workers. The Commission was known as the Brooke Commission. Its terms of reference were:
“To investigate the causes and circumstances of the existing unsatisfactory labour situation in the Railway and review the existing machinery for the settlement of trade disputes and for the removal of grievances and to report on both matters”
The Commission had no material benefits to offer to the railway workers, hence they decided to embark on a political struggle. The State had nominated two Nigerians (Mr. L. P. Ojukwu of the NCNC and ACB and Mr. S. I. Kale) to seats on the Brooke Commission. The Nigerian Union of Railwaymen demanded their replacement with Nnamdi Azikiwe and H.O. Davies. Azikiwe and Davies were known to be sympathetic to workers’ struggles. The demand to place them on the Commission was a struggle by railway workers to see if they could question and negate the State’s power to select all the commission members.
It was the colonial State, as the State, that appointed commission members and the colonial State, as the State, was supposed to be beyond bias in mediating class antagonisms between workers and employers. The colonial State insisted that this was true, even when the colonial State, as the employer, was involved in the said trade dispute. The railway workers thought otherwise. They insisted that it was inherently unfair for the colonial State to be the judge and sole jury selector in a case where it was the accused. Therefore, the railway trade unions boycotted the Brooke Commission. The Railway Management reacted by transferring trade union leaders to interior railway stations and harassing union members. The response of the railway workers to this new management attack was to embark on a full-scale national strike against the Brooke Commission and the Colonial State. The Brooke Commission was forced to adjourn until the strike was called off.
The strike against the Colonial State and the Brooke Commission was a brilliant offensive against the State’s attempt to institutionalize the negotiation process. The strike itself occurred because of the absence of institutional mechanisms of negotiation between the railway workers and the colonial State, as the State. The political dispute between the colonial State, as the State, and the railway workers concerned who would decide how a trade dispute between the railway workers and the colonial State, as an employer, would be settled institutionally, without a strike. The railway workers dealt with this political dispute by going on a strike, when strikes were supposed to be illegal as means of resolving trade disputes in essential services. In this way, they showed that the colonial State could not impose a negotiating institutional framework on them politically and thus it would fail in its attempt to impose a similar institution on them industrially. Having made their point, shown their strength and improve their negotiating position, the railway workers called off their strike and presented themselves before a reconvened Brooke Commission.
The lessons learnt from the 1949 railway workers struggles against the Brooke Commission include workers struggles over the timing, terms of reference, membership and duration of any Commission of Enquiry set up by government to manage their struggles. Such resistance should include withdrawal of representatives from the Commission, boycott of the Commission, marches, stay home, go slow strikes and full blown strike actions of short durations, boycotts and selective engagement in the activities of the Commission. These are useful lessons to remember in the struggle against higher fuel prices and falling real national minimum wages later this year.
Dr. Izielen Agbon