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The 1981 General Strike and the Struggle for Minimum Wage – By Izielen Agbon

“Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Thomas Hobbes

Life has become nasty, brutish, and short for Nigerian workers in 2024. Life is now
full of hunger, pains, insecurity and poverty. Unemployment, underemployment and
inflation are high. According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), “the Food
inflation rate in December 2023 was 33.93% on a year-on-year basis…The rise in
Food inflation was caused by increases in prices of Bread and cereals, Oil and fat,
Potatoes, Yam and other Tubers, Fish, Meat, Fruit, Milk, Cheese, and Egg… In
December 2023, Food inflation was highest in Kogi (44.73%), Kwara (41.33%), and
Imo (39.54%) ”. The current monthly minimum wage of 30,000 Naira cannot cover
the rising cost of food, not to mention other essential means of subsistence.

The Nigerian working class won a monthly minimum wage of 125 Naira in 1981. At
the prevailing exchange rate of N0.61/$1, this was equivalent to $204.92 a month. In
2011, the monthly minimum wage was increased to 18,000 Naira, or an equivalent
of $113.92 at the prevailing exchange rate of N158/$1. In April 2019, the monthly
minimum wage was increased to 30,000 Naira, or an equivalent of $98.36 at the
prevailing exchange rate of N305/$1. Today, the minimum wage remains at 30,000
Naira, or an equivalent of $19.96 at the prevailing exchange rate of N1503/$1. The
agitation for a new minimum wage by Nigerian workers has reached a feverish pitch.
In January 2024, the Federal government inaugurated a 37 members tripartite
committee on the national minimum wage. The committee is loaded in favor of
employers and consists of 12 members representing private sector employers and 12
members representing public sector employers (the Federal government and the
State government) and 12 members representing labour (NLC and TUC). The
objective of the committee is to recommend a new national minimum wage.

The minimum wage means different things to workers and employers. From the
worker’s viewpoint, the minimum wage is the prevailing price of his labour power
(his capacity to work) in the labour market sufficient for the reproduction of the
labour power of his family of 6 (himself, his wife, 2 male children and 2 female
children). The factors determining the minimum wage include the prevailing cost of
food, beverages, housing, clothing, transport, communication, education, health
care, and other means of subsistence as well as economic indicators such as the
poverty rate, the consumer price index and the inflation rate. From the point of view
of the employer of labor (private employers and public employers – federal and state
governments), the minimum wage is the marginal cost of an unskilled labour unit.
This is the change in total production cost arising from the production of one
additional labour unit or worker. In a developing economy with unlimited supply of
labour, the marginal cost of a labour unit tends towards zero as profits and surplus
value are maximized. Therefore, the minimum wage demands of workers and
employers are different. The final negotiated minimum wage is determined by the
balance of power between workers and employers. Given these different. viewpoints, we will examine how the Nigerian working class won a monthly
minimum wage of 125 Naira in 1981 .

In 1980, Nigerian waged workers were faced with galloping inflation. Increases in the
prices of food items were often more than 100%. For example, a bag of rice,
imported at a cost of 15 Naira, was sold for 35 Naira in some northern Nigerian cities
and 100 Naira in Lagos. A 50 kg bag of flour, imported at a cost of 11 Naira, was sold
for 30 Naira in Lagos and 27 Naira in some northern Nigerian cities. Nigerian workers
began agitating for commodity price control and lower government fixed prices.
53,012 workers were involved in 20 strikes resulting in 579,415 mandays lost in
January 1980. The NLC, led by Hassan Sunmomu, delivered a “Workers Charter of
Demands” to the Presidency with an ultimatum to meet all demands by March 31,
1980 or face a general strike. The Federal government was forced to increased the
monthly minimum wage from 60 Naira to 100 Naira in response to the workers’
demand. The increase in wages did not stop the workers struggles. Many more
strikes took place in the following months. More than 100,000 mandays lost were
recorded every month between June and December of 1980. For instance , in
November 1980, 25,663 workers were involved in 22 strikes and 998,361 mandays
lost were recorded.

In February 1981, Hassan Sunmonu was reelected as the NLC president during the
NLC National Delegates Conference. David Ojeli, a Vice President of NLC and National
President of the Nigerian Civil Service Union, who lost to Sunmonu, formed the
“National Committee for Democratic Trade Unionism’’ as an opposition fraction in
the NLC. He was supported by 8 out of 40 unions. The conference agreed that the
NLC leaders should demand a monthly minimum wage of 300 Naira and increases in
pensions and allowances. The NLC gave the Federal government an ultimatum and
promised to embark on a general strike if its demands were not met by May 11,
1981. On May 11, 1981, most unionized workers went on strike. A 100% response
rate was reported in some cities, while in others, the response rate was below 50%.
Generally, response rates were higher at points of production where rank and file
workers made up the local leadership. The national strike lasted for 2 days. About
700,000 workers out of 1 million unionized workers participated in the strike leading
to 1,400,000 mandays lost. The rank and file workers continued the strike until May
18, 1981 when the NLC leadership appealed to them to return to work. The strike
was supported by unwaged workers, the unemployed, women, students and the
general Nigerian society.

The success of the general strike forced the Federal State to negotiate. In the
ensuing negotiation, the NLC agreed to call off the general strike for a 67% increase
in the minimum monthly pension rate from 30 Naira to 50 Naira. The transport
allowance was increased by 5 Naira for all grades of workers. The National Assembly
promised to set a new minimum wage within 30 days. Car loans and other basic
allowances were to be reviewed. No worker was to be penalized for participating in
the general strike. On June 1, 1981, the Federal government introduced new income
policy guidelines that would limit wage increases by linking it to higher productivity.
The new income policy guidelines were released by the Productivity, Prices and Incomes Board. Under these guidelines, the Federal State set a 15% wage increase
ceiling on all private sector workers earning less than 3,000 Naira a year. A 10%
ceiling was fixed for those earning more than 3,000 Naira a year. These ceilings were
to remain in effect for the next 3 years. The guidelines also banned private
employers from increasing fringe benefits for their employees until 1983. They were
also not allowed to introduce any new benefits without the permission of the
Minister of Employment, Labour and productivity. The guidelines allowed a 5%
markup in prices during the year with the approval of the Prices Board. The
companies that had more than a 5% increase in prices in 1980 would not be allowed
to increase the prices of their commodities. Imported heavy industrial machinery
could be sold at a mark-up price of 25% on CIF, while motor spare parts prices were
limited to 2% on CIF. No penalties were specified for failure to abide by the new
guidelines.

In June 1981, the labour committee of the House of Representatives recommended
a minimum monthly wage of 150 Naira. The Nigerian Senate voted for a 120 Naira
minimum monthly wage rate. The Senate justified this vote by pointing out that the
Federal State had been forced to increase the minimum wage by 40% in 1980. Based
on the same argument, the House of Representative rejected the recommendation
of its labour committee and voted for a minimum wage of 120 Naira. A final decision
of 125 Naira monthly minimum wage was reached in the reconciliation meeting
between both houses. The NLC insisted on its demand for a 300 Naira monthly
minimum wage. The Presidency, the National Assembly, the Judiciary and opposition
political parties united around the NASS decision of 125 Naira monthly minimum
wages. The Federal government then unleashed a propaganda offensive that
accused the NLC leadership of holding the nation hostage. The negative propaganda
was so effective that the NLC was forced to accept the 125 Naira monthly minimum
wage. In September, 1981, the Minimum Wage Bill became law. The law covered the
public and private sectors of the working class, thereby undermining the income
guidelines released earlier in the year. An increase in the standard of living of
Nigerian workers is always a product of their autonomous self-activity; a product of
their struggles as a class-for-itself. Many industrial actions took place in the public
and private sectors after the September 1981 minimum wage law. 366,323 workers
engaged in strike actions in 1981, leading to an estimated 2,000,000 mandays lost.
This excludes the number of striking workers and the mandays lost during the May
general strike.

There are many lessons from the struggle for minimum wages in 1981 and the
current struggle for a higher minimum wage. First, the negotiated minimum wage is
determined by the balance of power between organized unionized labour (NLC and
TUC) and the employers (federal and State governments in the public sector and
private employers in the private sector). Secondly, the employers demonstrate their
power with a refusal to negotiate, a failure to honor past agreements, propaganda
about limited revenue and low productivity, arrests and physical attacks on labour
leaders, harassment, job loss, transfer of active rank and file workers and intensive
negative propaganda about the impact of a higher wage bill on inflation and the
national economy. The workers demonstrate their power with a national strike.

These are all part of the negotiation preambles that determine the balance of power
during negotiation. Thirdly, the more united the workers are, the higher their power.
The same is true for the employers as representatives of capital. Finally, the unity of
the workers must go beyond the negotiation table to encompass rank and file
workers, unwaged workers, the unemployed, women, students, peasants and the
general masses of the Nigerian population. The trade unions must capture the heart
and minds of the Nigerian masses in order to force Nigerian capital to meet their
demands for a higher monthly minimum wage.

Izielen Agbon
izielenagbon@yahoo.com
Twitter:@izielenagbon
February 12, 2024

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