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The General Strike of 1945 and the Tudor-Davies Commission

“If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for them.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the great tragedies of Nigeria’a political history is that, when they become the nation’s President, former military dictators pretend to be born again democrats while former democrats pretend to be courageous military dictators. PBAT threw an unprovoked vicious jab at the labour unions. He said, “ You are not the only voice of Nigerians.” This is like poking lions in the chests and declaring that their roars is not the only voice in the jungle. It is politically unwise to throw jabs at labour unions in an inflationary economy. The last time a Nigerian government threw such an unprovoked jab at labour was in 1945 when the colonial government insisted that Nigerian labour was not the only voice in Nigeria in the midst of a raging WWII inflationary economy. Labour responded with a national general strike of 1945. We will examine the 1945 national general strike in order to learn what labour must do now.

On May 19, 1945, Nigerian waged workers held a mass meeting at the Glover Memorial Hall in Lagos. The workers established a Joint Executive consisting of trade union leaders. They demanded a 50% COLAs and a minimum daily wage of 2s. 6d. for unskilled public sector workers. In a letter forwarded to the colonial government, the workers promised to go on strike, if their demands were not met by June 21, 1945. In the midst of this potential industrial conflict, Mr. Michael Imoudu returned to Lagos. The Defence Regulation, under which Imoudu had been banished to Auchi, had expired with the end of WWII. Hence, the colonial government had to release him. The workers used the occasion to mobilize for the proposed strike. A massive workers’ march and rally was arranged for June 2nd to give Imoudu a hero’s welcome. In the June 2nd welcome rally, Herbert Macaulay, the president of the NCNC and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the NCNC secretary, both spoke in favour of the proposed general strike and Imoudu’s leadership. So also did Madam Alimotu Pelewura, the Alaga of Ereko market and president of the Lagos Market Women Association. The colonial government was concerned about the turbulent marriage of nationalist politics and industrial struggle. Hence, it immediately made an official response to the workers’ demands.

In a June 11th letter, the colonial government argued that it could not grant the workers’ demand for a COLAs revision and minimum daily wage because such wage awards would lead to wage-push inflation. The colonial governemnt proposed instead that unemployed workers should return back to the rural farms to increase food production. Workers were advised to cooperate with the government’s price reduction measures and concentrate on making the Pullen market scheme a success. Finally, the colonial government argued that its revenue was small and therefore, it could not afford to pay increased wages and COLAs to public sector workers unless it also increased taxes. The workers did not accept the colonial government’s arguments. Therefore, they began to agitate for higher wages.

The colonial government reminded the Joint Executive that the pro¬posed general strike was illegal under the Defence Regulation banning strikes before all arbitration procedures had been exhausted. The Labour department threatened that the law would be followed to the letter if an illegal general strike occurred on June 21st. In the face of this threat, the Joint Executive proposed the postponement of the general strike to the workers. A militant group led by Imoudu refused to postpone the planned strike action. The rank-and-file workers supported this militant position. In a mass workers’ meeting on June 21st, the workers decided to execute the general strike action as planned. On June 22nd, they organized a mass rally in the railway loco¬motive workshop. The general strike began as Imoudu and the militant trade unionists consolidated the rank-and-file workers. The workers independently moved to ensure the success of the general strike action. The colonial government declared a No work No Pay policy and promised to sack workers who went on strike. The workers ignored the government. The general strike spread throughout the nation, starting from Lagos. The news was carried along the railway line by locomotive drivers. In the provincial centers, railway workers also led the general strike. All the members of the Joint Executive resigned to avoid arrest as the general strike began. The strike lasted for 44 days from June 21st to August 15th of 1945.

The 1945 general strike brought about the temporary unity of all labouring classes. The Daily Comet and the West African Pilot supported the strike and were later banned by the colonial government. The NCNC also sup¬ported the striking workers as did the market women and other unwaged workers. In Eastern Nigeria, the landlords refused to collect any rent and the market women sold food at reduced prices. A strike fund was organized and market women donated to it generously. In northern Nigeria, the market women also donated to a strike fund. Lagos market women reduced their food prices and attended the mass workers meetings to give moral and political support to the workers during the duration of the strike.

The colonial government did not take the general strike lying down. It employed tactics of misinformation with the aid of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). Dr. Akintola Maja, the NYM President, set up a “Maja Peace Committee” to convince workers to end the strike. Trade union leaders were arrested. When this failed to stop the strike, the colonial government reaffirmed its decision to sack all striking workers after August 1, 1945. A mass workers meeting was called to discuss the government’s latest threat. The ex-Joint Executive members and their supporters who wanted to terminate the strike action were a minority. Hence, it was determined that the strike would continue despite the government’s threat of dismissal. However, the actions of the moderate trade union leaders was leading to disunity among the workers. Hence, on August 4th, the general strike was terminated in Lagos. Workers in the provincial cities refused to believe that the strike action had been terminated by Lagos workers because of the prior misinformation by the colonial government. In Zaria, the workers refuse to go back to work until Michael Imoudu travelled down there himself to inform the workers that news of the termination of the strike action was not just another government originated propaganda designed to make them capitulate. The general strike finally ended in all parts of the country on August 15, 1945 and resulted in more than 2 million mandays lost.

In the negotiation following the general strike, the colonial government rejected the workers’ demand for 50% COLAs. Instead, the government offered a 20% increase in COLAs to Lagos public sector workers, smaller COLAs increases to public sector workers in the provincial cities and a minimum daily wage of 2s. 3d. for unskilled public sector workers. It told the workers’ representatives that if they rejected this offer, then it would withdraw the offer and refer the matter to a commission of enquiry. The workers’ representatives rejected the offer after consultations with trade union leaders and rank and file workers. The colonial government therefore established a commission of enquiry in October of 1945. This commission became known as the Tudor-Davies Commission. The government did not withdraw its initial offer after the workers’ representatives rejected it. Rather, it granted the workers a 20% increase in COLAs and a minimum wage of 2s. 3d. back¬dated to August 1, 1945. The mandays lost during the strike were dis¬carded as leave days without pay by the colonial government. Thus, the workers won a COLAs and wage increase after the general strike. These gains increased after the Tudor-Davies Commission finished its enquiry into the effects of the war inflation.

The terms of reference of the Tudor-Davies Commission were: “To consider the representation made by the Nigerian Government and Native Authority employees concerning an increase in the Cost of Living and, having regard to the present cost of liv¬ing and all other factors, to make recommendations as to whether any action should be taken by the Nigerian Government, whether by variation of the Cost of Living Allowance or by controlling the cost of living or any other way, and to make recommendations as to the future compilation and computation of cost of living indices in Nigeria.”

In its report, the Tudor Davies commission stated that the colonial government should have kept its 1942 promise to review the cost of living. It rejected the government’s arguements of wage-push inflation and limited government revenue. It decided that the limited nature of the government revenue did not negate the validity of the workers’ claim for increased COLAs. It advised the government to change its priorities with regards to the allocation of government revenue so that it could pay the increased COLAs without raising taxes. It pointed out that the government has paid COLA to European workers. The commission recommended a 50% increase in COLAs for all public sector workers (African Staff) with annual wages of less than £220 and a review of COLAs every two years. Finally, the commission concluded that “It is apparent that the influence and power of the Nigerian Trade Unions for good or ill should not be underestimated, for if their organizational strength – financial and numerical – is small, what may be termed their operational strength is great.”

The colonial government accepted the recommendations and implemented them. It also established Wage Councils to determine future wage awards and a National Negotiating Committee to settle industrial disputes in the public sector by arbitration. Rent Assessment Boards were given more powers to enforce stricter rent control measures. The government appointed a Registrar of Trade Unions to supervise the growth of the trade unions and hired a former British TUC member as a labor officer. The 1945 general strike thus brought economic gains to the Nigerian working class. The initial 20% increase in existing COLAs and a mini¬mum daily wage of 2s. 3d. were followed by a 50% increase in COLAs. The income of workers increased and this gave them the means to actu¬alize their economic self-development at a higher level.

A national general strike as a weapon in the arsenal of Nigerian workers in struggle. It is the historical response of labour to unprovoked jabs from Nigerian government in the midst of an inflationary economy. Given the prevailing harsh economic conditions facing workers in the country, Nigerian workers should be organized to do the needful.

Izielen Agbon




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