As Nigeria workers join workers across the world to commemorate May Day 2015, we need to collectively reflect on the significance of the day, to inspire us in our struggle today for better life. This is particularly so with the economic crisis and political “change” we are witnessing on one hand and the emergence of a new leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress at its 11th National Delegates Conference.
On May 1, 1886, over 350,000 workers went on a General Strike in the United States, demanding 8-hour workday. Hundreds of thousands joined demonstrations in several cities. A rally was held at the Haymarket Square in Chicago by the striking workers, which ended in fracas initiated within the ranks of policemen gathered to intimidate them. 7 people dead.
8 leaders of the International Working People’s Association in Chicago Illinois, tried for this and found guilty (this was in spite of the fact that only four of them were present at the rally). These were: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Lou Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Adolf Fischer, George Engel and Oscar Neebe. They were sentenced to death and life imprisonment. Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer were summarily executed.
Schwab captured the fact that their condemnation was an attempt to humiliate and intimidate the labour movement when during their show trial he said: “it was the movement the blow was aimed at. It was directed against the labour movement against socialism, for today every labour movement must, of necessity be socialistic”.
Parsons also told the judges that, in “addressing this court, I speak as the representative of one class to the representative of another”. He further showed the futility of the “judicial murder” that was about to take place, when he rightly said: “Here you will tread upon a spark, behind you and in front of you and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out; the ground is on fire upon which you stand”. Two and a half years later in December 1888 the American Federation of Labour held its convention where it resolved on commemorating May 1, 1890 with demonstration’s and mass meetings to demand an 8 hour work day.
On July 14, 1889 the Socialist International was founded in Paris. One of its key resolutions was for workers of all lands to celebrate May 1 annually as the International Workers Solidarity Day. The following year, there were strikes and demonstrations in about 200 cities all over Europe, between on May 1-4, to commemorate the first international May Day.
In Nigeria, for several years, workers particularly activists of the radical Nigeria Trade Union Congress had marked May Day with meetings and seminars. The first time it was celebrated as a public holiday however, was in 1980. This was in the People’s Redemption Party-led state of Kano. The following year, the NPN-led Federal Government had no choice but to make May Day a national public holiday. And so it has been ever since.
This year’s May Day represents a turning point for the labour movement, in so many ways. It will be the first day to be marked with Comrade Ayuba P. Wabba as President of NLC, and the last under a PDP government since the “new beginning” of NLC in 1999. The 11th National Delegates Conference which brought in the current leadership of Congress was initially marred by acrimony on February 12. Reconvened a month later, elections held in a transparent and credible manner produced the new leadership led by Comrade Wabba. But the unions arrayed under the “Restoration Group” which lost out have chosen to pass themselves off as a splinter NLC.
This is very unhealthy. In the spirit of the May Day all well-meaning activists in the labour movement should call on them to embrace unity and reconciliation, in the collective interest of Nigerian workers. The good thing is that at the state council levels, the unions in this group have not allowed themselves to imbibe a divisive spirit. They have been part and parcel of the States Delegates’ Conference which took place across the country on April 24. This is a good sign of unity from below, which is crucial for building the strength of the working class for the struggles ahead.
The sweeping out of PDP by APC at the federation’s centre and in many states represents the mood of the working masses for a better life than that which could be achieved within the framework of capitalism. The failures of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan are not just because of his administration’s incompetence. There are structural reasons based on the for profit logic of capitalism, which PDP and as well APC stand for.
There is much expectation though, from the masses in Nigeria. We are yet to see just how sincere the APC is about instituting social security and turning the country around. More properly put, it is yet to be seen just how much it can do within the constraining framework of capitalism. But one thing is clear; how far it will go depends on how strong and visionary the labour movement is. This is the more reason why a united NLC is of the utmost importance and why the Restoration Group leaders should put their individual ambitions aside and let us all join hands to fight for the best for the working class.
This year’s May Day is coming up after seven years of the most severe capitalist crisis in almost a century, but despite this, in a sense, capitalism itself is not in crisis. Why is this so, we might ask? It is because, even as we fight, with bold resistance, the prevailing thinking, is that of reforming the system. But the capitalist system has shown itself to be beyond reforms. “Stake-holders” ideology and commitment primarily to “social dialogue” aid the oppressors and not we, the poor and working people, who cannot but continue to be the wretched of the earth, in the capitalist system.
But of course, as Walter Rodney puts it: “this act in itself will not delay their day of judgment”. The challenge, in the spirit of those who died that we might be free, is that we break the chains that still hold us in bondage. It is through relentless struggle against the bosses and their system, that we can do this. Not all will come to this consciousness at once. But the advanced layers of the working class must continue to organize, educate and agitate.
The current leadership of NLC which has expressed its intention to return Congress to the founding traditions of the labour movement is faced with the challenge of re-building the working class ideologically, politically and organisationally. This would amongst other things, include re-building the Labour Party with a socialist programme as explicitly stated in the Labour and Politics Policy of NLC as adopted by its 8th National Delegates Conference.
Economic struggles including: mobilisation for a new minimum wage that would be a living wage; fighting against casualisation, and; challenging neoliberal policies like fuel price hikes, are very important. But without political power wrested from the hands of the bosses, the working class will remain condemned to seeking amelioration of its conditions instead of its self-emancipation. May Day presents to us not just snapshots from the past, but as well a vision of the future. This is a future of social change, which will be won only through ceaseless mass struggle. The workers united and determined cannot be defeated!