Change and the Working Class: Which Way Forward?

  • SWL Gwagwalada branch holds symposium

SWL_Gwags_symposium.1Almost forty shop stewards from workplaces and unions in Gwagwalada on the outskirts of Abuja participated actively at the symposium organised by the Socialist Workers League’s branch in the Area Council, on Thursday December 3. Some student activists from the University of Abuja and a few environmental rights activists whom SWL members had marched with a few days earlier at the rally against climate change also joined the discussion.

The theme of this latest symposium in a series being organised by the SWL in Abuja was: Change and the Working Class: Which Way Forward? Five speakers were billed to make presentations. But, unfortunately, Comrade Obong Johnny Obong (General Secretary NUT) and Dr Umar Kari (Sociologist at Uniabuja) were not able to attend due to work challenges. Also Comrade Deji Kolawole, former PRO of PENGASAN and a leading member of SWL was unavoidably absent because his flight from Gombe was cancelled due to the harmatan.

Eventually only two lead presentations were made. These were by Comrade Yahaya Denja Abdullahi, the immediate past NLC FCT Chairman and Comrade Baba Aye, a leading member of the SWL and National Convener of the United Action for Democracy (UAD). This proved a blessing in disguise as it allowed for robust interactive discussions moderated by Comrade Peter Balogun, General Secretary of NUCSASW.

After the singing of solidarity songs which was led by Comrade Olamilekan Adefolarin, Comrade Balogun set the ball rolling. He started by commending SWL for its consistency in organising public sessions for working class enlightenment, noting that he had been invited to several symposiums and guest lectures organised by the SWL in central Abuja over the last few years. He regretted the general collapse of revolutionary discourse within the labour movement and said SWL is an oasis in the desert.

As a student, he pointed out, there were several groups within the students’ movement and the trade unions which shared socialist ideas and interacted regularly in struggles against particular anti-poor people policies and the capitalist system in general. But today, he regretted, we have a diverse array of “civil society” groups which are more concerned with seeking donor funding than challenging the exploitative status quo which marginalises and disempowers the working class ideologically and politically.

There is thus an urgent need to go back to the basics and reawaken revolutionary class consciousness within the mass of workers and students. To be a revolutionary, he stressed, requires activists to have deep knowledge of the capitalist system, how to fight it and the alternative to it, which is socialism.

Comrade Yahaya Denja Abdullahi also appreciated the vigour of SWL as he began his presentation, noting that this would be the third symposium of the League at which he would be speaking in less than a year. He asked the SWL to keep the flag flying and continue to play the pivotal role in raising class consciousness that it has been playing within the working class in Abuja.

He then said he would start his presentation by providing an answer to the question posed in the theme of the symposium. The way forward for workers if change is to have any meaning, is clearly towards socialism. Reminding comrades of the NLC motto “labour creates wealth” he wondered why we whose toil creates the social wealth benefit the least from this wealth and have no control on how it is distributed.

The reason for this, he said, is because the bosses are united in ensuring that they dominate the workers and reap the benefit of our sweat. The PDP and APC for example are no different from each other in any essential manner. We are actually in a one-party state he said. And that party is the “APCPDP”. To corroborate his argument he asked if there was any significant difference in the two parties’ economic policies, which are anti-workers. All the comrades present were in agreement that there was none.

This is why APC governors as much as the PDP governors have with one voice, called for a reversal of the N18,000 minimum wage, which in the first place had been nothing to write home about and has even now lost its meagre purchasing power with the depreciation of the naira to the dollar. Regarding the reported Adams Oshiomhole’s condemnation of this call by the governors, he said this was definitely not sufficient.

The whole idea of calling for a reversal of N18,000 as the national minimum wage is clearly an attempt at being clever with the aim of making unions drop any demands for an upward review which has become due, as stipulated in the 2011 National Minimum Wage Act. The challenge is thus for anyone standing by the working class against this wicked call to champion the struggle for an upward review.

He informed the symposium that he had made this position clear to governor Oshiomhole, but stressed his conviction that “help” for the masses will not come from any force outside the working class, saying “we workers have to take our destiny in our hands”. But to do this, workers need to build a party of the working people based on a socialist ideology that will lead the fight for true change, because “the APC cannot take us to that change which means an end to our exploitation”.

But it is impossible to build such a party when its funding is surrendered to the bosses. As Comrade Yahaya had consistently hammered on at several SWL symposiums, the funding of a true party of workers must be made by the workers themselves. Since there are more than 7million members in the affiliates of both NLC and TUC nationwide, it is possible for a trade unions-driven party of labour to have not less than one million members that could be inspired to part with N100 a month each, as membership dues. That would amount to N100million with which a lot of organising and publicity could be done.

For as long as we look up to some rich politician or the other to fund our party they will continue to use the platform of our party when it suits them to contest for elections and once after the polls, they will dump the party. In such a context, the party cannot but be like one of the parties of the bosses.

He rounded off by telling comrades that the way forward will entail sacrifice of our time, resources and a lot of efforts in organising, educating and mobilising for socialist change. But in the long run, this hard way is the only way we can change society in the interest of the working people, by ending poverty, eradicating inequality and ensuring that our collective wealth is used to make life better for each and every one of us.

Baba Aye started by stressing the importance of timeliness. He commended the two members of the Nigeria Union of Pensioners who arrived at the venue before 10.00am when the symposium was scheduled to begin and asked younger comrades to learn from their sense of discipline. He then said he would start with general perspectives before speaking briefly about the particular case of “change” in Nigeria which Comrade Yahaya had spoken at length on, with brilliance.

Change he pointed out, as an old adage goes, is the only thing constant in life. This is so because the world is material and matter is in constant motion as is self-evident in nature. For example one cannot put her/his foot in the same waters of a river twice because a river’s waters are in constant motion. Even sub-atomic particles like neutrons and electrons he pointed, out are in constant movement within this simplest division of matter. This reality of motion and change is not limited to the physical world around us. In fact, the development of humankind’s history shows that change is even more prominent in our social life.

There could be drastic change of form without any significant change in the essence or content of things. An example he gave in this regard with political change is the transition from military rue to civilian rule. While this is a significant change in the form of government, essentially whether in khaki or agbada, the millionaire/billionaire class of the bosses are still the ones in power.

He then veered into the relationship between economic-technological change and social-political change. Just over a decade back for example, mobile phones were a luxury owned only by a few. But its generalisation today has not only affected how we communicate but has also provided a means for aiding communication for working class-people and youths struggle as demonstrated in several revolts and revolutions in recent times, where the bosses try to reduce the content of struggle (aggrieved oppressed people fighting to overthrow governments) to the form (mobile phones and social media).

He further went back down humankind’s memory lane to the earliest form of social organisation as tribes of the “early (woman and) man” who lived by gathering and hunting, and where there was a primitive content of equality. Classes emerged and with this inequality, he said, as a result of positive change in terms of humankind’s harnessing of nature, but with the negative consequence of the exploitation and oppression of the immense majority of the population over the ages, by a few property-owning powerful few.

It was when the ability to cultivate the soil and fabricate metallic tools made it possible for there to be surplus of food and wealth created that the earliest class societies (slave-owning and then feudalist i.e. land-owning) evolved. A powerful few emerged to appropriate the surplus, becoming an oppressive class over the masses who worked, often as enslaved people The advent of capitalism itself was a very significant social change, based on further development of the productive capacities of humankind.

Baba Aye said this background was important to debunk the idea the bosses peddle as if capitalism had always existed and was part and parcel of human nature that cannot be changed. On the contrary, capitalism is relatively speaking a recent form of the social formations humankind has built over millenniums. It has not always existed and will not always exist. It can and has to be supplanted through revolutionary change if humankind and the earth we live on, are not to be destroyed by the greed of the bosses whose basic logic of existence is the expansion of capital.

Of paramount importance to note, he stressed, is that virtually all fundamental changes have come about through intensive struggle. Slavery did not end simply because it had outlived its usefulness, slaves rose in revolts as the film Spartacus shows with artistic rendition. Similarly, when the land-owning era of the feudal lords would collapse, it was not simply because the productive forces had developed beyond the bounds of the logic of feudalism. It was because of revolutions such as those in 17th century Britain and 18th century France, where the English and French respectively, chopped off the heads of their kings.

To end the barbarism of capitalism which worsens by the day, we must wage ceaseless revolutionary struggle to overthrow this exploitative system and enthrone socialism with workers’ power. He reiterated the fact that capitalism was initially a progressive system for humankind despite the bloody and merciless pathway of its birth. It brought broke down the barriers of oceans and time that had separated the different “worlds” (continents and regions) creating one global world and raising the level of humankind’s productive capacity to the extent where there was much more than enough for everyone to live a fulfilled and contented life.

But it has now become a yoke on the further development of humanity. With production being primarily based on the profit motive instead of the people’s need, there will always be cycles of prosperity and crises under capitalism. This is because the bosses will cut back on investments once the rates of their profit falls, Meanwhile, with the development of science and technology and the deployment of this to the development of the productive forces, productivity generally increases and with this, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.

Thus, rather ironically, the vast resources which human efforts make available in modern society become turned into sources of suffering for poor working class-people who create the wealth simply because the rich bosses who control these resources are more concerned with ever increasing the wealth they control to the detriment of making life better for more and more people.

We cannot expect the bosses to be benevolent. Even when they make “welfarist” concessions, it is out of fear that we might overthrow them through revolution if they don’t grant or even initiate such reforms. The only way out of this situation of perpetual misery of working class-people is revolutionary change across the world. And, it is the international working class, whose labour creates the social wealth that the bosses feed fat on that can lead this. Working class-people in Nigeria are part of the worldwide working class movement which is now rising up against the capitalist system. It is within this context that the “change” moment in Nigeria can be best situated.

Pointing out that, as a result of the inability of the bosses to resolve the crisis of their capitalist system, mass anger has challenged these elites at the polls and on the streets. In Europe alone, within the first few years of the global economic crisis, not less than 11 governments were removed either through revolts (as in Iceland) or in general elections as in France, Britain and Portugal.

In Africa, the quest for “change” can be seen at the polls across several countries in what have generally turned out to be the most closely fought elections in these countries such as Senegal and more recently Ivory Coast and Tanzania. More importantly, revolutions brought down governments hitherto considered as being invincible like in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Burkina Faso.

Unfortunately, in virtually all these countries, while a section of the bosses have been kicked out, they have been replaced by some other sections of the same billionaire-class of the 1%, claiming to be more representative of we, the working class-people! This is because the labour movement has not presented clear cut political alternatives rooted in socialism, with strong organisation.

This, Baba Aye said, is partly as a result of the era before now, where the bastardisation of socialism by the Stalinist authoritarian regimes in Soviet Union and its East bloc empire and their subsequent collapse had made it appear that socialism cannot work. But what did not work in those places in a state form and still does not work for the working class-people in its liberal form is capitalism!

The bosses are however very smart, he said. Considering the fact that we the exploited constitute the 99% it is impossible for them to dominate us only with their coercive power of the state (with the army, police, courts, prisons, etc.). As Marx pointed out, the dominant ideas of every era are the ideas of the dominant classes.

The “mental enslavement” with which the bosses condition the minds of most people under normalcy is often subtle, and starts from childhood when we are taught that Mungo Park discovered River Niger and we should be subservient to the established authority (which they wield) in school. As we grow older the mainstream mass media, advertisement, religion and a broad spectrum of social norms, mores and institutions that perpetuate the ideas and practice of the status quo are used to make us consider the bosses’ social-economic and political order as being natural.

This is why as activist unionists; we must think critically, read/study alternative literature and be part of revolutionary socialist organisations like the SWL to better understand what society is and how it can be changed through struggle that leads to the self-emancipation of working class-people. With this extensive background, Baba Aye delved into a brief critical analysis of the APC’s “change” agenda and the working class in Nigeria.

Noting once again that Comrade Yahaya had actually done justice to the fraud of “change” which the APC is, he slightly disagreed with a general notion that there is no change in the APC’s “change”. He argued that, essentially, the party does not represent change from the PDP. But, to win the support of the majority of the electorate, APC had to present a manifesto based on some peripheral but not insignificant difference from the PDP and even the parties that came together to form the APC.

As against the unabashedly neoliberal thrust of the PDP (as well as the now defunct ACN, CPC & ANPP) the APC which had declared its ideology as social democracy presented a well thought out welfarist manifesto, in the mould of mid-20th century social-democracy, which included: social protection measures; pursuit of full employment and; public funding of education, health and housing.

It did not end at that. The party (an amalgam of not just several smaller parties but also different capitalist trends) settled for General Muhammadu Buhari as its flagbearer. With his anti-corruption visage and history as a combatant officer during the civil war, he was the joker in the pack for APC, considering the mass anger in the land against the legitimation of corruption by the state and PDP’s inability to contain the Boko Haram insurgency.

Baba Aye then pointed out the sharp contradictions within both APC as a party, and social democracy as an ideology at this phase in the life of capitalism that have already started playing themselves out. Examples of these, he said are: refusal of APC Senators to endorse a motion for N5,000 unemployment benefits to be paid to youth as against APC’s campaign promises; inability to “crush” Boko Haram before the end of the year as promised; continued backlogs of workers’ salaries, and; the recent attacks of governors including those of APC, on the minimum wage.

Social democracy, Baba Aye said, is unworkable at this historical moment, even if APC is sincere about it. Capitalist reforms cannot be robustly pursued within the context of the current general crisis of the capitalist system. More than ever before, the need to build a mass-based socialist alternative cannot be overemphasized. At the heart of this project must be the re-founding of a working class party which rejects social-democracy for radical socialism.

And related to this is the need for building revolutionary socialist organisations such as the SWL. He thus enjoined as many comrades as present who were not yet members of the League, to consider joining the SWL and to be committed to the struggle of the working class self-emancipation, with renewed vigour.

There were interventions from the floor. Issues raised included:

  • So many people, even within the union, have greater interest in making money over working class education. Quite a number of persons contest for union offices because of the perks and privileges attached to such offices and not necessarily to serve rank and file members;
  • The trade union movement has not been up and doing in fighting against privatisation and other anti-workers policies. This is despite the fact that the national unions and trade union federations have the full backing of rank and file members who are willing to resist these;
  • Workers have a strong weapon in their hands, which us the union. But quite often, they do not use this power as much as they could because of lack of class consciousness;
  • A lot of union representatives are too close to management at the detriment of being close to the rank and file members they are supposed to be representing;
  • Civil society organisations are mainly NGOs without membership and thus are not accountable to anyone. Further, they are spurred into action basically to justify grants from international donors. There is thus no need to promote collaboration between them and the unions.

In addressing these issues, the following were agreed upon as being essential:

  1. When there is robust organisational life within union branches, the possibility of people who are interested only in money and other material benefits to arise as shop stewards would be much less. Rank and file members have to agitate for monthly or bi-monthly branch meetings as stated in the constitutions of virtually all the unions. Information boards, leaflets and other means of information, education and communication dissemination should be used by activist unionists in their branches to ensure vibrancy of union life, from below;
  2. Working class education should be vigorously pursued in the branches. Branch meetings should include sessions for such and activist unionists have to argue for this. And even apart from branch meetings, the local branches should be encouraged to organise discussion sessions for active members on a broad array of issues that will make them better understand society and struggle. SWL activists offered to collaborate with union branches in Gwagwalada in doing this, as had been done in other areas before;
  3. The trade unions can indeed do better in terms of fighting against anti-workers policies. Rank and file unionists have a duty to continually demand more of leaderships. It is not enough to be ready, waiting to follow leadership. We must equally push for action to be taken when leadership is found dragging its feet at the national or state level, in a comradely manner. The head of the union might be in the national leadership, but its heart is right there in the branches, beating with the breath of the rank and file;
  4. Trade union leaders at any level of the union organisation who collaborate with management must be exposed as the traitors that they are. The rank and file must insist that union representatives seek and respect mandate from below for negotiations with management, to curtail acts of collaboration;
  5. The term “civil society organisations” is very broad and actually includes a lot of NGOs that are not accountable to anyone and which might have questionable motives. But, we must not throw away the baby with the bath water. The working class as vanguard of the masses must build wide-ranging alliances. The important thing is for the programme of such alliances to be defined as fighting platforms that can advance the struggle of working class-people for self-emancipation. Within this context, activist unionists and their unions should rigorously collaborate with and join revolutionary socialist organisations, which are also part of the labour movement.

After the discussions, Comrade Peter Adejobi, the SWL Abuja District Secretary thanked all comrades who had taken time out of their busy schedules at the workplace to attend the symposium. His most profuse thanks went to those from unions and workplaces where several comrades came from, such as the: Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) Uniabuja branch, Medical and Health Workers’ Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), University of Abuja Teaching Hospital branch, National Union of Pensioners and National Union of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives. He expressed his joy as well that some Uniabuja students who were not yet members of the Socialist Youth League (the campus organisation of SWL) participated and enjoined them to join SYL on campus.

He promised that SWL would continue to hold such public discussion sessions towards sensitizing rank and file trade unionists and contributing to building the activist zeal necessary for reviving the labour movement. He also encouraged anybody that was not yet a member of the League to join the SWL.

Nineteen persons joined the SWL at the end of the symposium, while 23 copies of Socialist Worker were sold as well as several books and pamphlets.



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