The planned general strike to demand reversal of hikes in fuel pump price and electricity tariff was unceremoniously called off by the two trade union centres at the last minute, after an overnight meeting with the federal government.
Millions of working-class people and youth were bitterly disappointed. Despite the official call-off of the general strike and mass protests, the NLC and TUC in Edo state led demonstrations in conjunction with some civil society organisations, including CDHR and SWL. The national leadership of the NLC subsequently issued a query to the state council. Civil society organisations also demonstrated in Oyo and Kogi states with tacit support of the NLC & TUC states councils.
The condemnable action of the trade unions is however not surprising. It took several weeks after the price hikes before they reluctantly resolved to take the botched action. And even before this period, they have avoided a national campaign for implementation of the new (and earlier on the old) minimum wage, or against the non-payment of salaries and pensions in several states for years.
In the heat of the moment, there have been several analyses on the role of trade unions in working-class struggles as well as perspectives on how activists should relate to the trade unions. Most of these analyses reduce the working-class to the trade unions and further reduce the trade union movement to the trade union leadership. Not surprisingly, the solution presented based on these flawed analyses is simply change in leadership of the trade unions.
All people who work are part of the working-class. Trade unions constitute the most organised sections of the working-class. They include rank and file members and officials who constitute the bureaucracy/leadership of the unions.
The bureaucracy does not just simply represent rank and file workers. It mediates between the rank and file workers on one hand and the capitalist employers and governments on the other.
They cannot afford to fully discard concern for the yearnings of the rank and file workers. Otherwise they will not only lose legitimacy to their base, they will also lose any relevance to the bosses who rely on them to keep workers in check.
But they are also quite careful to avoid offending these bosses including the government which puts selected trade union leaders on boards of government agencies and parastatals.
The trade union bureaucracy is primarily concerned with defending its own interests and perks and privileges more than any other thing. That is why the same unions that didn’t organise protests to enforce implementation of the national minimum wage could demonstrate because a former trade union leader was put on the board of the national labour institute (MINILS) instead of the more juicy board of the NSITF.
That is why trade union leaders are proud to flaunt their membership of the National Policy Institute (Kuru mafia) shared with military generals, police bigwigs etc and even chieftaincy titles!
It is mass anger of rank and file workers and the masses that decisively pushes the trade union bureaucracy into action. We saw this in January 2012 when state council officials of NLC made it clear that they would be stoned if they went back to their states without an early date being fixed for the general strike.
Thus, our primary orientation as socialists, must be to the rank and file workers and union branch leaders. Carrying out political education to raise working-class consciousness from below is of utmost importance for radicalising the trade union movement.
This does not mean we should not establish or maintain relations with national and particularly state council trade union leaders. It is important that we do so. But it would be self-deceit to think that the primary divide within the trade unions is between radical and conservative leaders. It is between the leadership as a whole and the rank and file workers.
Intervention of socialist forces in the working-class movement has also been limited by the small sizes of most groups. Quite often socialist groupuscules and coalitions would want to boast that demonstrations of between 12 and a few dozens of them has been decisive in forcing decisions of the trade union bureaucracy.
This is another demonstration of self-deceit. The national trade unions are no substitute for a nationwide revolutionary body that can stoke the embers of rebellion from below. The Coalition for Revolution has demonstrated its nationwide spread and strength.
The cadreship of its #RevolutionNow movement must further orient itself to the working-class in the battles ahead as we enter a period of sharpened crisis of the capitalist system.
This does not mean that the tasks before us can or will be borne by any single organisation or coalition. There is an urgent need for all radical and revolutionary bodies to deepen collaboration. And that is why CORE issued a letter calling for such unity in the wake of the 28 September betrayal.
It is not for us to laugh or to cry. What we need to do is understand the structural as well as subjective reasons for the trade unions habitual betrayal. And it is also not enough to understand or interpret this “tradition”. To strengthen class consciousness and practices within the trade unions, we must deepen our work within the working-class. We must organise, mobilise, unite, and fight!