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The 1963 general strike and the struggles of workers | The Guardian Nigeria News - Nigeria and World News


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    The planned general strike of October 3, 2023 was called off a few hours before it began. Like most NLC-TUC planned general strikes, it was aborted without a whimper. A pattern of planned general strikes called off at the last moment after meetings with government officials is starting to emerge.

    Two problems arises with this pattern of government-trade union relationship. First, workers make very few gains. Secondly, workers lose faith in the trade union leadership. The possibility that workers will fail to mobilize for future planned general strike, on the assumption that it will be called off at the last minute as usual, increases exponentially.

    Therefore, it is imperative that we examine past successful general strikes by Nigerian workers in the hope of learning some useful lessons. We will start by examining the general strike of 1963 and the struggle for the establishment of the Morgan Commission.

    In 1963, there were many breakaway central labour unions arising from disagreement over affiliation with international organizations such as the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Co-federation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU).

    The central labour unions included the NTUC, ULC, IULC, LUF, NWC, and NFL. The preponderance of central labour unions led to many rank and file wildcat strikes by union affiliates. These strikes were brutally broken up by the police. For instance, the 15000 strong National Council of Dockworkers went on strike for higher wages in February 1963. The Nigerian Port Authority called in the police who attacked the striking workers.

    One worker was killed in Lagos and 3 in Port Harcourt. In the face of the government’s coercive tactics against workers, the United labour Congress (ULC) demanded for a wage commission, a general wage increase and a national minimum wage. It promised to go on a general strike, if the the Federal and Regional governments do not meet the demands by September 27, 1963.

    On August 20th, the Federal Government made contact with the ULC. A meeting was arranged between ULC leaders and the Federal Minister of Establishments and Service Matters. In the meeting, the Federal Minister said that the Federal government’s priority was finding jobs for the rising number of unemployed. Public and private employers could not survive economically with a general wage increase.

    The Federal Government preferred to negotiate with the individual ULC affiliates rather than the ULC. Furthermore, the government would not negotiate under the threat of a strike. Finally, the Minister asked the ULC to withdraw their demands. The ULC leaders officially replied “(1) that Government could not hope to build a robust economy by maintaining a debtor working class; (2) that there was no disagreement over the ULC’s contention that there had been a considerable increase in the cost of living since the Mbanefo Commission awards.

    The Minister’s suggestion that the Congress should give up the demands was, to say the least, disappointing; (3) that the important question of introducing a national minimum wage was not a matter to be discussed at a Withley Council meeting. Congress wanted to negotiate with the Government on the matter, not as an employer but as a State authority.”

    The ULC further stated, “It is necessary to reemphaise that Congress did not address its demands to the Governments necessarily as employers but as the authority of State, which not only has direct responsibility to protect workers in all sectors of wage employment in the country, but also the obligation to bring about a more rational economic structure, the first steps towards which in our view is a complete overhaul of the existing colonial wage structure. It is clear that when the Governments spoke, as they did in the present statement, merely as civil service employers, they have once again shirked their responsibility to the workers in the private sector. Congress considered it necessary to call for a commission.”

    The separation of the Federal government, as the State, from the Federal government, as an employer, was a tactic used by the trade unions to over come the division of public and private sectors imposed by Nigerian capital. Making demands on the Federal government, as the employer, limited those demands to public sector workers. On the other hand, making demands on the Federal government, as the State , encompass all waged workers. The ULC and the NTUC decided to unite in a wage committee. This wage committee became the Action Committee and was later expanded to include representatives of the NWC, the LUF and other independent unions. Its name was then changed to the Joint Action Committee (JAC). The JAC purpose was to fight for a wage commission and execute a general strike by September 27, 1963, if a wage commission had not been appointed by the Federal government on that date.

    On September 27, 1963, the JAC embarked on a general strike. The strike was led by the railway and municipal workers. Public sector workers supported the strike and government services throughout the nation were halted. Some private sector workers participated in the strike. Peaceful protest marches took place in many cities. The strike disrupted all preparation for the October1 independence celebration.

    Nigeria was to become a politically independent Republic on October 1, 1963 and many foreign visitors had been invited by the Federal and Regional States to mark the occasion. Hence, the striking workers posed an embarrassing political problem for the Federal and Regional governments. The Federal and Regional governments capitulated and appointed a wage commission on September 30, 1963. After this, the 1963 general strike was called off.

    The wage commission was chaired by Mr. Justice Adeyinka Morgan. Therefore, it is generally referred to as the Morgan Commission. Its terms of reference were: (1) to investigate the existing wage structure, remuneration and conditions of service in wage-earning employments in the country and to make recommendation concerning a suitable new structure, as well as adequate machinery for a wages review on a continuous basis; (2) to examine the need for: (a) a general upward revision of salaries and wages of junior employees in both Government and private establishments; (b) the abolition of the daily wage system, and (c) the introduction of a national minimum wage; and to make recommendations. The Morgan Commission heard testimony from trade union leaders and private employers from October, 1963 to April, 1964. It finished its investigations in April of 1964 and submitted a report with many recommendations to government.

    In its report, the Commission recommended the division of the nation into four wage zones. The minimum monthly wages in Zone 1 and Zone 2 were fixed at £12.0 and £10.0 respectively. Minimum monthly wages in Zone 3 were set at £8.0 while those at Zone 4 were set at £6.5. The commission recommended an annual wage increase for the salaried staff. It recommended the establishment of wage boards to enforce the salary increases. It made the new wage scale payable from October 1, 1963. It also changed the regularity of payment to twice a month and suggested numerous negotiation machinery and institutions that should be established to handle industrial disputes. It recommended that each industry should have a National Joint Industrial Council.

    A National Wage Advisory Council should deal with all wage policies while an Industrial Court should settle industrial disputes. The Labour Code, the Trade Disputes (Arbitration and Inquiry) Act, the Trade Disputes Act, the Trade Union Act and other laws were to be amended and improved. The Federal State released the Morgan Commission report on May 17, 1964, without making any comments. The failure of the State to indicate if it had accepted or rejected the recommendations of the Morgan Commission report forced the JAC to call for a mass workers’ meeting at Surulere, Lagos, on May 30, 1964.

    In this meeting, the workers decided to go on a general strike on June 1, 1964. We will examine the 1964 general strike and the struggles around the recommendations of the Morgan commission in our next article. The lessons from the 1963 general strike are very relevant to the struggles of the Nigerian workers and their trade unions today.

    The centre trade unions, (ULC, IULC, NTUC, LUF and NWC), united to fight for a wage increase and a wage commission of enquiry. The trade unions overcame the division between the public and private sector workers by dealing with the Federal and Regional government as the Authority of State and not as public sector employers.

    The unions mobilized the rank and file members and the general public around a minimum set of demands prior to the strike. This help them overcome the division between the waged and unwaged workers. The unions made government acceptance of their minimum demands a condition for postponing or calling off the strike.

    The unions choose the timing of the strike to disrupt the October 1 independence celebrations. This forced government to capitulate after 2 days of strike action.

    The strike was aimed at achieving a well publicized set of demands. Finally, the workers executed the general strike successfully. Hopefully, these lessons will be taken to heart by the NLC and TUC when they call for the next general strike against the anti-people policies of the current Federal government administration.
    Agbon can be reached via: [email protected]

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