IN LIGHT of the recently planned October 3, 2023 national strike that was called off by the NLC and TUC, let us examine the 1964 general strike and the Morgan Commission for lessons that might help Nigerian workers carry out successful general strikes in future.
The Morgan Commission was the product of the 1963 general strike. The workers went on a general strike on September 27, 1963 and the federal government capitulated a few days later and set up the Morgan Commission. The terms of reference of the Morgan Commission included the investigation of the existing wage structure, remuneration and conditions of service in wage-earning employments in the country. The Morgan Commission sat from October 1963 to April 1964 and received petitions and presentations from workers, trade unions, private employers and regional governments.
The Morgan Commission recommended the division of the nation into four waged zones in its final report. The monthly minimum 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. For the salaried staff, the commission recommended an annual wage increase of £36.0 for those who earn less than £312.0 a year, an annual increase of £24.0 to those who earn between £319.0 and £432.0 a year and an annual increase of £12.0 to those in the £433.0 to £588.0 range. The commission recommended the establishment of wage boards to enforce the salary increases. It made the new wage scale payable from October 1, 1963.
The failure of the State to release a white paper on the recommendations of the Morgan Commission report forced the Joint Action Committee (JAC) to call for a mass meeting in Lagos on May 30, 1964 and a general strike on June 1, 1964. During the mass meeting, the militant trade union leaders agitated for a demonstration against the federal government’s ban on public meetings and demonstrations. They were supported by rank and file workers. The demonstration took place immediately after the mass meeting.
Workers lined up and marched from the meeting place at Surelere to the ULC headquarters at Ebute-Metta. There, the moderate trade union leaders attempted to disperse the workers. However, Michael Imoudu decided to lead the peaceful march to the Prime Minister’s residence in Lagos Island. The march never got there. On Carter Bridge, which connects Lagos mainland to Lagos Island, the Nigerian Police attacked the peaceful workers. The workers were dispersed after numerous police baton charges and excessive use of tear gas. Some workers were injured and many were arrested.
The 1964 general strike began on the next day. Millions of workers participated in the general strike nationwide. The Prime Minister, Sir Abubaka Tafewa Balewa, ordered the workers back to work. The striking workers ignored the order. Some workers demanded that ‘Balewa must go’ and a resolution asking for his resignation was passed at a mass workers’ rally.
On June 3rd, the Federal State released a white paper in which it rejected most of the recommendations in the Morgan Commission’s report. The federal and regional governments, as employers, accused the commission of using a new formula to determine how much means of subsistence was required by a worker and thereby increasing wages by 58% to 100% instead of the 15% to 20% as revealed by the cost of living increase when calculated with the old formula. They divided the country into seven zones, with 3 zones in Southern Nigeria and 4 in northern Nigeria.
In Zone 1, they set a minimum monthly wage of £9.1. Minimum monthly wages were £7.8, in Zones 2 and 3. Zones 4, 5, 6 and 7 had minimum monthly wages of £6.6, £6.1, £5.3 and £4.8 respectively. The states did not increase the salaries of low-income workers earning between £78.0 and £90.0 a year. Rather, it declared that they were covered by the new zonal minimum wages.
Workers in the salary range of £91.0 to £318.0 per year were offered a £18.0 wage increase, while those with salaries between £319.0 and £432.0 were offered a £12.0 wage increase. A £6.0 wage increase was offered to those earning between £433.0 and £588.0 per year. The governments argued that the new wage scale should become effective from April 1, 1964.
The workers’ response was to continue the strike. Private sector workers joined the strike in large number. On June 10th, the Federal State threatened to dismiss all striking workers and deny them all their pension rights. It issued queries to 10,000 striking workers. Private sector employers gave a similar ultimatum on June 12th. Some of the companies carried out the threat. For instance, Union Trading Company dismissed 1,000 workers on June 12, 1964, for participating in the strike. Policemen were invited to offer protection to new applicants. Despite such repressive measures, the general strike continued.
According to the Financial Times; “The strike was more than a strike for a living wage for the low-income groups of workers in Nigeria. It was a protest strike against the extravagance of politicians of all parties, against corruption and nepotism in high places and the failure of all Governments in the Federation to improve the lot of workers, particularly the low income group since Nigeria attained independence in 1960. Nigerian labour leaders had decided to ask the Federal Government to appoint a commission of inquiry into the wealth of the ruling class.”
The Federal State capitulated and a Reconciliation Committee, consisting of JAC leaders and representatives of the states, was set up to negotiate around the recommendations of the Morgan Commission. The general strike was called off on June 13, 1964, based on the understanding that no striking worker would be victimised and the strike period would be regarded as leave with pay. The strike cost the nation more than £10.0 million. Negotiation began on June 15, 1964.
After two weeks of negotiation, the federal government accepted responsibility for the implementation of the new wage scale in the private sector. It also accepted the responsibility for implementing a grading system where workers doing equal work would get equal pay irrespective of their geographical location. The grading system was modified and workers divided into unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled categories. The nation was divided into 6 zones, with 2 zones in Southern Nigeria and 4 in the North. Minimum monthly wages of £10.0 were set for workers in Zone 1 and all workers in the private sector. In Zone 2, the monthly minimum wage rate was fixed at £8.125. The range of the monthly minimum wages in the 4 northern Nigerian zones were increased from £4.0-£6.0 to £5.2-£8.0.
All minimum wage rates in the country were made applicable to workers employed by voluntary agencies, states’ bodies and parastatal (statutory corporations). Salary increases of £24.0 per year were given to workers earning less than £318.0 per year. £16.0 and £8.0 salary increases were given to those earning £318.0-£432.0 and £433.0-£588.0 respectively. The daily wage system was to be abolished between 1965 and 1967 and all unskilled workers moved into the permanent establishment.
Thus, after the 1964 general strike and the Morgan Awards, the daily wages of unskilled public sector workers in the Federal Territory increased from 5s. l0d. to 7s. 8d. This constituted a 31% increase in monetary wages. In the rest of Southern Nigeria, daily wages increased by 26% from 5s. to 6s. 3d. Similar increases were recorded in northern Nigeria. Semi-skilled public sector workers were paid 9s. 3d. per day in Lagos, 8s. l0d. in the rest of Southern Nigeria and 6s. 2d. in northern Nigeria. The greatest increase in this grade occurred in northern Nigeria where daily wages rose by 37%. Public sector workers in the skilled (artisans) grade were paid 10s. nationwide, reflecting an increase of 15.4% from the 1963 wage rate.
The NLC and TUC need to remember the lessons of the 1964 general strike because they are very relevant to the struggles of the Nigerian workers today. These lessons were: (1) the trade unions demanded a commission of enquiry instead of negotiating directly with the federal government. This allowed them to engage the federal government as the State authority or representative of the Nigerian bourgeois class, rather than as a public sector employer. (2) the unions formed a united front. (3) the unions bridged the public-private sector divisions as well as the divisions between federal public sector workers and regional public sector workers. The regional governments and private employers were invited to make presentations to the commission. (4) the unions had a strong, well prepared negotiation team. They not only prepared for the general strike, they prepared for the resulting negotiations. (5) the trade unions had clear, consistent measurable demands. (6) the trade unions mobilised, not only their members for the general strike, but also the whole of the general Nigerian civil society. The Michael Imoudu-led pre-strike Lagos demonstration was designed to mobilise civil society and public sentiment (7) the negotiations continued until most of the workers’ demands were met.
The institutional memory of workers struggles needs to be maintained during capacity-building and training of trade unionists. The lessons learned from the past struggles of Nigerian workers are essential to waging successful workers struggles in the future.
Dr Agbon, now a consultant; was HOD, Department of Petroleum Engineering, University of Ibadan (UI), former ASUU Chairman, UI. He lives in the USA, and can be reached via: Izielenagbon@yahoo.com, or Twitter: @izielenagbon.