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In Nigeria, choke-point strikes point to successful strategy


On Monday June 3 the the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress declared an open-ended general strike to resist the government’s neoliberal policies that have wrecked the economy and worsened the conditions for the vast working class supermajority in Africa’s most populous country. To fight these policies, the unions escalated their tactics after months of fruitless negotiations and shut down the country by targeting its most vulnerable choke points, the electrical grid and airports. 

Nigeria should be one of the richest countries in Africa, if not the world. Despite being one of the world’s largest oil producers, most of the people have never benefited from its immense wealth, either while as a British colony for a century or since independence in 1960. When President Bola Tinubu was elected in 2023 he immediately implemented a series of drastic austerity policies, including ending the subsidy on oil prices, devaluing the currency and increasing university fees in a system that had been tuition free until recently.  

As a result, the economy continued to shrink and the price of food and other necessities skyrocketed. Since 2014, per capita income has dropped by 27 percent. The tiny elite continue to get richer from the vast oil wealth that makes up about 90 percent of the country’s foreign earnings. Between 2005-2013, the armed group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) carried out an armed struggle in the oil-rich Niger Delta demanding that wealth be shared with the people. It’s neither the first nor last armed insurgency in the country. 

The unions broke off negotiations and called the general strike when the government failed to meet their demands. They didn’t wait for Nigerian labor law to allow them to strike or establish strict limits on what they can or cannot do. They simply carried out their strategy to disrupt the entire economy.  

As all strikes should do they targeted critical vulnerabilities in the Nigerian economy to bring it to a stop. Government offices, schools, airport and energy companies were shut down, gates were chained and workers blocked entrances to ensure the strike kept these workplaces shut tight.  

That is no small feat for only having about 10 percent union density, just below the U.S. rate. They succeeded because the strike wasn’t about the members interests but the interests of the entire working class. They are demanding that the 30,000 naira ($20) minimum wage be increased to 500,000 naira ($336). While a 1,500-percent increase might seem extreme, that is what’s required to get it to a living wage. The minimum wage isn’t enough to fill an average car’stank of gas in Nigeria.  

Within two days the government offered to double the minimum wage to the equivalent of $40 a month. In response, the strike was suspended until June 10th to allow further negotiations. This strike shows that targeting critical choke points gets the goods. While the outcome is still unknown, it provides an example for how to organize an effective strike. 

According to the June print issue of Labor Notes, flight attendant unions at 14 airlines in the U.S. have authorized strikes. This means we once again face the possibility of a disruptive national strike that could potentially transform the balance of power workers and bosses. This potential existed in 2022 when the four largest railroad unions threatened to strike together until President Biden and congressional Democrats imposed a contract on the unions. Again, in 2023 the Teamsters threatened to shut down UPS until a strike was called off following a last-minute deal. 

Considering Biden’s tanking popularity due to his support for Israel’s genocidal slaughter in Gaza, he is likely to try to derail another disruptive national strike. It is still to be seen if the unions can survive the bureaucratic gauntlet the 1926 Railway Labor Act puts in the way of striking.  

A general strike in the airline industry could have a disruptive impact both nationally and internationally. The airlines and logistics companies like FedEx and UPS account for about a third of the value of global trade, according to the International Air Transport Association, the largest part which takes place in the U.S

If a strike were to happen, it could spread to other sectors along the supply chain because workers covered by the RLA are legally allowed to engage in solidarity strike, a right prohibited under the NLRA to all other private sector workers.  

As in Nigeria, a national strike that speaks to the largest interests of the working class is likely to gain widespread support and spread. And if it does, that will empower workers in other related sectors along the U.S. and global supply chain by also encouraging non-union workers to self-organize. This could tip the balance of class power in our favor.  

It’s time to stop allowing labor law to be a roadblock in the way of workers organizing for power. It didn’t stop the Nigerian unions who did not let labor law or electoral politics tell them what workers can or cannot do and when they can or can’t act. 

Robert Ovetz is author of the forthcoming book “Rebels for the System” (Haymarket Press) about nonprofits, capitalism and the labor movement. He is also the author and editor of four books including “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.”

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