22 April 2010

Nigeria: May Day Must Retain Its Focus

Photo: NLC
Nigeria Labour Congress protesting 1 May.

With a few weeks to May Day popular among the working class as " Workers Day", trade unions around the world have lined up activities to mark May Day.

In Britain, it would only be a few days away from the general election scheduled for May 6. There would however be no May Day in the United States of America because Workers' Day is marked first Monday in September in the USA.

Here in Nigeria, trade unions affiliated to the Nigeria Labour Congress ( NLC) or the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria ( TUC) will mark May Day with a series of activities such as symposia or workshops.

What exactly is May Day , what does it symbolise? Simply put, many would say it symbolizes the struggle for eight hour work. Others with the ideological perspective would call it a class struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed. For some others, it is Red Day. To such people, May Day is for those who share the communist ideology.

The essence of this article is to draw attention to the gradual drift from the symbolism of May Day by some trade unions in this country. Recently, a state council of the Nigeria Labour Congress announced that it would present award to employers on May Day. The question then is , do we mark May Day to celebrate employers? If we must present awards which in principle one disagrees with, are there no members of trade unions deserving such awards?

For this particular state council, does it mean there are no issues to be raised with employers in that state? Do all workers in the public and private sector have all issues in the work place settled? Me thinks, May Day should remain what it is.

A day to draw attention to conditions in the work place such as casual labour, unnecessary down-sizing of employees by employers, non remittance of employees contribution to Pension Fund Administrators by many employers.

Failure of employers to provide creche for nursing mothers, non- implementation the Decent Work Agenda etc. Many employers are yet to educate their employees on HIV/ AIDS, many have no productivity schemes in place, hence evaluation of employees input is at mercy of the evaluating officer. All of these are issues that one expects union leaders to bring to the fore on May Day.

This council is however not alone in the deviation from May Day tradition.

Labour Centres too seem to have shifted focus. May Day has become a day for politicians to address workers. This should stop.

The speeches made by these politicians usually get the attention of the media thereby pushing to the background the salient issues raised by workers and the trade unions on May Day.

May Day: Its origin

Although the Americans do not mark May Day, it actually originated in Chicago, Illinois.

Mr. Femi Aborishade, a lecturer at the Polytechnic Ibadan and a former education officer with the Nigeria Labour Congress, in his publication " May Day: Genesis and Significance" took us down memory lane " On that fateful 1st of May 1886, about 350,000workers in 11, 562 establishments in America were on strike.

In Chicago alone, 40,000 workers were on strike while two-thirds of the factories were shut down. As a result , over 45,000 were granted shorter working day without striking".

As stated in his publication, no fewer that 200,000 workers had working time reduced from 15 hours to 12 hours and from 12 hours or more to ten and nine hours per day.

The workers meeting organised by the union leaders on May 4 , 1886 at Hay market Square to protest the brutality of the police but ended up with more casualities.Records have it that hundreds of protesters were wounded and several others shot dead. Some of the strikers were executed while others either died in prison or had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

The workers protest which took place in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, is what is now being marked world wide as May Day.

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