Youth And The Labour Movement: A Leadership Manifesto By Sylvester Odion Akhaine

The youths, under the aegis of Edo Restoration Movement, (ERM) Photo
The youths, under the aegis of Edo Restoration Movement, (ERM)

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine

The world is undergoing tremendous transformation. The labour environment is caught in this web of transformation with discussions on the future of work that is highly digitalized. [1] The development of new productive forces and the inherent and corresponding changes in the relations of production are key to the unfolding process. At the moment we are simultaneously caught in the web of both third and fourth industrial revolutions. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has wrought tremendous changes in production and production relations. Service industries are on the ascendancy, perhaps competing with factory-level productive activities. Technological transformation is inclined towards artificial intelligence and robotics. As Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum rightly puts it:

The Fourth Industrial Revolution builds on the Third Industrial Revolution, also known as the Digital Revolution, which entailed the proliferation of computers and the automation of record keeping; but the new wave of transformation differs from its predecessors in a few key ways. First, innovations can be developed and diffused faster than ever. Second, falling marginal production costs and the rise of platforms that aggregate and concentrate activity in multiple sectors augment returns to scale. Third, this global revolution will affect – and be shaped by – all countries, and have a systems-level impact in many areas. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to empower individuals and communities, as it creates new opportunities for economic, social, and personal development. But it also could lead to the marginalization of some groups, exacerbate inequality, create new security risks, and undermine human relationships. [2]

The problem with the trade unions today is that they are being led by right-wing elements who can sing the "International", the workers' anthem, and other solidarity songs. Click To Tweet

The overall matrix is capitalism. Capitalism as a socio-economic ideology is the dominant economic philosophy; it is a system of private ownership of the means of production and its basic law is the maximization of profit to the detriment of the working class. The principal law has gained expression through globalisation and the neoliberal economic policies that it conveys. The former has been defined in general terms Elirea Bornman as ” the transformation of temporal and spatial limitations, that is, the shrinking of distance due to the dramatic reduction in the time needed to bridge spatial differences which has, in turn, resulted in the gradual integration of political, economic and social space across national borders.”[3] She notes its association with the economy that Ben Lutkevich captures so well as an “integrated economies marked by free trade, the free flow of capital among countries and easy access to foreign resources, including labor markets, to maximize returns and benefit for the common good”.[4]

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as far back in 1848 captured the intrinsic global character of globalisation when they noted that:

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. [5]

In her “A Short History of Neoliberalism” Susan George captures the internal logic of neoliberal policies as “the whole point of neo-liberalism is that the market mechanism should be allowed to direct the fate of human beings. The economy should dictate its rules to society, not the other way around.” [6] For it was the realisation of the previously unthinkable idea, that is, “The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given much less rather than more social protection.” George Monbiot further gives the Neoliberal idea an accent:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning…Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. [7]

To be sure, the contradiction of this process is the provenance of working-class solidarity being the social force at the receiving end of the deleterious effect of capitalist relations of production.

Today, in Nigeria, workers do not access minimum wage, what is termed minimum wage is not enough for subsistence; it is a mere slave wage. Click To Tweet

Assessing the Youth

There is abundant literature on the question about the place of the youth in society. The current global demographic analysis speaks loudly about the huge youth component of our population and its implication for productivity. According to the United Nations, in 2019, there are about 1.2 billion youth aged 15 to 24 years in the world, or 16 percent of the global population. Around 2065, the world’s youth population is projected to reach its peak, at just fewer than 1.4 billion persons (13%) by 2030 at a 7 percent growth rate. By the target year, the number of young people in Africa of working age will be 375 million and will have to contend with youth unemployment. [8] The picture is gloomier with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). By some estimate, about 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 30,[9] representing about 743 million of the 1.061 billion people in the region. As Landry Signe rightly notes the bulge has implications “for economic activity, public service provision, and state stability. By 2050, one out of three young people in the world will be living in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the actual high unemployment and vulnerable employment rates for youth, the group with the most at stake, young African leaders deserve to be part of the policy discussions that seek to find solutions to the challenge of employment.” In this broad context, the discourse of youth in a leadership position is rife.

In Africa, there is the need for a generational shift in terms of access to power. Africa is generally led by gerontocratic autocrats and the need to get the youth into decision-making spaces is foregrounded. Indeed, the point is made that “youth leaders can advance civil society growth, poverty reduction, economic expansion, and innovation throughout the continent by strengthening the participation of women and youth, promoting human rights, facilitating access to justice, and ensuring the inclusion of all communities.”[10] This discourse takes place within the development set, bared of its ideological fangs in seeming denial of the global stage as a contested space by social forces, a contest in which the principal actors shaping the global political economy writ large.

Youth leadership in the Labour Movement

The experience of three young activists in the United States of America speaks to this sub-theme. In their “Youth activism in the labour movement: 3 Perspectives”, Rachel Haut, Natalie Kelly and Max Mishler, the trio enthuse about the potential of working-class power. Hear the voice of Haut:

An activist since birth, my genuine interest in the labor movement sparked after experiencing the severe exploitation and hardship that nonunion workers face firsthand. Right out of high school, some handywoman experience led me to a career as a specialty carpenter. Uneducated and uninformed of my rights as a worker, I was unaware that my employer was paying me illegally as an independent contractor. Additionally, I later learned my compensation was lower than that of the male co-workers whom I had trained. The conditions of our work would never have met Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and, after two years on the job, I sustained a serious injury which left me unable to work. Instead of receiving just compensation, I was fired. Months of fighting with the management and the New York Labor Department for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation ensued. Like most workers in these straits, I ended up on the losing side of the battle. My introduction to the labor movement arose when I had the opportunity to participate in the Murphy Institute/City University of New York’s Union Semester Program. [11]

Haut also speaks to the potentials of the working class and the vitiating dynamics thus:

The real power of the labor movement lies in the ability of workers to collectively withhold their labor power. However, organized labor, particularly since the Taft Hartley Act of 1947, has increasingly failed to maximize this power. Overall, unions today are unwilling to fundamentally challenge the class system, fight their own institutional oppressions, or develop innovative ways to organize under new conditions of capitalism. Stuck, bureaucratic, hierarchical, and protectionist, the labor movement will continue to lose…Organized labor needs to organize truly democratic unions, especially in industries with high young worker densities. But it could also do a lot more to support youth by allying with the next generation of potential union activists as they tackle crippling student debt at universities throughout the nation. Labor must alter the bureaucratic power systems in our unions if it wants to appeal to young activists and begin shifting the balance of power in our economy. Unions must also provide solidarity to young people as and where they are affected by the continued downturn in the economy. [12]

Kelly adds her voice:

Working for UNITE HERE, I could scarcely beers trying to organize are confronted not just with dictatorial managers and anti-union tactics, but with the anonymity and invulnerability presented by behemoth, multinational corporations. In order for organizing drives to be successful, labor leaders must rise up to the playing fields of these oversized corporations. One of the most impressive elements of UNITE HERE is its evident willingness to do so. Armed with a staff of young researchers and a militant rank-and-file, the union seems poised for success…When I went to members’ houses or hotel break rooms to talk to workers, I wasn’t thinking of myself as a radical. I didn’t venture out with the idea of a Socialist Revolution in my mind. The philosophical underpinnings of my actions are certainly bound up with a desire for a radical change in distribution of power and resources in our society; but I actually knock on doors for the people. [13]

On her part, Mishler says:

Workers sometimes bring long histories of struggle from their homelands or families, while other times they can have reactionary world views espousing profoundly anti-worker or materialistic ideologies. However, instead of waiting for people to “wake up” or rid themselves of “false consciousness” or organizing those who are already “in the know,” the labor movement is a site where real people come together out of self-interest and concern for others to tackle real problems and it is in that space where the old wounds of oppression have a real chance to heal (Emphasis added). [14]

The trio not only speak to the essentiality of the labour movement and its working class content but also the bureaucratic impediments of the labour movement created by the union leaders. All, activists in the United States, the heart and centerpiece of capitalism, their activism took place in the context of economism, a limited form of struggle for improvement in the welfare of the workers to which workers in America have been accustomed to by the sheer force of capital and its political minders.

To be sure, youth leadership in the labour movement takes different forms. We can at least speak to two major aspects. One is the involvement in the mobilisation and education of the workers in the production sites from outside. The other is a conscious leadership role within the trade unions infusing into it revolutionary consciousness. As a member of the Patriotic Labour Movement (PLM), one of the leftwing revolutionary cores in the 1980s, I received my ideological education from consciously organised education classes where I was introduced to the radical literature of the working class ideological school. The core also essayed at creating front organisations such as the Nigeria Tenants Association (NTA) in which I participated as the pioneer general-secretary. The whole idea was to reach out to the suffering broad masses of our people. Lagos then and now has remained a site of the tyranny of the landlords. Our goal was to free the working from the exploitative inclinations and practices of the landlords and to use the fact that exploitation to educate people to attain revolutionary consciousness that is required to transform the capitalist system. Besides, we were also involved in organising the students, often regarded as declassed elements, to attain revolutionary consciousness. Ideological cells were organised in many of our campuses by the various left-core organisations and attained convergence in the Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria (PYMN). During this period the Students movement whose objective expression was the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) was affiliated with the Nigerian labour Congress. It was guided by a charter of demand that was anti-imperialist, those forces that have emasculated our national productive forces, at both local and international levels.

Leadership role within the trade unions is a strategic site of a struggle given the discontentment in their ranks, such as the “bureaucratic power systems” that Haut [15] has highlighted. It is a form of complacency with being union leaders bargaining for welfare tokenism with the management and with a certain petty-bourgeois orientation. Youth can transform this contradiction by a conscious leadership role in the trade unions. The problem with the trade unions today is that they are being led by right-wing elements who can sing the “International”, the workers’ anthem, and other solidarity songs. Ideologised youth can make the trade unions site of revolutionary optimism beyond economism to address the power question. This is currently lacking, and it is a vacuum that was encouraged by the collapse of bipolarity and the mainstreaming of neoliberal orthodoxies. George has pointed to the emasculating impact of neoliberalism when she observed that:

They have built this highly efficient ideological cadre because they understand what the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci was talking about when he developed the concept of cultural hegemony. If you can occupy peoples’ heads, their hearts and their hands will follow. I do not have time to give you details here, but believe me, the ideological and promotional work of the right has been absolutely brilliant. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, but the result has been worth every penny to them because they have made neo-liberalism seem as if it were the natural and normal condition of humankind. No matter how many disasters of all kinds the neo-liberal system has visibly created, no matter what financial crises it may engender, no matter how many losers and outcasts it may create, it is still made to seem inevitable, like an act of God, the only possible economic and social order available to us. [16]

Marx and Engels once gave a sense of the minimum wage in the Communist Manifesto as follows:

The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence. [17]

Today, in Nigeria, workers do not access minimum wage, what is termed minimum wage is not enough for subsistence; it is a mere slave wage. It comes from the overall impact of neoliberalism that expresses itself

…in remunerating capital to the detriment of labour and thus moving wealth from the bottom of society to the top. If you are, roughly, in the top 20 percent of the income scale, you are likely to gain something from neo-liberalism and the higher you are up the ladder, the more you gain. Conversely, the bottom 80 percent all lose and the lower they are to begin with, the more they lose proportionally. [18].

Given the reality I have sketched out in the forgoing, a leadership manifesto becomes imperative. This is precisely the preoccupation of the next section of this conversation.

Conclusion: A Leadership Manifesto

Frantz Fanon [19] reminds us that every generation out of relative obscurity, discovers its mission, you have a choice: you either fulfill it or betray it. Youth can lead the labour movement to fulfill its historical mission of emancipation of the working class. To do this, they must go through certain rites of passage. They include adaptation, ideological certification, ideological education, commitment, and transnational solidarity.

By adaption here, I mean up-skilling to meet the structural changes in the global economy as a result of the dynamics of both the third and fourth revolutions. This has implications for remaining in employment.

To attain ideological certification requires critical consciousness that Paolo Freire qualifies as the ability to understand causality in ways that free one from what he calls “magical consciousness” that attributes causality to some demiurge instead of the dynamic motion matter. It requires political education. As I have observed elsewhere, “Education for class consciousness is imperative so that the sprawling working class movement in Nigeria can simply stop being a class in itself through transformation into a class for itself capable of assuming the historical role of overthrowing the current bourgeois social formation.”[20] The fulfillment of this criterion will create a vanguardist pool of the most advanced elements of the working class—the communists. Above all, it requires a counter-hegemonic strategy to the socialisation of the “neoliberal gospel”.

Commitment comes from a belief in the historical mission of the working class, that is, the capture of political power. It would require a knowing that transcends the confines of economism as eloquently explained by comrade Oladipo Fashina:

Trade unions are said to be ‘political schools’ for workers where they struggle not only for better wages, and conditions of service. In trade unions, workers learn that democracy is their struggle; they learn that without political power, workers will ever remain exploited. The economic struggle must be given a political character, workers must be able to understand the connection between their dissatisfaction with their conditions and the character of the political system. [21].

A globalised world requires transnational solidarity for transformative consequences. The old clarion call by Marx and Engels on the workers of the world to unite as they have nothing to lose but their chains is relevant here. It should become the tally-ho of contemporary times, the epoch of neoliberal imperium. Without a doubt, global solidarity is meaningful to workers’ emancipatory objective.

Go forth and solidarise, the future is yours.

Odion Akhaine, professor of political science of the Lagos State University, LASU delivered this lecture at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Nigeria Young Workers Training Graduation Ceremony, held at the University of Ibadan on December 3, 2021.

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