MODULE 1: History of Trade Unions and Working Class Struggles

About the NLC State Level Schools

The NLC State Level Schools have the broad objective of promoting and strengthening membership involvement in trade union activities through provision of skills needed for effective worker participation. To achieve this, information that serves as a basis for trade union policy formulation, review, implementation and engagement will be provided to participants.

The State Level Schools consist of 10 weekly education sessions of a day per week. They are organized in each of the 37 NLC State Councils and run in venues convenient to workers in the states. Two trained state-level facilitators, identified by the State Administrative Council (SAC) of each of the 37 NLC Councils are responsible for the facilitation of each of the sessions. For administrative purposes, the country is divided into six zones and each zone comprises between 5 to 7 states. Two advanced educators, who are members of the National Co-ordinating Group are responsible for the supervision of each of the zone. Supervision requires each of them to visit a location during each session.

Participants are drawn from unions in every state. Each union in the state is invited to nominate a participant who must attend all sessions of the school. It is projected that each of the 37 school sessions will have a maximum of 40 participants. At least 30% of the school participants would be women.

Who can use the book?

This module is an effective toolkit for:

·         Union Educators

·         Training Co-ordinators

·         Curriculum Developers

·         Trainers.

It is effective in organizing peer educators training and study circle trade union education in the workplace. For effective delivery of knowledge/skills to a specific target group in the workplace, which can ensure a sustainable education programme, ­ the training can be organized for evening or weekend session

This is to strengthen union leadership and responsibility leading to an efficient and effective organizational development.

How to use

This resource book is designed to facilitate the implementation of the NLC State level Schools. They are weekly educational sessions taking place simultaneously in all the 37 State Council of NLC. Two (2) trained facilitators in each of the state councils will guide participants through the modules utilizing the under-listed methodology: ­

1.      Participatory/ Active Learning Method

2.      Brain storming

3.      Group work

4.      Practical task

5.      Discussion group

6.      Report at plenary



Using the above educational approach, opportunity, is given for sharing experience, cross-fertilization of ideas among participants to arrive at a collective solution to trade union challenges.

·         Also it enhances development of practical skills needed for effective day-to-day trade union activity.

·         It also empowers participants to organize effective trade union education in the workplace.


The NLC State Level Schools is a product of years of planning and organizing. It is essentially an attempt to ensure the full implementation of the NLC education policy. Its conception and design draws a lot of input from union educators who have demonstrated commitment, enthusiasm and resilience. We particularly wish to acknowledge the contributions of the following educators:-

1.      Bello Ismail and Funmi Elesho National Union of Textile; Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN)

2.      Wilson Ezuruonye: - National Union of Civil Engineering Construction, Furniture Wood Workers (NUCCEWW)

3.      Afolabi O. Olawale: National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG)

4.      Musa Ukpo - Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations, Civil Service Technical and Recreational Services Employees (AUPCTRE)

5.      Femi Adeniji - Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU)

6.      Tunde Olagoke -. National Union of Chemical, Footwear, Rubber, Leather and  Non-Metallic Products Employees (NUCFRLANMPE)

7.      B. O. A. Ayelabola -  Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigerian (MHWUN)

8.      Valentine Udeh, Maureen Onyia and Rita Goyit -  NLC National Secretariat.

9.      Florence Ekpebor National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM)

10.   Lukman Salihu, former Head of Education/Training Department of NLC

These educators who were the core team in driving NLC education programmes did all the background work leading to the development of this module. The leadership of their unions has been very supportive and responsive to challenges of developing programmes and has never relented in releasing these Comrades, often times at very short notice.

This module also drew input from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and Trade Union Congress of Ghana. Two comrades, Emelia Ghansah and Eddie M. joined the team of NLC Educators in the Module Development workshop, which held from October 4 - 8, 2004 in Abuja, Nigeria to develop the initial draft of the modules. Also, Comrade Bobby Marie, who has been providing technical input to the NLC in developing educational materials and programmes made valuable inputs into the contents of the modules.

We also acknowledge the special roles of some union leaders who have demonstrated special interest in the development of union education programmes. In particular we wish to acknowledge the contributions of Comrades S. O. Z. Ejiofoh, Peter Adeyemi, Emma Ugboaja and Issa Aremu.

We also appreciate the efforts of Olaitan Oyerinde, Owei Lakemfa, Esther Ogunfowora and Tahir Hashim all of NLC National Secretariat who made inputs in the recent review of the modules

The leadership of our state councils has made a lot of input in shaping the content of the State Level schools. Their critical response to our proposals during the Strategic Planning Conference led to a number of very fundamental amendments to the structure and content of the school programmes. The State level facilitators who participated in the Training of Trainers programme using the draft module also made very important contributions.

We specially acknowledge the support of the NLC President and General Secretary who always encouraged us to be focused ourselves in developing grassroots programmes


In this module, we aim to:


Ø      Sensitise shop stewards and members about the history of trade unionism


Ø      Help participants appreciate the formation and objectives of trade union organization


Ø      Assist  participants understand the importance of collective power strength of unity at the workplace


Ø      Help participants know the Constitution of the NLC and understand the functions of the union structures.


The session will last at least 3 hours as follows:


-           Introductions (15 mins)

-           Facilitators/Participants introductory discussion (15 mins)

-           Introduction to the Course Session (30 mins)

-           Participants activity (90s min)

-           Summary (30s min)

-           Introduction to the Readings (30 mins)


The facilitator and participants will introduce themselves by name and union, and say what they expect from this module.


How the Module will be run


A Brief statement that will introduce the activities


Activity 1: Development of Trade Unions




To help us:


  • Understand why trade unions are formed


  • Reflect on the development of trade unions in Nigeria



In your small groups:


Examine the information provided about trade unions in Nigeria and write down five points that you think are important in the history provided


Make a checklist of the factors that led to the formation of trade unions in Nigeria.



To appreciate why workers need to join trade unions

To reflect on the benefits of union membership




In your small group:


  • List three key benefits that you have derived from being a union member


  • Discuss and make a list of points why you think workers need unions


Handout: History of Trade Unions and Working Class

Struggles in Nigeria


  • These documents could be used as a basis for discussion with other workers in the union


  • The documents could be copied and passed on to other workers


1.       Introduction

We study history not because we are sentimental about the past or want to celebrate old leaders, but to learn lessons from the struggles of working people before us.  In this Handout we give a brief account of the history of the working class and its struggles in Nigeria.


2.       The origins of working class struggles and trade unions

The first working class struggles were those of English workers.  They were peasants who lost their lands and were pushed off farms.  They were forced to work for very long hours 12 – 18 hours daily under very poor conditions and low wages in the factories and mines.  This happened at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the late 18 century.


Trade unions emerged from these struggles.  Trade unions were the organizations that gave form to these struggles.  At first, trade unions were declared illegal but later they were granted recognition by the government.  This did not stop the persecution of trade union activists.


3.  Origins of May Day

Workers used to work for between 12 and 18 hours daily.  Trade unions decided that the hours of work should be reduced to 8 hours so that in a given day (24 hours) a worker can work for 8 hours, eat, transport himself and be with his family for 8 hours, and have 8 hours for rest/sleep.


On May 1, 1886, American Workers joined the rest of the world in a general strike to demand for 8 hours work day.  In Chicago, police shot dead some workers which led to a rally on May 4, 1886.  At the rally, a policeman was killed by unknown persons. The American Government arrested eight labour leaders who were not at the scene except for one who was addressing the crowd.  Some of them were imprisoned and some were hanged.  To solidarise with American workers, May 1, was declared International Workers Day (May Day)


4. The Spread of Trade Unionism globally and in Nigeria


Wherever capitalist industrialists expanded their profit-seeking activities across the globe, the idea of trade unionism followed them.  By the late 1800s and early 1900s British capitalists set up industries in many countries in South, East and West Africa.


In all these countries wage workers who replaced the earlier attempts of the colonialists to use forced labour were employed under terrible conditions and for low wages.  Several tactics were used to promote wage-employment which the colonialists needed to service their administrative structures as clerks, porters and messengers; to build railways and harbours needed for carting away the spoils of colonial exploitation and; and to work the mines and plantations.  These tactics included: introduction of taxation that had to be paid in cash; promotion of European consumable commodities that had to be paid for in the colonialists’ currencies; the missionary crusades and the school system which sought to produce lower level human resource that accepted the white man’s values.  The working conditions and remuneration as stated above however were terrible and grossly inadequate.  As workers do in all such situations, they resisted their exploitation.  The first industrial action of workers in Nigeria was recorded in 1897.


The Trade Union Movement emerged out of this early resistance.  The first formal trade union was established on August 19, 1912.  It was called the Nigeria Civil Service Union.  However this union was not recognized and therefore suffered harassment by employers until 1938 when the trade union ordinance was enacted.  This law opened the way for the registration of trade unions in the country



5.  The Meaning of Trade Unions and the Working Class



Working Class Struggle


The root of trade unions is working class struggle against their exploitation by capitalists and the oppression by governments who are not part of and support the capitalist system.


Capitalist businesses will collapse if they do not make super profits.  Workers are a major cost in a business and therefore threaten the profits of capitalists.


Workers demand for higher wages and their ability to withdraw their labour makes the capitalists, always fearful of workers.


Government officials are fearful of trade unions because they represent the largest and most organized portion of the working population and they have the power to influence government policies and even remove a party or leaders from power.  Workers cannot bargain with employers and government officials individually or through lawyers.  The ultimate power they have is their united action.  In most uprisings and rebellions in modern society the working class has always played a leading role against exploitative government or system.




Trade Unions

A trade union organizes the working people’s struggles within industry.  There are other types of organizations who play the same role in the communities and educational institutions such as social student organizations.


Government and business always seek to limit the aim and purpose of trade unions.  In terms of the Nigeria Trade Union Act (Section 1 of the Trade Union Act of 1973, as amended in 2005) the aim and purpose of a union is restricted to the representation of workers in the regulation of wages and working conditions within industry.


The NLC has always rejected this limiting of the trade union.  A trade union is concerned with all aspects of the lives of workers, not simply employment conditions.  A trade union is concerned about the political life of the country, the economy, the social position of workers (education, health care, welfare).


Acting together with community, students and social movements, the trade union is a major centre of peoples power.


Workers and the Trade Unions

Some leaders and officials forget that the life blood of the union is the workers in the work place.  Many leaders treat the union as their private business and treat workers with disrespect.


Workers who are members of the trade unions are the true owners of the trade unions and therefore must control the unions.


Workers control the unions by electing representatives to the different structures of the union.  Workers also control the union by being active in the work place and their local or state.


History of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC)

By 1975, there were four Labour Centres, namely  United Labour Congress (ULC) Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC) Nigeria Workers Council (NWC) and Labour Unity Front (LUF).


On December 19, 1975, the four labour centres voluntarily merged to establish the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) with Wahab Omorilewa Goodluck as President.


But the General  Murtala Mohammed Military Government proscribe this new NLC.


In 1977, the military merged the over 1,000 house unions into 42 industrial unions.  It also approved 18 Senior Staff Association and 10 employer organizations.  On February 28, 1978 it sanctioned the rebirth of the NLC with the 42 industrial unions as affiliates.  Comrade Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu was elected the founding President of the new NLC.


In 1988, one of the 42 industrial unions, the Customs, Excise and Immigration Staff Union was proscribed by the General Ibrahim Babangida regime.  There were moves by the NLC to merge unions, in 1996 the 41 industrial unions were merged into 29 under the Trade Union Amendment Decree 4