The Story of Trade Unionism

A trade union organises the working people and their struggles within industry. There are other types of organisations which perform similar roles in communities and educational institutions. Examples are student unions.

Government and business enterpreneurs generally seek to limit attainment of the aims and purposes of trade unions. In terms of the Nigerian Trade Union Act (Section 1 of the Trade Union Act of 1973, as amended in 2005), the major aim and purpose of a union is the representation of workers in the regulation of wages and working conditions within industry.

Trade unions are also concerned about the political life of the country, the economy and the social position of workers in terms of education, health care, welfare, etc. Acting alone or together with communities, students and social movements, the trade union is a major centre of people’s power.


The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday as a means of establishing the principle of eight-hour work day was birthed in Australia. In 1856 the workers there decided to organise a day of complete stoppage of work together with meetings and entertainment as a symbolic demonstration in favour of the demand for the eight-hour work day. The day of the celebration was to be 21st of April. At first the Australian workers intended to celebrate this day only in the year 1856. However, this celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided that the celebration be done every year.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886, they decided that 1st of May should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour work day.  For a few years thereafter, police and legal harassment prevented the workers from repeating this demonstration. However in 1888 they resolved and decided that the next celebration would be held on 1st of May, 1890.

On 1st May, 1886, as American workers joined the rest of the world in a general strike to demand for eight-hour work days, police in Chicago shot and killed some workers. This led to a workers’ rally on 4th of May, 1886. At the rally a policeman was killed by unknown persons. The American Government arrested eight labour leaders only one of whom was actually at the scene addressing the crowd. Some of them were imprisoned and some were hanged. To solidarise with the arrested American workers, 1st of May was declared International Workers Day (or May Day).


Wherever capitalist industrialists expand their profit-seeking activities across the globe, the idea of trade unionism follows. By the late 1800s and early 1900s British capitalists set up industries in many countries in South, East and West Africa and several other places.  In all these countries waged workers who were engaged in place of the forced labour previously used by the colonialists were employed under terrible conditions and for very low wages. 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 in Nigeria emerged out of this early resistance. The first formal trade union was established on 19th of August, 1912. It was called the Nigeria Civil Service Union. However this union was not recognised 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.

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