Strikes in Ghana, 1961

Nkrumah with Elizabeth II and Princess Anne

In September 1961, a wildcat strike broke out amongst the railway works of Takoradi-Sekondi, spreading quickly to Accra and Kumasi and lasting seventeen days, cutting short president Kwame Nkrumah's holiday in the USSR.

Submitted by Mike Harman on January 24, 2018

Excerpted from The labour aristocracy? Ghana case study by Richard Jeffries, 1975

At the economic and ideological centre of this urban community lay the close-knit social and cultural sub-community of the largely skilled railway and harbour workers. Mostly concentrated in the harbour installations o of the Sekondi workshops, and living in close proximity to each other in the railway villages, the regular contact and communication between these workers facilitated the creation of in-depth organization and a highly developed sense of power through solidarity. Their relatively high level of education (middle-school) made for keen awareness of national political developments, and their consciousness of their own training and skills for an acute sense of status deprivation and social injustice. At the same time, the railway workers' residential integration in the urban centre of Sekondi-Takoradi resulted in close social ties with other socio-economic groups and identification with the grievances of the common people whose exploitation by the C.P.P. elite they were able to observe at first-hand. Hence they were inclined to see themselves as the spokesmen, even the protectors, of the urban poor. Within the close-knit sub-community of the railway and harbour workers, the radical ideas of certain leaders were the more easily communicated and developed as the basis of a shared ideology.

The most significant of these ideological influence has been that of their 'strong man' hero, Pobee Biney. Biney rose to prominence amongst the railway workers in 1946-49 as the unofficial but substantive leader of a series of audacious and successful strike actions which, implicitly at first, and then in January 1950 explicitly, challenged the legitimacy of the colonial government structure.

By this latter date his 'charismatic' status amongst the rank-and-file was so assured that he was able to declare and organise a virtually hundred per cent solid strike in support of Nkrumah's call for 'Positive Action' without the support of the official Union Executive. In the preceding period his rousing speeches at union mass meetings had served to educate and rank-and-file in a radical nationalist ideology, which might best be termed African Socialist. Biney attacked the evils of colonialism on the grounds not only of economic exploitation but also of its differentiating effect on internal social relations, its destruction of the traditional egalitarianism and sense
of brotherhood of the Ghanaian people. The true people he defined as the common people, distinct from the elite of chiefs, lawyers, civil servants and other collaborators with the colonial regime. He derided the latter's cultural separatism, their 'White African' dress and manners. He was therefore strongly opposed to the United Gold Coast Convention and its leadership of lawyers who would not risk their wigs for the sake of the common man, and totally unsympathetic to the view, prevalent among some railway union and TUC officials in 1949-50, that staging a strike in support of Positive Action would be to confuse trade unionism with party politics.

This did not mean, however, that he wished to tie the Ghanaian labour movement to unconditional support of Nkrumah's Convention People's Party. On the contrary, he emphasised in his speeches the idea that the railway workers were fighting for a new, independent and more just society, not for the Convention People's Party as
such. This was not merely for the benefit of clerical workers sympathetic to the U.G.C.C. It was apparent to many of his followers that he was already aware of the divergence between the aims of the Sekondi-Takoradi workers, as he conceived them, and those of many leading members of the C.P.P. Accordingly, his notion of the vanguard role of the organised, enlightened workers in leading the Ghanaian people to independence involved the corollary that they should continue to act thereafter as defenders of the original ideals of the nationalist revolution, checking degenerative tendencies in the party-become-government. The Sekondi-Takoradi rank and file were to adhere to this notion fairly consistently in 1950-61.

After their election to the Legislative Assembly in September 1951, Biney and his closest political associate, Anthony Woode, proceeded to attack the C.P.P. leadership on the issues of 'tactical action', i.e. co-operation with the colonial regime in its schedule for self government, and the failure to introduce either a social security programme or a radical reform of the wage and salary structure inherited from the colonial civil service. Not surprisingly, Biney and Woode failed to gain renomination to their seats in the 1954 General Election. A
little later in the same year, E.C. Turkson-Ocran, was dismissed from the Secretary-Generalship of the TUC. The railway worker rank and file immediately and successfully pressed for Biney's re-instatement as president of the Railway Union. In 1955 they supported his unsuccessful attempt to organise the overthrow of the incumbent C.P.P. loyalist TUC leadership. Although he resigned from the presidency in 1956, his ideological influence continued to be felt directly through the officials he had recruited to positions of local-level leadership in the union during this period. These followers organised a break-away union in 1958 outside of, and in scarcely veiled opposition to, the new party-affiliated TUC structure instituted by the Industrial Relations Act. They were also to be the most prominent among the middle- level officials who led the strike of September 1961. In 1956-61 they were, in a sense, continuing the struggle in his absence.

The indirect influence of Biney's personality and ideological stance in these years was hardly less powerful. If, in the early 1950s, his criticisms of the C.P.P. regime's degeneration had run the risk of out-pacing rank and file opinion, by the late 1950s his prophecies were confirmed. Although both skilled and unskilled manual workers had received substantial increases in real wage levels during these years, such achievements appeared to be dwarfed by the blatant self-enrichment of C.P.P. officials. Corruption and party favouritism in the allocation of State Corporation houses, market stalls and government loans, had made a mockery of the C.P.P.'s claim to be a common people's government. For the workers of Sekondi-Takoradi, the TUC's Borgwarde cars were less a sign of that organisation's growing socialist influence and power than of their supposed representatives' happy participation in the corrupt politics and ostentatious living of government leaders. The C.P.P.'s and TUC's rejection of Biney, one of the few nationalist leaders who had consistently and courageously spoken up for the common people, came to symbolise for many railway workers the basic structural and moral failings of the Nkrumah regime.

This brief historical backdrop helps provide insight into the idealistic and radical elements in the 1961 strike action. The July Budget austerity measures—demanding a 5 per cent deduction from the wages of all those earnings more than NC.336 per annum (the approximate starting wage of most skilled workers) were hardly sufficient in themselves to provoke such stern resistance as was in fact encountered. After declaring their secession from the TUC on the grounds that the TUC had failed to express the true feelings of the working class, the railway workers led their fellow-workers of Sekondi-Takoradi in an illegal strike which lasted seventeen days, in the face of the detention of their leaders and threats of military intervention. The role of the United Party opposition was marginal to the central dynamic and aims of the strike, even if it provided much-needed financial support in the later stages. More important by far was the moral and, in some cases, active support provided by other sections of the Sekondi- Takoradi masses. As one strike-leader put it, 'The support we received from all the people here was so tremendous we could not have backed down even if we had wanted to.' To some degree, this was a matter of other groups—most notably the market women and many of the unemployed—recognising their dependence on the trade, or charity, and hence the financial capacity, of the regular wage-earners. The market women also had their own specific grievances relating to the increasing domination of the market trade by C.P.P. favourites.

All these were united by a common sense of resentment at the widen- ing socio-economic and communications gap between the C.P.P. elite and the common people who had brought them to power. The salience of this general issue and the feeling of moral solidarity it generated is well brought out by St. Clair Drake's account

By midweek practically every activity in the port was closed down. Municipal bus drivers had joined the strike, as had the city employees who collected the sewerage daily. Market women dispensed free food to the strikers at municipal bus garages and other strategic points. There was an air of excitement and pride throughout the city over the fact that they, the people of Sekondi-Takoradi had brought business to a standstill, had stopped train service to all of Ghana, and were displaying solidarity in the fight against the budget. Morale was high. The railway workers were heroes... W.N. Grant, a prominent strike leader, told the crowd that if parliament did not give way to the demands of the people, they would disband that body by force.

In short, the 1961 strike illustrates how industrial action, sparked off by grievances which might superficially appear to have been particular to the so-called 'labour aristocracy' could take on the character and significance of an urban mass protest. For the railway workers, the strike was essentially a decisive encounter in their ideological struggle with the C.P.P.-TUC elite over the proper structure and function of the TUC. The protection of their sectional economic interests was certainly one issue. It also, however, involved wider questions concer-ning the nature of the C.P.P. regime, since it was Biney and his followers' conception that the TUC, or national labour movement, should speak up for the poor in general, challenging elitist and authoritarian tendencies in society as a whole. In turn, the common people of Sekondi-Takoradi came to look to the more highly organised and articulate skilled railway and harbour workers to express a generalized sense of exploitation and social injustice.

In the short-term, the strike could hardly be considered successful. While Nkrumah's subsequent purge of some of the most blatantly corrupt among the Party's leaders testified to his recognition of its significance and potential political implication, the main result was a tightening of the TUC's disciplinary control and on intensification of authoritarian measures. Nevertheless, this represented the most serious and direct challenge the C.P.P. Government had to face until the army's intervention in 1966. More important from a long-term pers- pective, the strike came to acquire the status of a heroic assertion of genuine trade union principles. The September 1971 demonstrations against the Progress Party regime had much of the same character and significance, and involved a quite conscious emulation, particularly on the part of the Sekondi-Takoradi workers, of the 1961 model. Such class-type protest actions should be seen not as isolated responses to exceptional circumstances but as overt manifestations of ongoing socio-political processes. The railway and harbour workers of Sekondi-Takoradi possess neither economic interests nor political affinities congruent with the elite and sub-elites of their society.

Increasingly, moreover, these workers are exceptional within Ghana only in the sense that others look to them as a vanguard or spearhead, not in that they fail to share a sense of common class identity and political orientation. Nor can the Ghanaian proletariat properly be considered a radically atypical case. Adrian Peace has arrived at essentially similar conclusions regarding the structural position and political orientation of the Lagos proletariat which, he suggests, is best viewed as the political elite of the urban masses, a reference group of political terms for other urban strata, who look to wage- earners for expression of political protest against a highly inegalitarian society.

In both cases one finds unionised workers expressing a generalized awareness of shared interests and shared oppression with other classes among the poor. Whether this is more accurately described as a form of mass—rather than class—consciousness, strictly defined the practical implementations seem clear enough. If a broad-based radical movement is to emerge, then those groups which lack the organisational mechanisms for concerted political action are likely to look for a lead to those who have them, and are prepared to use them: and in Ghana, as in Nigeria, this would appear to apply to the proletariat alone.