The current standoff between the Kenyan Government and teachers’ unions over a pay award to the country’s teachers is causing disruption and concern across the political divide. It has already led to the longest teacher’s strike in recent memory and the total shut down of public schooling. Many within government circles are comparing it to the 1984-85 strike in the United Kingdom at the end of which the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, had broken the back of the hitherto powerful National Union of Mineworkers. A similar fate is now predicted for the Kenya National Union of Teachers and its kid brother, the Kenya Union of Post Primary Teachers.
While it is unclear whether the prophets of union doom will be proven right, what is beyond doubt is the fact of union decline in post-independence Kenya. Ever since the dawn of the colonial era, organised worker resistance had been a fact of life. The trade union movement began in the early 1900s with attempts to organize workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway. The early union activities were aimed at improving working conditions and raising wages.
During the colonial period, trade unionists such as the great Makan Singh appreciated the link between worker welfare and politics. In fact, in April 1950, Makan Singh was the first person to call for complete independence for East Africa at mass meeting of Kenya African Union & East Africa Indian National Congress. Less than a month later, after a May Day speech in which he called for “workers and the peoples of East Africa [to] strengthen their unity, become more resolute and speed up the movement for freedom” he would be arrested and would spend the next 11 years in detention, longer than any other freedom fighters including the more famous “Kapenguria Six”.
Yet, in the years after independence he would be forgotten and the trade union movement he had helped found -and which had been used as a stepping stone to political office by the likes of Tom Mboya- would be politically neutered.
Prior to the actual granting of independence, an African coalition Government was established in 1962 with Tom Mboya as Labour Minister. As independence approached, there was consensus between employers and unions that industrial harmony was a prerequisite for economic progress. Capital and labour would collaborate to reduce the incidence of strikes and lockouts. However, a dispute over the question of trade union sponsorship of candidates for political office resulted in a decision that the unions would not behave as political parties.
To eliminate conflict in the union movement, which spilled over into the political arena, the Central Organization of Trade Unions was established by Presidential decree in 1965. This decree forced the amalgamation of the Kenya African Workers Union and the Kenya Fédération of Labour. COTU's constitution was drawn up by the Attorney- General and entrenched government supervision of COTU's internal affairs. COTU and its leaders were expected to remain loyal to the Government and to support the governing party. As the book, An Economic History Of Kenya, notes, “the trade union movement became gradually integrated into the corporatist apparatuses of the state and in the process became politically deradicalized and acquiescent.”
The scope of action of trade unions today is limited to worker wages and job security. Begging the government for an increase in the minimum wage has become an annual May Day ritual. And as the labour movement has seen its major weapon, the right to strike, whittled down and the right to picket effectively outlawed, it has increasingly been forced to either turn to the Industrial Court for redress or to risk the consequences of an illegal strike.
Thus the current action by the teachers, coming as it has on the back of a government refusal to implement an award by the Industrial Court, can thus be interpreted as resistance to the shutting off of one of the few remaining avenues for workers to collectively petition and bargain. The claim by the government that it cannot afford the award is daily undermined by revelations of sleaze and outrageous perks for members of the political class. Further the government’s penchant for technological solutions has seen a reluctance to shelve a widely panned plan to provide laptops to school children in favour of implementing the award. By ordering schools closed, it appears that the government is determined to continue to prosecute its war against the unions.
The teachers unions, in particular, have been a thorn in the flesh of the government for several years. They are by far the largest, best organised and most effective of all trade unions. In 1963, KNUT was the only union with an income of over £10,000 and 13 years later, this had grown to £254,000. Today, together with KUPPET, it represents nearly 300,000 teachers. Thus a government takedown of teachers would send a message to all other unions, including the restive doctors and nurses associations.
Such an eventuality would be a mortal blow to all workers. Having already conceded the political space, the loss of their already limited avenues to confront capital and its lackey, the state, would not just be a final capitulation. It would be a humiliation for a movement with such a long and proud history of achievement and probably make Makan Singh turn in his grave.