They came for the civil society, I didn’t speak because I was not one of them, they came for the Union, and there was no one to speak for me.

Whichever way the ongoing teachers strike end, it will have consequences beyond the teachers union. The strike and how the government intends to handle it will have a bearing on the already severely ailing labor union

It is a demonstration of how far the stocks of union have fallen; the movement that was used as a platform for decolonization by the charismatic independence leader Tom Mboya is now led by Francis “Bling” Atwoli.

Just like the civil society during the last elections, the labor union is now a dirty word that the newly minted middle class dismisses with relative contempt. If the trade union was at the forefront of independence movement, the civil society played critical role post-independence- especially in their attempt to reform Moi’s state.

Even in the popular press the teachers Union doesn’t fair well either. The often mild Macharia Gaitho at the Nation called the Union leader Mr Sosion as the new militant face of the Union. What is militant about asking the government to honor the contract?

The outrage towards the teachers strike has taken the language of business, a new addition to the Kenya’s political lingo, which is premised on the notion the market is the antidote to poor governance, and there is no ideology or systemic problems; there is only pesky inefficiency that can be fixed by better data and smart corporate methods, using the latest technology.

The teachers strikes speaks to the broader unspoken discourse of the dearth of labor movement in Kenya, which has incidentally coincided, at least anecdotally with the painful raise in discrimination at  work places especially low income employees- watu wa mjengo, which it seems from the discourse among the Java generation, they only care about Sonkos not watu wa mjengo.

The terminal decline of the labor union removes a vanguard against state’s authoritarianism and employers. Kenya generally prided itself as having a vibrant media, active civil society, an ever growing middle class and a new constitution. The media in the last election demonstrated the danger of a placid media, the civil society are an evil society, the labor union is a dirty word, and the constitution, well, you know how it has been handled so far; people who made a career of opposing reform, and especially this constitution are the ones appropriating the reform movement and by extension the constitution.

But while the state is understandably happy with this state of affairs, it is remarkable why the middle class seems to be unconcerned with the plight of teachers, when their status as a middle class is tenous- once they lose their jobs, they effectively become watu wa kazi ya mkono. In some cases, job lose is occasioned by flimsy reasons, lack of proper union representative gives all the aces to the employers. Without a strong union imagine what Uhuruto would have done to the teachers.

In an era where multinationals with dubious labor records are flocking to Nairobi in record number, we need more labor unions and not less, or else we will have more Bangladeshi style fire in places of work, and we shall have no one standing up for the workers- and that could be you.


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