The teacher’s strike in Kenya started with a roar but ended in a whimper. By the time the strike, which went on for almost a month, ended teachers’ union officials were accused of capitulations.
The government employed all manner of tactics to end the strike; cutting deals with the post primary school teachers union to undermine the primary school teachers union, blackmailing teachers by threatening stop their salaries, and criminalizing the trade union by citing their leaders for contempt of court. In the end, after a deal with the vice president, the teachers went back to work.
However, the strike revealed the harsh realities of labor unions today the dearth of the once formidable workers unions as well as the public’s across the board dismissal, and even contempt, for unions as a result of government’s business friendly posture combined with a willfully complicit middle class. In this new normal environment union has become a dirty word.
And, the way the teacher’s strike ended has set a precedent for future union-government interaction.
The dearth of the Workers Union
At the height of independence, the workers union was one of the formidable platforms for agitation of the African workers’ rights, and more broadly, it was a forum for independence. During its golden age, the workers union was led by the charismatic independence leader Mboya who effectively used the workers union as a platform for decolonization. When other independence leaders were detained and political parties banned following the declaration of the state of emergency in 1952 because of the Mau Mau rebellion, Mboya who was not arrested used his long-established network within the global labour movement to spotlight the colonial atrocities in Kenya and called for independence.
After independence and decades later, the workers union is no longer as vibrant as it once was. Presently, the unions instead of presenting a united approach, in some cases, even fight among themselves. Post-independence, the workers unions have failed to find a big issue(s) they can coalesce and organize around despite deteriorating working condition that are a reality for almost all low-income workers. Additionally, their electoral leverage has declined considerably — the new generation of union leaders is more inclined to cozy up to politicians rather than push the workers agenda.
As an indication of how far their stocks have fallen, just like civil society during the last elections, “union” is now a dirty word that the newly minted middle class holds with relative contempt. Even in the popular press, the teachers union doesn’t fair well. The often mild Macharia Gaitho at the Nation called union leader, Mr Sosion, the new militant face of the union, although there is nothing militant about asking the government to honor their contractual obligation.
However, what is unacknowledged workers unions are known to improve work place safety, and as the recent fire at Jomo Kenyatta Iinternational Airport illustrates, Kenya is in dire need of improving safety conditions for workers and the general public.
Corporate takeover of government services
Both inside and outside of government circles, the outrage towards the teachers strike is anchored in the business lingo which is premised on the notion that the market is the antidote to poor governance.
Elsewhere, this unadulterated, neoliberal, laissaz faire vision of small government economic model has largely been discredited. And in many places it is only used by the right as an electoral bumper sticker post the 2008 economic crash to appeal to their base. But in Kenya corporate speak is not on the margins, it is the mainstream. This blind faith in corporate style government was inaugurated by Kenyatta’s predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, himself an economist. Under Kenyatta it has seen further deepening. For Kenyatta that should come naturally, as he’s one of the largest businessmen in Kenya.
The terminal decline of the workers union removes a useful vanguard against the state’s authoritarianism and work place discrimination. Kenya generally prides 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 dangers of failing to ask critical questions: an ostracized civil society was delegitimized, union is a dirty word, and the constitution’s implementation has not been handled very well, with the overarching contest centered on how devolution- the center piece of the constitution, will be implemented. With all the spaces for alternative voices shrinking, the government and the corporations will have limited incentives to play by the book.
Additionally, the lack of strong unions will make workers representation much more difficult. Thus it is remarkable that the middle class seems to side with the government in its “war” on the unions. Their status as middle class is only guaranteed through their employment, which, is sometimes only on flimsy ground and, if they lose it they automatically become watu wa kazi ya mkono– low-income workers.
If the teachers union, one of the strongest unions, and one whose work force provides one of the critical services in Kenya, could easily be arm-twisted into submission, smaller unions like the health workers union could be even more easily dismissed.