Strike threats show unions have lost touch with reality

Monday, June 21st, 2021 00:00 | By
Atwoli defends Sakaja on Matatu ban
COTU boss Francis Atwoli. PHOTO/Courtesy

Trade unions have threatened to strike to protest the decision by the government to freeze wage increases for the next two years.

The salary freeze was announced by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission chair Lyn Mengich, attributing it to a battered economy.

As if on cue, trade unions were up in arms. Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu), led a bunch of trade unions in giving ultimatums to the government to withdraw the directive.

They told SRC to “keep off” labour matters, as if the commission can issue such a far-reaching directive without clearance at the highest levels of government. Talk of naiveté.

Unions that have already threatened to strike are Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union, Kenya Union of Clinical Officers, Kenya Union of Special Needs Education Teachers, Union of National Research Institutes Staff of Kenya, Kenya University Staff Union, and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers.

A belligerent Cotu assistant general secretary, Earnest Nadome, declared they are ready to “bring down the entire public sector,” so that government could appreciate the role played by public servants.

The reaction is an apt demonstration of all that is wrong with trade union leadership today.

What’s the current state of the economy? It has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consequently, millions of private sector employees have lost jobs and are struggling financially. The salaries of those who have remained were cut. 

The economy almost collapsed in 2020, growing at a paltry 0.6 per cent from the 5.4 per cent in 2019.

Tax revenues fell. Despite this, the government has kept all its employees on the payroll, when the natural thing would have been to retrench.

It will take upto three years for the economy to recover, especially with next year’s election.

This is not the time for sabre-rattling by government employees, but time to roll up sleeves, and join their countrymen to right the badly listing ship Kenya.

The government is badly constrained for money. Further, it is under immense pressure from the International Monetary Fund, who gave it a massive bailout, to cut expenditure by laying off staff.

If unions go ahead and call their members on strike, let them not cry if the government simply scraps the jobs.

If the government could, it would already have laid off thousands. It’s purely an economic imperative!

It’s unfortunate the trade union movement is led by insensitive people, some who cut their teeth in the thrust and parry of the picket at factories, and whose skills were best suited for the heyday of the miners.

They have no clue of the seismic changes that have been wrought by the rapid technological transformations and modernisation of economy since the 1990s.

This transformation has engendered a new type of worker, one who has no time for cheap theatrics, and is looking for concrete results from union leaders who understand how to negotiate the new environment to get the best deal for workers.

The new labour leader must be as educated and tech savvy as the protagonist he meets across the table. 

This phenomenon is best illustrated by the tale of two teacher trade unions — Kenya National Union of Teachers and the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers.

Knut is on its death bed, abandoned by members fleeing bad leadership that has seen them miss out on huge payrises.

Kuppet’s members have grown, as its members receive huge payrise their leaders won without once issuing a strike threat.

The trade union movement will remain moribund until the current crop of leadership, who are completely out of their depth in the complex and modern economy, exit the stage.

The days of the rabble-rousing, fire-eating maverick trade union leader, are long gone.     —  [email protected] 

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