It’s time African countries found a way to beat militant trade unionism

Tuesday September 8 2015

Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Secretary-General Wilson Sossion joins teachers in a demonstration outside the union's offices in Nairobi on September 7, 2015.

Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Secretary-General Wilson Sossion joins teachers in a demonstration outside the union's offices in Nairobi on September 7, 2015. Kenyan teachers are the best paid in East Africa and receive almost 12 times more than the country’s average pay, study shows. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

More by this Author

Let us put the ongoing teachers’ strike in its proper context. I will start by exploding two popular myths being spread around by the strikers.

First, that the government has pumped Sh1 billion from the Exchequer into reviving corruption-laden Mumias Sugar Company, but is unwilling to allocate more money to increasing teachers’ salaries.

Not true. The money extended to Mumias Sugar Company is a loan borrowed from the Sugar Development Levy. That loan has not been charged on the Exchequer.

Secondly, that the government has pumped Sh60 billion into reviving Kenya Airways. Wrong.

The truth is that the government has in the current budget allocated Sh4 billion, which it proposes to extend to the troubled company in the form of a shareholder loan. The proposal is yet to be passed by Parliament.

When you compare the money spent on Mumias Sugar Company with the teachers’ demand for higher salaries, you are not comparing like with like. Wages, unlike loans, are a fixed cost, which you must pay forever.

We must not forget that teachers’ salaries are a big item in the government’s budget. Even a minor tweak in the level of teachers’ wages is enough to provoke reverberations through the macro-economy.

Have you noticed that the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) always features prominently on the list of the top 10 taxpayers paraded by the Kenya Revenue Authority every other year?

Last year, the TSC was ranked the second biggest taxpayer after Safaricom. The third position was taken by the Ministry of the Interior and National Security.

When, as government, you find that a big part of your revenues are coming from pay-as-you-earn from payrolls funded by your own Exchequer, it’s a wake-up call to admit that yours is an economy anchored on consumption.

The fact the TSC is a top taxpayer is not something to celebrate about because a shilling of revenue from private sector activity is better at promoting efficiency within the economy than hundreds of shillings of revenue realised from PAYE deductions.

But perhaps the biggest question is the following: What do these frequent teacher strikes portend for sustainable industrial peace in this economy? What broad trends should analysts be trying to explain?

First, the growth in strength and militancy of Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) is a phenomenon we have hardly come to terms with as a nation. Yet, every other day, Knut demonstrates to us its capacity to mobilise and fight to the end.

Knut is not alone. When you look at developments in this region and on the continent, militancy in trade unions belonging to teachers is a growing phenomenon in Africa.

The Tanzanians went through what we are witnessing now in July 2012, when the Tanzania Teacher’s Union (TTU) staged a strike to demand a 100 per cent increase in wages.

In Uganda, the teachers’ union called a strike in September 2013, to protest the failure by the government to implement a phased increase in wages that had been agreed as far back as 2012.

The South African Democratic Trade Union is one of the most powerful representatives of organised labour in that economy.

Are powerful teacher unions good for Africa? In 1985, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defeated a year-long miners’ strike. What the Iron Lady did signalled the end of the era of militant trade unions in Britain. Isn’t it time governments in Africa borrowed from Thatcher’s script?

My own view is that militancy per se is not the biggest factor in this country. Mr Wilson Sossion does not strike me as some militant ideologue motivated by a high sense of working class consciousness.

Frequent teachers’ strikes in Kenya are more about inequalities and disparities in public sector wages than anything else.

Every other day, teachers read about frequent raises in salaries and allowances for MPs, big perks for members of constitutional commissions, and big salaries to PSs and judges.

Frequent newspaper stories about corruption and wasteful spending by ministries have served to entrench the notion that the government has an inexhaustible supply of money.

That is why, when you tell teachers, lecturers, and doctors that you have no money to pay them, they won’t believe you.