Are the teachers’ unions in Kenya headed for oblivion? Recent developments in the basic education sector paint a rather foreboding picture for them while preparing teachers for life without the professional associations they have come to consider as their birthright.
The Teachers Service Commission has introduced performance contracts, putting teachers in line for a strict salary payment regime where one has to set and meet performance objectives, which would then determine if one should get a pay rise and of how much.
In other words, the era of collective bargaining agreements, which the unions have made their core mandate, will be gone and with it, the unions’ sole source of sustenance. For apart from pushing for the implementation of CBAs every two years, the unions lack any other meaningful reason for existence. Granted, they have done the job with a single-minded passion and aggression, putting the teachers in the league of some of the highest paid in the region and in the process earning hundreds of millions of shillings in contributory dues. But If the TSC takes away that task, teachers will be hard-pressed to find a reason to continue paying two per cent of their basic pay to the unions.
In addition, the Salaries Remuneration Committee, whose duty is to determine and harmonise salaries for all public service workers, has introduced a job evaluation scheme for all teachers. This is meant to determine if the money they are paid is commensurate with the work they do.
This is an advantage to teachers for many have always complained that they do much more than they are compensated for, but a blow to the Kenya National Union of Teachers and the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education teachers, for they absolutely have no role in the exercise.
Still, the TSC has come up with a verification exercise to determine which teacher is a member of which union to weed out cases of membership poaching, forgeries, double deductions and other irregularities. Knut collects about Sh1.6 billion per year from 206,000 primary school teachers, while Kuppet, with 34,000 teachers, rakes in about Sh425 million per year.
TSC announced early in the week that it had released membership dues for 5,000 teachers under Knut and 10,000 under Kuppet, clearly putting the two unions in financial distress.
So why are the two unions so vulnerable to changes that they ought to have foreseen and used to re-position themselves for survival? Both unions have chosen to revel in the shortsightedness of the pursuit of bread and butter issues to their peril.
Though they have won many battles for salary increments, this has come at a heavy cost to the quality of learning due to wasted time. The constant teacher strikes have also served to undermine the authority and dignity of the teaching profession.
Although there have been isolated cases of the unions defending teachers facing disciplinary issues at the TSC, the unions have largely kept off important education matters that could have raised their profile.
In many countries, especially in South America, teachers unions involve themselves in policy matters promoting the value of public education, pushing for teachers’ professional development through refresher courses, improvement of workplace conditions etc. In addition, they organise teacher conferences to bond and push for broad education reforms.
Knut was heading in that direction in the early 70s and 80s when it used to publish a magazine called The Teacher, in which it would discuss critical educational matters and give members a forum to interact and share ideas on pedagogical challenges, career dreams and the general state of education.
The magazine has long folded up, and not for lack of funds.
The unions may yet survive, but it is almost impossible to see a bright future for them.
Mr Waihenya is an editor on the Daily Nation. firstname.lastname@example.org