Our own version of “Winter of discontent” is with us. We are witnessing the return of mass striking in the public sector.
Yet beyond the rhetoric of “let all the parties go back to the negotiating table”, the country’s leadership seems to be clueless.
The standard refrain you will get is that the government can’t afford to increase salaries.
The industrial relations structure that made it possible for Kenya to earn the reputation of a haven of industrial peace is slowly collapsing.
We have a civil service workforce with a very inflated sense of rights. The Constitution has given citizens space to organise themselves through unions, and strike whenever they feel aggrieved.
In today’s context, there is no such thing as an illegal strike. The other day, the Industrial Court declared a doctor’s strike at the Gertrude’s Children’s Home illegal.
It did not end even when the hospital management threatened to sue the union leadership for contempt of court. There was a time when strikes in essential services – hospitals, schools and universities, electricity, and water services – were all illegal.
In the past, there was a clear distinction between craft and industrial unions. The mechanism that was in place encouraged larger unions instead of splinter associations.
Today, primary school teachers have their own union. Secondary school teachers and post-primary teachers negotiate collective bargaining agreements separately. Even kindergarten school teachers can start agitating for their own union.
In the medical sector, doctors, dentists and pharmacists negotiate their terms and conditions separately. In the past, we had a system that stipulated a clear distinction between unionisable and non-unionisable staff.
Today, and in terms of union negotiations, it does not matter whether you are a doctor or a nurse. In public universities, it does not matter whether you are a tutorial fellow or a full professor.
You can both belong to the same union and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement together. Hypothetically, even a union for managing directors of listed companies is possible. Clearly, we have entered a dangerous phase in terms of maintaining sustainable industrial peace.
Negotiating with the State is difficult because, in some cases, unions don’t know who to talk to. Who, for instance, is the employer of teachers – the Teachers Service Commission, the Treasury, Education minister Mutula Kilonzo or the Salaries Review Commission?
Who is the employs members of the University Academic Staff Union – the University Council, Higher Education minister Margaret Kamar or the Treasury? The spike in industrial unrest in the public sector is part of the governance crisis facing Kenya. Industrial peace is beginning to elude us due to policy failure.
We have been prolific at creating new commissions and all manner of constitutional and regulatory bodies, offering terms and conditions much superior to what other public sector workers earn.
Within the public sector today, you have tiny enclaves of highly-paid public servants working side by side with poorly remunerated colleagues even where they have comparable skills.
High salaries awards to judges, MPs and permanent secretaries have added to a sense of unequal treatment especially among the more organised groups such as doctors, pharmacists, dentists and engineers.
Today, you cannot convince a school teacher demanding a 200 per cent salary increase that he is being unreasonable or that the government has no such money. They will ask you where the money to pay high salaries to judges, MPs, permanent secretaries and members of the mushrooming constitutional commissions came from.
The gap between public-sector and private-sector wages has widened. The situation is compounded by the fact that whenever the government increases salaries, it does so on a piecemeal basis, especially to those with stronger unions.
The teachers’ strike will end some day. But we have to go back to the drawing board to build a new system that will anchor sustainable industrial peace.