If the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) and Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) top officials have not realised it, their bellicose tactics of engaging government over the last strike are outdated and new thinking is urgently needed.
Staying away from work as a way of pressing for higher wages has proved counter-productive. Teachers were taken to the cleaners in the court of public opinion and through a harrowing judicial process and eventually went back to classrooms empty-handed. A new round of negotiations has been ordered by the President but it is apparent that the unions will adopt a hard line and scuttle the talks before they even start. This puts Knut’s and Kuppet’s continued relevance to their members under scrutiny. In fact, the two unions could be in their deathbeds unless they identify new challenges and offer members value. And this realisation could not have come at a better time than now on the eve of the two unions’ Annual Delegates’ Conferences in early December.
Essentially, Knut was founded and continues to exist by capitalising on teachers’ generational fears. In the 1950s, white education inspectors would visit government schools and insult and even cane non-performing black teachers. Indeed that is one of the main reasons that an elite group of teachers who had recently graduated from Makerere University and other tertiary institutions started agitating for the formation of a trade union to address issues of discrimination and disparities in terms and conditions of service for teachers.
The myth and fact of the cruelty of education inspectors has been handed down to generations of teachers with the rider that by joining a union they would be insulated against extreme actions. With the strike debacle now, the unions must re-asses their worth and strategy in a more wholesome manner, not just in negotiations for better pay.
In her 2013 Masters thesis, Influence of the Kenya National Union of Teachers on Teacher’s Performance in Public Primary Schools, Josephine Chiveli Nabibya argues that teachers want unions that will add value to their lives. Chiveli maintains that the unions’ role in the professional development of their members, which seems to lack in Kenya, creates a powerful systemic effect linking professional development to training and induction. She gives the example of The New York City public schools where a long-term working relationship between teachers’ unions and government has increasingly focused on students’ standards and achievement.
A recurring public accusation against teachers during the last strike was that even as they march along the streets demanding better pay, education standards, especially in public primary schools, keep plummeting. This begs the question: Do Knut and Kuppet ever press for professionalism in teaching? The unions must raise the status of the profession so that teachers win public support in their endeavour for better terms. This must top their ADC agendas.
With regard to the unions’ governance and accountability structures, the issue of members’ contributions and what use it is put to is a taboo topic. It only came to light the other day that, on average, the two unions collect more than Sh2 billion in subscriptions every year (Sh135 million for Knut and Sh35 million for Kuppet every month). This figure would have risen to over Sh3 billion if the 50-60 per cent pay award was implemented.
The present consumerism culture adopted by the unions’ top cats, where every cent is spent on fat allowances for union officials, came painfully clear when Knut’s Wilson Sossion announced that they couldn’t pay their members a survival stipend during the strike. Yet every member contributes Sh100 monthly to go to a reserve fund for the purpose. A scrutiny of the unions’ funds and, more importantly, how they can be invested to benefit members, will naturally form an agenda.
Teachers want unions with modern governance structures and practices, not the current dinosaur ways that create veritable leadership positions-for-life and assign certain regions of Kenya specific posts at the national level this far in the 21st century. This opaqueness in power sharing needs to be shattered in the forthcoming ADCs to allow all eligible Kenyan teachers to lead their unions.
Apart from burial and benevolence, Knut and Kuppet hardly affect their members’ lives in any significant way. New unions’ thinking must work for the streamlining of teachers’ promotions, bargain for a good study leave and further education funding regime and economic liberation of their members among other emerging issues. Certainly, Knut has the arduous task of explaining the contentious AON medicare that it prescribed for its members with the consequential loss of their medical allowance, a fact that has greatly reduced their borrowing power. And with the scramble for form one vacancies getting nasty every year, it’s ironic that many teachers lose valuable time as they search for vacancies for their children. Sossion and Akelo Misori of Kuppet must negotiate for slots for qualified teachers’ children in national, extra county and county schools on an affirmative basis. It’s instructive that the armed forces are buttressed from these hustles by their own secondary schools. It is high time the unions change tack or fade into oblivion.
Kariuki teaches at Nyandarua High School, Ol Kalou