Historically, Kenyan workers have always taken strike actions to demand higher wages in the face of spiraling inflation precipitated by run-away prices of consumer commodities. With starvation wages, deplorable working conditions and poor remuneration, conditions for industrial actions are permanently present among the working people of Kenya.
In September this year, public schools were shut down following a national strike that had been called by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) to demand the employment of an extra 28,000 teachers to ease an acute shortage of teachers that had led to congestion in classrooms. After four days, the strike was called off after the government promised to employ 23,000 teachers, a promise that is yet to be fulfilled.
Just as the teachers were returning to work, lecturers at Kenya’s public universities downed their tools demanding a pay rise to a maximum of Ksh 400.000 per month at the professor level, up from Ksh 165,000. An assortment of pay hikes were also proposed for the lower ranks but as public universities were shut and students sent home when the strike began to bite, the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) that called the strike announced that it was calling it off to allow for talks with the government “in two weeks”. Since then, nothing has happened.
While teachers appear to have won a small concession from the government, the lecturers emerged empty handed because no serious talks are continuing between UASU and the government to address the main reasons why the strike was called.
Although teachers accepted to return to work on the basis of a sheer promise, there is no guarantee that the government will honour its side of the deal because in the past, the same government has notoriously violated such deals with impunity.
In fact, every major strike action that has ever been taken by Kenyan workers in the last few decades has either winded up with empty promises, weak concessions between the government and workers’ representatives or outright defeat, leaving workers demoralized and hopeless.
As the lecturers continue to wait for talks between their Union and the government, and as teachers wait for details about the employment of 23,000 teachers as promised by the government, doctors in Kenya have just downed their tools thereby paralyzing public hospitals across the country. The latest is that the doctors have threatened to resign next week unless their grievances are addressed.
Predictably, the doctor’s strike will also end up with a fake compromise, a fake promise or defeat under some “return to work formula”. Some bogus negotiations will, no doubt, give rise to a fake deal. In fact, the question that could be posed and which begs for answers is why strike actions by Kenyan workers are always failing. To dissect this question further, a deeper analysis might be necessary.
Lack of political support
A common feature in all strike actions taken by workers in Kenya is that they always lack political support. During the strike by teachers, University lecturers and now Doctors, no political party supported the workers including ODM, Narc Kenya, UDM and other parties seeking power next year.
When hiking of MPs salaries is being discussed in Parliament or when the issue of corruption scandal in the PM’s office comes up for debate, contributions are always fierce and endless. Demolition of houses in Nairobi even forced the government to set up a Committee to investigate the matter while when a controversial media bill was introduced for debate, political parties rushed to support or oppose the bill. Why is there a conspicuous silence when workers down their tools even if such actions lead to paralysis of key government institutions? Where are the vocal MPs who are always rushing to gain political mileage at every opportunity using every topic that can be exploited?
The answer is that the question of political support of industrial actions by workers is a hot potato within the capitalist ruling class. All political parties in Kenya practice politics from the point of view of capitalism and the economic problems that force workers into strike actions are created by the same rotten system. Since all parties are seeking power within the framework of the system, the leaderships of these parties cannot support workers’ struggles because in doing so, they would be digging their own graves in the event of a power take-over.
Although political parties can gain huge support from workers by supporting their struggles, leaderships of these parties are afraid of being seen to be on the side of workers because such positions are only taken by socialists whose core political ideas are based on the concept that workers ought to take over power from the capitalist ruling class so that they can run society and ensure that workers in all sectors earn a minimum living wage that can guarantee a decent living standard. To appreciate the socialist political thinking, one has to imagine what could happen if the striking doctors had workers’ representatives in Parliament who could institute debate and demand that the government address the doctor’s grievances just as it addressed the issue of MPs salaries.
The consequence of lack of political support is that striking workers are always alone. When they strike, they are usually left on the hands of leaders of their Unions empowered to “negotiate” with the government. In many cases, the Union leaders are usually compromised before they call off the strike using any excuse. In the absence of political support, the workers always lose and the current strike by doctors may have to take the same route. They will return to work after some fake deal is hammered by their Union or after the government makes another empty promise. What is the solution?
The Kenya Red Alliance has the answer – Set up a Workers’ Party and get genuine workers’ representatives in Parliament to fight for their rights otherwise the status quo will never change. This process is not easy but it is the way out. As long as workers in Kenya have no political representation or backing, they will continue to suffer one defeat after another following industrial actions.
There are more than 20 million workers in Kenya and if they vote as a block, workers can easily seize power in Kenya and kick out the thieving ruling class to pave the way for the re-organization of society by the very people who create wealth being misappropriated by the capitalist ruling class. This is why the Kenya Red Alliance was set up and this is why the Alliance continues to appeal to workers in Kenya to try and understand its politics and join it.
Starvation wages driving workers to the streets will only be abolished if workers can seize power and make decisions in a transparent and democratic society. The job of KRA is to organize workers to seize power so that a “Workers’ democratic system of government” can be established to permanently end the suffering of the people of Kenya. There is no need of MPs earning 1 million Kenyan shillings while some workers are living on less that Ksh 3.000. Kenyans must wake up and embrace new politics that can help change the country.
Secretary, Kenya Red Alliance