Why teachers’ unions resort to brinksmanship in pay disputes

By: KWAME OWINO

About ten days ago, a court in Kenya confirmed an earlier decision commanding the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) to award a 60 per cent wage increment to all teachers.

This court decision and its confirmation on first appeal illustrate a number of facts regarding wage setting in Kenya’s public sector.

Ignoring for a start the rather opaque roster of all teachers in Kenya, the wage structure shows that teacher compensation takes the largest share of all wages in the public sector and any universal wage increases there results in a noticeable bump in costs to taxpayers.

Yet it is clear that the negotiations around teacher compensation throughout the last two decades have been handled through tricks and public relations, aimed at casting blame between the Treasury, the Ministry of Education and the teachers’ unions. In short, none of these sides has negotiated in good faith.

Parliament too claims to support the demand by teachers, but instead it bestows huge budgets on dubious job creation schemes such as the National Youth Service (NYS) while this decades-long dispute remains unsolved.

Kenya’s constitutional order has provided the legislature with budget-making powers that could be used to make serial industrial action come to an end, but it has failed to. Instead, the National Assembly has creatively used budget policy to settle scores against other arms of government that have made decisions checking Parliament’s power.

What the trade unions read from this is that they only get a hearing when children are not learning and schools are closed. In this situation, brinkmanship pays.

This absence of good faith has meant that for teachers, the trade union has become an important player in ensuring wage growth through brinkmanship and political action. Thus the leadership of the teachers’ union has in turn learnt that brinkmanship and clever timing of strikes is the most effective negotiating tactic.

For the leader of the unions, effectiveness therefore means being able to stroll across media houses, threatening to use the mass of teachers to shut down public schools and prevent learning. This is also complicated by offers and counter-offers with little evidence that both sides are interested in a good outcome for learners.

While the Constitution requires the Salaries and Remunerations Commission (SRC) to take command of setting wages for all public officers, the dam was breached when Parliament gained increments in wages and allowances through concerted action against the proposals of the constitutional body.

Due to the fact that brinkmanship paid off for legislators and Members of the County Assemblies (MCAs), it was extremely hopeful to expect that the SRC would have influence in imposing a wage proposal on both teachers and the Treasury and Ministry of Education.

By allowing the legislature to break the rules and have its way, the SRC seriously undermined its own ability to constrain unions.

Tactical responses by the Executive have involved going to the Industrial Court to restrain the unions from bringing the strike to effect. To my mind, this injunction is sometimes informed by the cynical view that a dispute referred to Kenyan courts at any level will take eons to resolve, and therefore frustrate the teachers.

This confidence in the slow pace of the courts may sound merely cynical, but it preserves the status quo and prevents a good faith resolution of this matter.

The two decisions made by the courts in the last fortnight have brought the matter to a very critical stage. The timing has been especially unfortunate because the court asked that teachers should receive an immediate enhancement in their basic wages right after the passage of the budget.

What this means is that there is real and genuine difficulty in making payments because this decision had not been anticipated and accounted for during Parliament’s deliberation on the budget.

There are no easy solutions at hand since the decision has been maintained after the first appeal and a time-bound order issued to the Teachers Service Commission. This means that Parliament will have to consider an early supplementary budget to accommodate the court order or see the CEO of the TSC held in contempt of court.

The lesson here is that when institutions in the public sector disrespect each other, they lose their autonomy because courts become the arena for policy action. The state of public finances in Kenya does not allow for such games to be played, with their great costs to taxpayers.

Parliament and the SRC must do better. Uncontrolled wage growth, hand-in-hand with rising public indebtedness, is not good a signal for any economy.