Create strong institutions in trade unions

Wilson Sossion

Knut Secretary General Wilson Sossion gives a speech at his home during thanks giving celebrations after his daughter was admitted to the bar on this photo taken on September 19, 2020.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • For a long time, we have known Knut for its firm and fierce agitation for its members’ rights.
  • But more tellingly, some leaders appear to be synonymous with the institution rather than the reverse.

Trouble has been brewing in Kenya Union of Teachers (Knut) for a while. The once-gigantic trade union has, of late, suffered dwindling fortunes, at least going by recent acknowledgements by some of its long-serving bigwigs, and seems to be on its deathbed if the situation persists.

For a long time, we have known Knut for its firm and fierce agitation for its members’ rights and, at times, unsavoury engagement with the relevant government agencies. But more tellingly, some leaders appear to be synonymous with the institution rather than the reverse — the entity defining its leaders.

This basically means that, to some extent, Knut is more of its individual leaders than an institution that is angled on a posterity premise.

And this is not unique to Knut but is evident in most workers’ unions and other organisations that have found their forte largely from their select leaders exuding charisma and an outgoing persona.

This may be their way of assuring members, especially through public pronouncements, but it can be a demerit on account of principles of good governance. And such pronouncements have, more often than not, eroded mutual respect and confidentiality on issues under discussion. 

As much as the stakes are high, the manner in which the issues under engagement are communicated matters to all parties, especially in view of government information protocols. For instance, many a time, Knut has been on a collision course with the line ministry, Education, and the teachers’ employer, Teachers Service Commission (TSC), on a variety of issues.

This is particularly due the union’s seemingly premature public release of not only the outcome but direction of their engagements.

Institutional progress

The outfits have been robust in public messaging, mainly through the mass media, the common mode of relaying information to members and the general public. Much of the information issued is largely on the protracted agitation of workers’ demands, collapsed talks and personal clashes. 

But out of their frequent messaging, little has featured to flesh out the unions as institutions and their deliberate efforts. That includes corporate measures on issues such as reforming internal processes; improving service to members, including complaint handling; entrenching succession management plans; embracing technologies; internal dispute resolution; research proposals, grants and dissemination of findings; and policy advisories.

It is about time unions recalibrated their leadership outlook and retooled their engagement approach, not looking at the short-term gains and trappings but the knack for institutional ability to withstand the tide of the moment and anticipate developments in trade unionism.

One key way is creating workable and responsible mechanisms for inclusion of ordinary members through education and sourcing for feedback from the grassroots. 

That way, the unions will move away from personality prowess and on to institutional progress.

Mr Wa Mberia is a communications practitioner. wamberia2020@gmail.com.

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