During this year’s American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisation (AFL-CIO) convention that took place in Philadelphia, President Joe Biden joined workers to celebrate the efforts that unions have put in over the years. Described as ‘the most pro-union President in American history’ by Richard Trumka, Biden said the nation was built by unions.
Trumka was the president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO from 2009 until his death on August 5, 2021. Mr Biden received great support from the AFL-CIO. Trumka not only campaigned for him but also mobilised the millions of American workers to turn up and vote in his favour. As a consequence, Biden, over and above appointing a former unionist president Marty Walsh as the Secretary of Labour, openly supported AFL-CIO in championing for the enactment of the Pro Act that will see unionisation mainstreamed at many places of work.
Kenya finds herself at the same spot as many trade unions around the world. The dilemma at hand is whether to participate actively in politics or not.
However, over the years, consensus has been reached that it requires a political decision to fix a majority of labour issues. Before fixing our economy, we must first fix our toxic politics. And in fixing our politics, we must take an active role as workers’ representatives.
Unbeknownst to many Kenyans, I am the only secretary-general of Cotu who is not serving as a Member of Parliament. Tom Mboya, Clement Lubembe, Dennis Akumu, Juma Boy and Joseph Mugalla were all MPs while serving as Cotu secretary-generals.
Build a better Kenya
Be that as it may, realising this delicate but important duty, the labour movement in Kenya moved to endorse the Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga. In Mr Odinga, Cotu found a man who not only understands the place of trade unions in our history but also appreciated their duty in building a better Kenya.
The Kenya Kwanza Alliance candidate, Deputy President William Ruto, took an active role in trying to weaken the labour movement in Kenya in the first term of the Jubilee administration. Through his Minister of Labour and other proxies, Dr Ruto tried, with monumental failure though, to create another “Cotu” that would have equally aided his attempt at the presidency.
Clearly, Dr Ruto started laying plans for his 2022 bid as early as they took office. To him, Cotu was a ‘threat’ to his presidential bid and he, therefore, needed to either stop it by buying off its leadership or to neutralise it by creation of a similar body.
It would, therefore, be a failure on the part of trade unions to remain neutral when regimes that are not alive to the plight of workers or those that a threat to workers’ rights and welfare are not stopped from taking power.
One might ask, why should trade unionists take the backbench and wait for wrong individuals to take over positions of power when they can take an active role in the election of the right individuals into government? Other than waiting for wrong individuals to take over power and thereafter start demonstrations and strikes, we thought it wise to take part in the formation of a government that can feel proud of the labour movement in Kenya and always resolve matters amicably.
Further, it is the Kenyans workers who are, today, faced with hardships that have been as a result of poor governance that has negatively affected the economy.
It is workers who suffer mostly when leaders who are only interested in the resources of the state get positions of power. Consequently, trade unionists, like me, cannot remain silent when persons with questionable integrity want to use public office to primitive accumulation of wealth. On August 9, Kenyan workers are going to stand their ground and choose a leader who will safeguard their rights and enhance their welfare.
Mr Atwoli is the Cotu-K secretary-general