Unions are essential to shared prosperity and a vibrant democracy

Unions are essential to shared prosperity and a vibrant democracy

The trade union movement represents the organized economic power of workers. It is the most potent and most direct social insurance workers can establish, and must not be allowed to disintegrate.

By Edwin Wanjawa

Kenyans have always rallied together — whether in parent-teacher associations or local community organizations, popularly known as chamas — to solve problems and make changes that improve their lives and their communities. Through unions, workers come together to strive for improvements at the place where they spend significant amounts of time.

The freedom of workers to join together in unions and negotiate with employers, in a process known as collective bargaining, is widely recognized as a fundamental human right across the globe. In Kenya, this right is protected by the Constitution and the Labour Relations Act, which guarantee freedom of association.

Trade unions are generally studied from the perspective of their role in organizing and representing workers in the workplace. The main focus is on the triadic relationship among workers, trade unions and employers. Such a narrow focus overlooks the key role of trade unions as the quintessential civil society organization. In this latter role, trade union influence extends beyond the confines of the workplace and impacts upon society as a whole, making a key contribution to creating, maintaining and rebuilding democratic societies.

Because they are on the frontlines, working people often have some of the best information on how to improve their workplaces and make their workplaces safer and more productive. Unions provide the means for workers to share their knowledge about what works and what doesn’t—without fear of retaliation from their employers. Unionized workplaces also provide their workers with more transparency about company finances and processes that can help shape responses to problems.

Strong and vibrant unions have the capacity to tackle some of the biggest problems that plague our economy, from growing economic inequality, wage stagnation, and gender inequities to eroding democracy and barriers to civic participation. Giving workers a real voice and leverage is essential for democracy.

Besides, unions also help to address current workforce trends that are increasing work insecurity, from the rise of part-time work and unpaid internships to the exploitation of increasing numbers of “gig economy” workers such as uber drivers.

But today, our unions are under siege: the giant teachers union, the Kenya National Union of Teachers, is on its deathbed with its membership having dwindled from about 300,000 to a paltry 20,000. A host of health workers unions are in similar stead with the county and national governments having refused to play their agency role of deducting and submitting members’ dues to unions, thereby starving them of resources and into a slow but sure death. Other unions are not doing any better. For instance, the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) was forced to go to the labour court in 2020 after the government reneged on fully implementing benefits secured in a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

But it is precisely because they are effective and necessary for shared prosperity that unions are under attack by employers who want to maintain excessive leverage over workers and by policymakers representing the interests of the top 1 percent. These attacks have succeeded in increasing the gap between the number of workers who would like to be represented by a union and the number who are represented by a union. And these threats to the freedom to join together in unions haven’t been met with a policy response sufficient to keep the playing field level between organizing workers and the employers looking to thwart them.

Indeed, as the health workers unions as well as the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) attest, millennials are poised to lead the next labor movement. Indeed, there is evidence that young workers are primed to do so. And young people are more amenable to labor unions than their older peers. Having entered the workforce during tough economic times, these young workers have experienced a labor market with lower wages, diminishing benefits and other facets of increasing insecurity. Certainly, Kenyans of all ages, occupations, ethnicities, and genders have a vested interest in making sure our economy works for everyone. To promote an inclusive economy and a robust democracy, we must work together to rebuild our collective bargaining system.

Not all employers oppose unions. But often, when workers seek to organize and bargain collectively, employers hire union avoidance consultants to orchestrate intense and aggressive anti-union campaigns which have become widespread, leading to a coercive and punitive climate for organizing that goes unrestrained due to a fundamentally flawed regulatory regime that neither protects workers’ rights nor provides any disincentives for employers to continue disregarding the law. While the Labor Relations Act, which governs collective bargaining, makes it illegal for employers to intimidate, coerce, or fire workers involved in union-organizing activities, the penalties are insufficient to provide a serious economic disincentive for such behavior.

The trade union movement represents the organized economic power of workers. It is the most potent and most direct social insurance workers can establish, and must not be allowed to disintegrate.

Edwin Wanjawa teaches in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Pwani University.

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