Outwitted, outmanoeuvred and frustrated by the government, the Kenya National Union of Teachers is in dire straits. Starved of funds, abandoned by members and rocked by internal wrangles, Knut is on its deathbed.
During the World Teachers Day celebrations last Monday, secretary-general Wilson Sossion confessed the bitter truth about the sorry status of the union when he said, “Knut is shutting down.”
In just a year, the union has been reduced from a formidable force that would pressurise the government to accede to teachers’ demands to a talking shop; a pale shadow of its former self. Its membership has shrunk from 187,471 in June last year to 45,217 in September and monthly earnings dipped from 144 million to 32.9 million. It earns about Sh17 million from tenants at Knut House.
The union is unable to finance operations in its 110 branches, which receive money from the headquarters on pro rata based on membership. Staff have gone without salaries and rising rent arrears may see some branches thrown out of their premises. “Knut is financially crippled as it has been deprived of resources and cannot meet most of its financial obligations,” Mr Sossion said.
This puts hundreds of thousands of teachers in a weak position to negotiate with their employer for better terms and conditions. Mr Sossion blames Knut woes on the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) headed by Ms Nancy Macharia. So, where did it all go wrong?
Ms Macharia took over the TSC leadership in July 2015 as an insider who had worked for the commission for 28 years, having joined as an assistant teacher. Prior to her appointment, she was the director, teacher management.
In 2016, Ms Macharia scored big when TSC, Knut and the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) signed a Sh54 billion collective bargaining agreement, whose implementation has sounded the death knell for Mr Sossion’s body.
In a strategy aimed at standardising teachers’ professional development, Ms Macharia introduced the career progression guidelines (CPGs) for the management and promotion of tutors. Predictably, Knut objected.
It argued that the CBA only recognised the Code of Regulations for Teachers. They were right, as the agreement reads, “Parties agree that career progression in the teaching service shall be implemented as provided under Part VI of the Code of Regulations for Teachers.”
In protest, Mr Sossion issued a strike notice in January last year but TSC blocked the move in court. On July 12, however, the court ruled in favour of Knut, prompting Ms Macharia to turn the screws.
Huge pay rise
July was crucial as teachers expected a huge pay rise in Phase III of the CBA. Strangely, Ms Macharia ordered a review of the payroll, excluding Knut members from the increment. This affected 103,624 tutors, who included principals, their deputies and senior teachers. TSC then threatened to recover benefits Knut members had enjoyed since 2017.
The aim was to put pressure on teachers to quit Knut. To push through its idea, TSC simply introduced a feature on the teachers’ portal from where they could quit the union by clicking the “stop transaction(s)” icon. It worked perfectly as thousands of teachers abandoned the union and received the pay rise.
According to the Knut constitution, a teacher can only quit by writing to the union. Starving Knut of cash was the ultimate goal. The commission even refused to collect union dues on behalf of Knut and threatened to rip apart their 52-year-old recognition agreement.
Knut claims that TSC officials later issued instructions to school heads to advise teachers to withdraw from the union.
Then it got personal when Mr Sossion was deregistered as a teacher in a bid to force him out of Knut leadership. Internal disputes also came into play and, at some point, officials suspended the secretary-general, leading to court cases. According to the last financial report, law firms made Sh105 million from the union, and the cases keep piling.
The union was meant to hold elections in December last year, but failed because of lack of finances. It looks highly unlikely that will happen this year as it has lost more members and income. The latest attempt to bring back cordial industrial relations were quashed two weeks ago.
Knut had tried use the Education Committee of the National Assembly to force TSC to negotiate but Speaker Justin Muturi advised members to stay away from the dispute. He cited conflict of interest and that the parties are already engaged in other dispute resolution mechanisms.
Mr Sossion and Kuppet chairman Omboko Milemba sit in the committee. This was after Ms Macharia wrote a protest letter saying Parliament has no authority to intervene as the two parties had pending cases in court.
At present, Ms Macharia appears to hold all the aces but Mr Sossion has vowed to fight on.