Teachers vs Mutula: Who will blink first?

Teachers in Nakuru protest outside KNUT offices [Photo: Boniface Thuku/Standard]
By Moses Njagi

The Government is banking on the courts and the anger of parents whose children are idling their time away in schools to break the teachers’ strike.

For Education Minister Mutula Kilonzo, it is a high stakes game that could go either way.  Breaking the will of the teachers would set a precedent in a labour market that has become increasingly restive as unions rally their members to take advantage of the new Constitution and demand better pay and allowances.

If the strike fizzles out, the Government would in future negotiate with teachers from a position of strength and this would send a message to the unions. The latter appear to have sensed that this could be their final chance to gain concessions from the State on their terms.

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Mutula is facing a nightmare scenario as lecturers who are members of the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) begin their strike tomorrow. They are to be joined by members of the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet).

Despite his tough stance and accusing teachers of trying to blackmail the Government, Mutula is aware of the political implications of the strike, although his current and past utterances have turned him into a polarizing figure, a factor the teachers have quickly latched onto.

On Monday many waved placards reminding the minister of the recent furore he created with his comment on the ideal length of skirts girls should wear in school. The strike crippled learning on the day schools reopened, but Mutula warned that under his watch the Government would not succumb to “blackmail”.

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Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) mobilized members countrywide to abandon classrooms on Monday in defiance of a court order, leaving pupils unattended and prompting parents to pick up their children.

Kilonzo rebuked teachers for defying the court order obtained by the Teachers Service Commission and suggested union officials be reprimanded during today’s hearing at the Industrial Court.

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exams stopped

Meanwhile, protesting teachers stormed centres across the country to eject head teachers who were sitting examinations on schools’ administration and management.

In Imenti North district police had to fire in the air to repulse striking teachers who marched into Meru Technical Training College to flush out head teachers undertaking the Kenya Education Management Institute (KEMI) courses.

Knut national chairman Wilson Sossion called to for the implementation of 300 per cent salary increment negotiated in 1997 a success.

But as the teachers marched to the streets, a hard-talking Mutula vowed the Government would not succumb to the teachers’ demands. He said they were used to the tactics used by teachers employ every election year, and vowed he would not entertain “such nonsense”.

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Mutula said: “The teachers are used to blackmailing the Government every election year, but it will not happen now, not when am around”.

The minister added a twist to the dispute claiming the strike is politically motivated. “Look around and you will see there is a political hand pulling the strings, we know this very well but we cannot entertain it,” he alleged. With his hard talk, Mutula appeared to put his political career on the line.

“I am an honest broker and I am sure the teachers have never had one so am I urging them to use my services,” he added.  Mutula backed TSC’s threats to freeze the salaries of teachers engaged in the strike and to withhold the dues of unions.

But Sossion declared teachers would not be cowed by any threats of victimisation. He added they were ready to even go to jail as the costs of agitating for their dues.

“We are prepared to go to jail or even die if necessary. As long as it takes, even if three or four months, we will stay put and we will not be intimidated by any ill-will of the Government,” Sossion told a press conference at Sports View Hotel in Kasarani, Nairobi.  “The strike is a great success and we are urging the teachers to maintain that tempo and pressure. We encourage them to remain with the spirit of solidarity for as long as it takes,” he added.

SEE ALSO :Chaos in KNUT as school year begins

As teachers pressed on with the protests, Knut secretary general David Okuta Osiany was admitted at the intensive care unit of Aga Khan Hospital, Kisumu on Sunday following an undisclosed ailment.

Kilonzo warned that by violating the court orders, teachers had presented the Judiciary with the perfect opportunity to stamp its authority on them. “The Judiciary must use this window presented by the teachers’ union to put its foot down and say enough is enough,” he said.

The minister said at today’s court hearing the union lawyers should be directed that their clients call off the strike.  But Sossion countered the Government was itself guilty of contempt because it had failed to pay the retirees their dues, despite an order by the High Court in Nakuru.

He maintained that the union had not been served with court orders stopping the strike, terming them alien. “If there are such orders then they are long overtaken by events since the teachers are already on strike,” he said.  Separately the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) backed the teachers’ strike and questioned the legitimacy of the court order obtained by TSC last Friday.

COTU SUPPORT

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli told the unions and teachers the industrial action is protected in law and they should not be intimidated with threats of arrests.

Atwoli backed the sentiments of Knut and Kuppet that the court order had been overtaken by events because it had been obtained after expiry of the seven-day notice issued by unions.

“The purpose of the seven-day strike notice was for the employer to engage the union so as to stall the intended strike,” said Atwoli.

“The decision to arrest teachers or union officials for contempt lies with the relevant authorities. The court made a judgment and Kenyans have been complaining about impunity and about the Government not following court orders,” said lawyer Gabriel Mukele.

He added: “The Government should not sit back and relax because of the court order. Means of ending the stalemate should still be sought because we are going for elections and kids are preparing of end of year examinations.”  Sossion rebuffed the involvement of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission, calling them “strangers” to the deal signed between the union and the Government in 1997.

“Their mandate is to determine the salary for State officers such as MPs, not teachers. Ours are demands for implementation of a deal signed and gazetted.

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