For the third time in less than a year, university lecturers are on strike.
On March 1, a seven-day notice given by the Universities Academic Staff and Union (UASU) expired, ushering in another bout of a strike that could have been avoided. The costs, time, resources and opportunities these regular disputes cause to stakeholders are unimaginable.
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We have a complex situation where state institutions find no problem disregarding court anchored agreements and court orders.
This is unsurprising. In the last few weeks, court directives have been contemptuously ignored. Moreover, there seems to be determined efforts at trivialising legitimate expressions of labour grievances. The presser convened by Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed and university students’ leaders was in bad taste.
The most apparent preliminary truth is that the period between 2009 and 2013 produced the most tranquil epoch in recent history, insofar as labour disputes between UASU and the State were concerned. This says something about the national government then, its style of governance and universities’ labour relations then.
In 2013, UASU signed a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that was to be implemented until 2017. The newly minted Jubilee government, smarting from an improbable electoral win, scorned at the agreement. Mercifully, the possibility of losing to a united opposition in 2017 forced it to hurriedly and belatedly implement the CBA, which ran into arrears of billions of shillings.
Contempt of court
The government did not bother to comprehensively implement the CBA; it literally threw money at the problem. The 2017 CBA settlement just days before the elections had all the hallmarks of vote buying. It was a gesture not too dissimilar with how long suffering uncompensated internally displaced persons (IDPs) were treated before the elections. The lecturers overlooked the obvious tokenism and dutifully returned to work.
The second hard truth is that the government is in contempt of court with regard to the current CBA. Before the elections last year, a return to work formula was signed. UASU and the Inter Public Universities Council Consultative Forum (IPUCCF), a more or less dysfunctional outfit, signed the document which marked the end of that strike.
In the agreement, it was agreed that all internal 2013-17 CBAs for individual universities be completed by February 2, 2018. Further, it was also agreed that all outstanding employers’ contributions to pensions running into billions of shillings, and unpaid since 2010, be factored into the next budget cycle. More crucially, it was mutually agreed that the negotiations for the 2017-21 CBA start on December 18, 2017 and be concluded by January 31. The document was deposited in court. This means it constitutes a legally binding agreement.
On December 18, IPUCCF failed to table the governments’ response to the CBA as agreed. They asked for more time to consult and get back the next day. Nothing happened. Ten days later, the IPUCCF took UASU on a three-day dizzying maze under scorching city sun, promising to show up, but constantly shifting venues and dropping calls. Another meeting was set up for February 12, nothing happened. A final one was set up on the February 21 and yet again, IPUCFF had nothing to say.
This leads to the third hard truth; the government failed at the simplest and fundamental step; to show up and dialogue. It was ironic to hear Labour CS Ukur Yattani asking the striking dons to give dialogue a chance. He went further to appoint a mediator when none was actually needed since there is no stalemate. A stalemate occurs when dialogue fails. In the case of UASU, that dialogue has not even started.
Lecturers are on strike because they want dialogue. This strike is a moral fight to compel the government open its ‘mouth’ and talk. IPCUFF is not talking. They are talking to themselves and the press. This strike is the most needless since the collapse of white settler rule.
A counter offer from IPCUFF is the only legitimate entry point for dialogue. This has not happened. This strike is not just a clamour for pay, but also for a fair, equitable payment structure for the dignity of dons. This strike is a plea for a functional health scheme for university lecturers. It is also a campaign to improve the welfare of doctors working in university teaching hospitals.
That is why the press conference called by Amina in which students purported to give lecturers 48 hours to return to work easily wins the comedy act of the year award. First, it is a vain act whose only achievement was to grant publicity to imbecility.
Rather than make noise on TV in rented suits, students’ leaders should instead pile pressure on government to honor the law and to show up for dialogue. What happened to students’ activism that was historically anchored on social justice?
The fourth hard truth is that this strike has totally shut down learning in public universities. Last year, a few universities in Jubilee leaning areas appeared to sympathise with the beleaguered government, assuming that such poise was politically expedient in the context of a presidential election. Unless the government comes to the dialogue table, this strike will bite further. An attempt to use the courts to illegalise it has failed.
This is a polite message to parents. There is no learning happening in universities. If you truly care about the welfare of your child, allow them to come home. The idleness in campuses is fomenting unprintable experimentation.
The final hard truth is that if the government simply negotiated, and signed the 2017-21 CBA as legally agreed, the higher education sector will be uninterrupted with disputes for many years. But for this to happen, the government must meaningfully show up at the negotiating table.
The writer is a researcher and a university lecturer