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Eyes on Collins Oyuu as bruised, battered Knut attempts to stop the bleeding

By Kariuki Waihenya | Jan 28th 2022 | 5 min read
Kenya National Union of Teachers Secretary General Collins Oyuu. [File, Standard]

Like a severely maimed lion in the heart of the savanna struggling to get back on its feet, the Kenya National Union of Teachers is done with licking its wounds and is now slowly limping out of the trenches.

Having weathered a long dreary season in which it saw its members flee in droves after damaging run-ins with the government that left it financially depleted, and having watched as its boss, Wilson Sossion, followed the bolting teachers in a teary farewell last year, the union seems to be finding its voice again.

Secretary-General Collins Oyuu, who took over from Mr Sossion in June last year, has a mountain to climb–though it’s too early to tell if he has the stamina and the grit for it. When he took over the reins at Mfangano Street in Nairobi, the 64-year-old union had a paltry 15,000 members from 187,471 in 2019.

In the early 1990s and 2000s the membership was in the region of 220,000, but then the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers came around in 1998, a fledgling outfit seeking to represent all post-primary teachers. Soon, it began to chip away at the Knut citadel not because it was any stronger than Knut or that it had better ideas and programmes to offer but simply because the older outfit was getting weaker at the knees and its revered strong-headed bosses were exiting the stage rather too quickly.

In the days of Ambrose Adongo, John Katumanga, Francis Majali, Francis Ng’ang’a and David Okuta, Knut was impregnable, stable, influential and widely respected.

When Mr Sossion, the indefatigable and pugnacious secretary-general took over, he was not one to be content with merely maintaining the status quo. He was determined to push Knut to a new rarefied zone that would see education officials and teachers swooning over it with adoration.

But as it turned out, his combative approach when dealing with the Teachers Service Commission saw him spending more time in the courts fighting every new policy. Soon, chinks in the amour began to show and the union was fighting for its survival.

The policies that saw the union entangled in an endless confrontation with the TSC include the delocalisation policy that was introduced to stop a tendency by school managers to be too inward-looking and provincial. Another one was the performance, appraisal and development system introduced to measure productivity in schools, and career progression guidelines to determine grading and promotions.

The coup de grace for Knut, however, came in the most ironic of fashions. After the 2017-2021 Sh54 billion collective bargaining agreement was signed, Knut threatened to call a strike to protest the transfer of some its officials to areas outside their areas of representation, to push for the promotion of teachers outside the career progression guidelines, and to force the shelving of performance appraisals and the Teacher Professional Development programmes.

In an effort to stop the strike, the TSC moved to court but to its grief the Labour and Employment Relations judge ruled in favour of the union, setting aside the career progressions rules for Knut members, stopping the transfer of union officials outside their areas of jurisdiction, and the performance appraisal system.

But Knut’s victory party was over as soon as it had begun, for the TSC went to court seeking a stay of the ruling on the basis that the orders had essentially suspended a Sh13 billion salary raise scheduled for July 2019 and which would have benefitted more than 160,000 teachers in administrative positions.

The court declined to shelve the orders, leaving the TSC with no option but to shelve the monetary element of the CBA, which was based on the career progression guidelines, triggering panic across the Knut fraternity. Aggrieved by the turn of events, Knut members keen on benefitting from the CBA fled and joined Kuppet.

Still, Kuppet joined the Kenya Secondary School Heads Association and the Kenya Primary Schools Headteachers Association in disowning the union and Knut’s goose was cooked.

Hoist by his own petard, like in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sossion lay rejected and dejected staring at a most dishonourable exit from a severely weakened union.

Now, Mr Oyuu, who seems to have found a formula of engaging with the TSC, is slowly picking up the pieces and has already written to the commission calling for a renegotiation of the 2021-2025 CBA. Courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic that saw the Salaries and Remuneration Commission stop all pay rises in the public service, this particular CBA has no monetary value though it contains sweeteners such as the expansion of paternity leave from 14 to 21 days, a policy to deliberately have spouses work as close together as possible, and a maintenance of the current salaries and allowances.

Oyuu has also started what he calls a recruitment drive to push membership to at least 150,000 in an effort to restore some shine to the union. If Oyuu is determined to hit the reset button to turn the tide, he must engage a more diplomatic and open-minded strategy as opposed to his combative predecessor.

Knut might never reach the heights of two decades ago, but it can yet regain some respect and authority for the good of its members and the entire education sector.

A union’s core mandate is to get the best deal for its members, and Oyuu must rise beyond bread and butter issues to introduce positive influences in teachers’ career development, skills upgrade and general morale to make a difference. The TSC has in the last few years introduced policies that work for its employees and has eased its communication with them through migrating most of its services online.

Oyuu has shown much promise in reinventing the union but it remains to be seen whether he will be a gentle but firm boardroom diplomat or a belligerent general.

The writer is a consulting editor.

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