Workers keep voting me in at COTU because this job is my first wife, Atwoli says

Francis Atwoli has been the face of labour movement for close to two decades, having been elected as Cotu secretary-general for the first time in 2001.

And as workers today celebrate International Labour Day, Atwoli shares insights on the growth of the trade union from 300,000 members to the current four million, past vicious fights for positions by officials and government interference.

He also reveals how the late trade unionist and Cabinet Minister Tom Mboya inspired his journey to the movement instigated by the need to protect the common interests of workers and in response against industrial capitalism.

Labour Day, which is celebrated on May 1, was birthed following an agitation by workers against government labour policy and in demand for an eight-hour workday in Chicago’s Heymarket in 1886. Several people were killed in the protest.

In Kenya, Makhan Singh is credited with starting Asian Railway Workers Union in 1940. The union worked closely with Africans and opened the space for more unions, including the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) whose establishment was pushed by late former President Daniel Moi in 1956 through legislation.

“There was a big team at that time that joined hands to fight for independence. Those were the people and brains that shaped the labour movement in Kenya. Mboya became the modern unionist,” says Atwoli.

Atwoli had his first stint as a union official in 1967 as a shop steward just after three months of employment at Kenya Posts and Telecommunication Corporation. He was later elected branch secretary for Union of Posts and Telecommunication Employees in 1971 and later as director of Cotu in 1986.

“When I took over as Cotu secretary-general in 2001, we had a paltry 300,000 members but now we have four million. We have strengthened the labour movement. There were a lot of problems then, people were fighting for positions but I internationalised it. I saw how unions should be run, not people quarrelling. How things are done in a civilised manner,” he says.

Atwoli was recently re-elected unopposed by trade union representatives who convened at the Tom Mboya Labour College in Kisumu, handing him a fifth term.

In response to his critics that he has overstayed in the union and that he was in bed with the government, Atwoli says it is his devotion to workers that has seen him elected for the last 20 years.

He says Cotu only calls for a strike after engaging employers, checking on the economic performance to avoid making irrational demands of pay-rise that could have the effect of kicking out companies from business.

“People say Atwoli has overstayed in the labour movement; indeed, I have. But you see since I was first elected in 2001, I have never had an opponent, even in the just concluded election in April,” says Atwoli.

“I have sold myself to my colleagues that I can work hard for them. I can do everything for them and when I want to leave they ask themselves ‘who will work for us like Atwoli?’ I am married to this job; this is my first wife,” he says.

The vocal 71-year-old says he was aware of people questioning why he was not grooming young people to take the union’s leadership.

He says the challenge with young people is their love for quick riches that in many occasions cloud their judgment for servant leadership. He says most young people call for strikes for political reasons.

Atwoli recalls how a visit by Mboya to St Mary’s School inspired him into being a unionist. Mboya visited the school to give a lecture to Form Five and Six students. Atwoli, who was then in Form One, sneaked into the hall.

It was from the lecture that he made up his mind to join the labour movement to defend workers.

“I sneaked into that meeting and there was a lot of bullying. The big boys wanted to throw me out, but there was a well-built man called Mutinda who said, ‘you sit here’,” says Atwoli.

“I listened to Mboya keenly about what he had done in the labour movement. When I went back home for holidays, I told my mum that I wanted to do what Mboya was doing,” he says.