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Blocking The Polls Won't Help Workers

The Nation (Nairobi), 19 January 2001

Nairobi - Without a doubt, the present circumstances in the labour movement demand a fresh look at the Trade Unions Act. The profile of the labour force has changed significantly since the 1980s, for example, and this demands new approaches to employment issues.

But it seems wrong for trade unionists to tell workers not to allow elections scheduled for this year unless the Act is amended. This is hardly likely to foster a better working environment for the members of the 32 unions represented at a Mombasa "labour awareness" workshop this week.

Shop stewards attending the workshop said the Act had been a stumbling block to workers' rights and demanded that the current union leadership see to it that crucial sections are amended. The rider was that they would take "legal action" if this does not happen.

Whereas there is no denying that the quality of life for Kenya's workers has been greatly eroded in the face of issues such as retrenchment and Aids, we must point out that the traditional resort to boycotts just will not hold.

Indeed, boycotting trade union elections will be counter-productive. For it will simply be giving away the match to the very leaders they consider a stumbling block. As it is, workers have had little impact, for example, on national issues, such as political reforms.

Not to allow elections to proceed as scheduled would not only be defeatist, it would vividly demonstrate that trade unionists have not moved with the times. Hackneyed responses to problems will not work in the new high-tech era, the shop stewards should be told.

If they are to respond meaningfully to the challenges workers face at this stage of advance in technology and greater focus on quality, unionists will have to be creative and apply new strategies to dealing with employers.

Experience in Kenya shows quite clearly that the employers' lobby has worked hard in the past few years to garner the knowledge and skills necessary to influence national decisions. The same can hardly be said of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, which has been mired in infighting within its ranks.

There is no doubt that many in the top leadership of that organisation have outlived their usefulness and have demonstrated lack of understanding of democratic principles.

But the way to deal with them is not to boycott elections. It is to go into battle fully armed with a new agenda to shake up the labour movement. The days of rhetoric and sloganeering are long gone.

If workers are to find their rightful place in all the jockeying for power and influence in national affairs, they will have to free their minds and be innovative. Blocking elections is the work of cowards.

The long-suffering Kenyan workers cannot wait a minute longer to replace the deadwood in their unions. Cotu elections must be held as scheduled. Amendments to the Act must not be the pretext to stop so important a function.

Copyright 2001 The Nation. Distributed by allAfrica.com. For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.