Waving placards and banners, members of this country’s teachers union took to the streets Wednesday for the first time in 28 years, vowing to stay out of classrooms until they get pay hikes of up to 200%.
The strike, by mostly elementary school teachers here in the capital and in other cities, threatens to disrupt the studies of more than half a million students preparing for examinations in November. And it comes as the government of President Daniel Arap Moi is besieged by a host of other economic and political concerns in advance of a presidential election.
“It could set a precedent for other industrial action,” a Western diplomat here said. “There are a lot of unhappy people out there.”
The 250,000-strong National Union of Teachers defied a legal maneuver by the government earlier this week to derail the strike. Kenya’s daily East African Standard warned in an editorial Wednesday that the union’s “insistence on its terms, and the government’s posturing on the illegality of the strike, could throw the entire country off balance.”
A date for the presidential poll, in which Moi is seeking a fifth five-year term, has yet to be set. But one government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said elections will probably take place before Christmas “if this teachers issue doesn’t mess us up.”
Some officials believe that the strike is part of a plot by political opposition groups to precipitate civil strife and derail the election. The average teacher’s salary here is 3,000 to 7,000 shillings a month, or about $48 to $113--ranking educators among the lowest paid of the country’s professionals.
“We don’t receive a salary, we receive an insult,” said Mary Kibathi, headmistress at a Nairobi elementary school, who was too embarrassed to disclose her monthly pay. “How can I tell children to stay clean and wear good clothes, while my own children have to wear rags and I can hardly afford water?”
The government has said it can afford to raise teachers’ pay only between 10% and 28% because anything more would drain public coffers and require drastic tax increases. The union’s supporters note that what teachers are demanding is minimal compared with the 400% salary hikes that legislators received in 1994 and the 55% raise that police got last week.
On Monday, the Ministry of Labor filed a dispute at the Industrial Court in an attempt to legally scuttle the teachers’ strike. Under Kenyan law, employees cannot take such action when a matter is under arbitration. But union officials ignored a summons to court the following day.
“Why have they rushed to Industrial Court when we are still ready and available to talk?” Adongo asked.
When teachers last struck, in 1969, they stayed out for more than a month. Their demands for more money were met the following year.