On Monday and Tuesday, curtains came down on the lecturers and doctors strike respectively. This presented a much needed and long overdue reprieve to Kenyans who have been adversely affected by the stalemate in the two most important sectors in our country. There is no possible way of overemphasizing the effect this has had on our healthcare and higher education sector. The lives lost, livelihoods disrupted, students and parents inconvenienced in unmeasured proportions and the impact on the economic growth. Not to underscore the resolutions achieved, but where did the rain start beating the employer and the employee when it comes to conflict resolution? Did all these have to take so long? Did the doctors have to go on strike for their plea to be heard? Why did it take so long to resolve both strikes? Is there anything that can be done to avert such a crisis from happening again?
A master-servant kind of attitude was displayed by the Government when it started using intimidatory techniques to force the striking workers to go back to work. This of course worked out against them as the Union leaders from the Universities and the doctors, saw this as a chance to flex their numerical muscles as well. The more the amount of intimidation, the more the striking workers and their Union hard lined their stands thus jeopardizing negotiation efforts. Each side tried to present a reasonable excuse for the strike and the angle of the strike took to that of blame game. For the Opposition leaders, it was the opportune time to gain political mileage by capitalizing on the inability of the Government to be in control of the situation.
A keen observer of both sides might have realized that our way of handling conflicts and crisis in Kenya is wanting. The observer might as well notice that our level of trust and honesty has taken a sharp nosedive. In the run up to the 1997 General Elections, President Moi promised a 300% salary increase to the teachers so that they could give him his last term in office. The teachers kept their part of the deal and voted Moi in and maintained their cool even after the ‘Professor of Politics’ had left. The Mwai Kibaki Government (2002-2013) played the same card with the teachers as well. It is this habitual hoodwinking that was the motivation of the prolonging of both strikes, alongside the reason that the Unions were not guaranteed of the return of the same Government that they signed the agreements with to power. In short, there was no trust between the two parties, especially with regard to the doctors’ strike.
The bone of contention was the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the doctors and the Government signed in 2013. Aside from a salary increase, the Agreement stipulated that money for research was to be set aside as well as training of more specialists in the country so as to improve the general status of healthcare in this country. Unable to keep their end of the bargain for four years, the Government used the salary increment clause to portray the doctors, especially their Union leaders as greedy as well as not having the interests of Kenyans at heart. This low level of trust was the reason that led to the intervention of religious leaders since according to the doctors, there was conflict of interest among the Government delegation in the negotiations table.
Trust is the oil that lubricates the wheel of understanding in the human world. It is the bedrock of all human relations. Had the Government kept its trust by paying the Union members their dues in time, the industrial action would be unheard of. Giving the excuse that the demands would be economically unsustainable was a breach of trust since during the signing of the Agreements, (both for the doctors and the lecturers) the Employer was fully aware of what it was getting itself into. But still one would argue in favor of the unpredictability in running a government, or even the economy. What remains the same however, is that in crisis management, all parties are equal and there should be goodwill between the two sides. The lack of these two simple yet important virtues makes whatever goal that is to be accomplished nothing but an elusive mirage.
The arrest of KMPDU officials and the threat to withdraw the salaries of lecturers by the Government was the highest level of disrespect to the workers of these country without who we would not survive let alone retain the economic powerhouse status in East and Central Africa. Jailing doctors not only jeopardized talks to end the strike, but also displayed disrespect to the needs of the doctors who are expected by the Government to pay tax from their small earnings. Before the Executive could accuse the doctors of being at the hospital for few hours and rushing to run their private clinics, they should ask themselves what made the doctors so eager to run their private entities. The answer of course was contained in the CBA the Government signed with the doctors four years before the strike. While I agree it was wrong for the Union officials to disobey the courts, the situation could have been better handled had the Government withdrawn its arrest warrants against the doctors’ union officials and the threat to withdraw the lecturers’ salaries. In crisis management, it is of essence that the parties respect each other as well as their needs. Nobody goes on strike for fun and whoever lays their tools down does so for their voices to be heard and their needs to be met. The government failed to put into account that the striking workers are parents with mouths to feed, fees to pay and families to support.
When solving a crisis, confidentiality is key. The politicizing of the issue by the members of the political class was wrong as it deprived the matter the seriousness it deserves to be handled with. It is wrong by all standards to use the problems of the masses to gain political mileage which definitely translate into personal gain. Perhaps a renown educator and author by the name Stephen Covey put it best. ‘To solve our most difficult problems, we must radically change our thinking.’ The approach towards conflict and crisis managment must change across most sectors in our country. Matter of fact, a conflict should never be permitted to degenerate into a crisis in the first place. This calls for a more investment of time on examining facts rather than blame games, mutual respect, listening by both parties and a collective goodwill for the greater good. And most of all, there MUST always be a willingness to compromise by all parties.
There can never be a perfect resolution to a conflict. A win-win is as close as it gets, and that takes compromise.
By Brian Murithi