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Could a General Strike Bring the Government to Heel?

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Fresh from my pondering the ethics of tax evasion, the East African has come up with the idea of forcing government reform through a general strike. Interesting.

The idea behind the general strike is for the citizenry to demonstrate their disdain for the current political situation by a critical mass of the populace refusing to go to work. Essentially, we should “do a lot by doing nothing,” to quote the article.

Martin Kimani, the author of the piece, sees the recent strike by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) as an example that could be followed across the wider economy. While the success or otherwise of the teachers’ strike has yet to be seen, the prospect of the nation as a whole downing tools is intriguing.

First, the teachers all belonged to a single union, so it was relatively easy for them to organise collective action. Would this be possible in all business sectors? Union action means that employers get notice that staff will be absent and can then plan for a period of inactivity. Were a national general strike to be announced, how many employers would simply sack their entire workforce and recruit new employees? The reason so many Kenyans languish in poverty is because there are fewer well-paid jobs than there are people who want them. The fear of ending up unemployed would probably stymie any enthusiasm for a general strike in the factories and office blocks of the country.

Secondly, while Kimani makes the point that some people can barely afford to feed their families while “Nairobi’s expensive restaurants are busy feeding rich politicians and their hangers-on,” it’s important to remember that while the wealth gap in Kenya is immense, there is a growing and influential middle class who aspire to the trappings of wealth that our elite have been enjoying since independence. Do they have any solidarity with the casual labourers and subsistence farmers? Would they be willing to forego their modest salaries in order to stand together with those who are poorly-paid? Only the truly wealthy can afford to be champagne socialists, agitating for political change secure in the knowledge that they have nothing to lose. For the rest of us, it is a question of competing priorities.

And finally, what of those who are desperate for political change but who are also employers? They may not have political connections and may not be making huge profits. Asking them to shut down their operations for the duration of a general strike could drive them out of business, leading to their workers joining the ranks of the unemployed. And what good would that do anyone?

Sadly, I don’t think the prospect of a nationwide general strike is very likely, simply because the economy has a surplus of labour. For every person willing to join a picket line, there are probably another four who are currently unemployed who would gladly take their jobs, possibly on less pay. An economy cannot simply grind to a halt; people need to eat, to eat they need money, and to get money they have to be involved in some sort of economic activity. Kenyans aren’t rich enough to live off their savings for an undetermined period of time. For political change, we will have to think of another option.

[Image by A Currell]

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