Trade Union and Unionism

Trade Union Organisation and Structure

A trade union is an association of workers formed to protect their interests in employment situations such as in matters of pay and working conditions and promoters of people at work. It protects and promotes workers interests mainly by means of collective bargaining and consultation with employers.

Trade unions provide workers with a collective voice to mark their wishes known to management and thus bring actual and desired conditions closer together.

Trade unions exist to let management know that there will be, from time to time, an alternative view on key issues affecting employee. Unions see their role as that of participating with management on decision-making on maters affecting their interests.

Unions therefore work to secure through collective bargaining improved terms and conditions for their members and also provide protection, support and advice to their members as individual employees. Trade union success depends on members’ participation both as individuals and as groups.

Over the years, trade union objectives have widened and have been influenced by economic, political and social systems. The following have been found to also be part of the union objectives.

  • Secure for the workers fairer wages in the light of the cost of living and prevailing standards
  • Improve the workers working conditions by securing shorter working hours, better working facilities and other welfare benefits.
  • Assure the workers of a share of increased profitable of the organisation by providing adequate payments for the job done
  • Protect the workers interests and safeguard them against exploitation
  • Ensure the workers’ job security by resisting retrenchment and any other victimization likely to harm them
  • Protect the larger interest of society by aiding in the improvement of trade and industry
  • Provide a medium through which workers’ interest and grievance can be expressed

Reasons for Joining or Not Joining Trade Union

  • Employees join a union for the following reasons:
  • To try to improve their working conditions
  • To gain some control over working environments
  • Due to pressure from colleagues who are already in a union
  • Dissatisfaction with management
  • Need for social outlet
  • Need for avenues of leadership

When a substantial number of employees are members of trade unions the effects on the management of a company are that:

  • Decisions and policies are subject to challenge and negotiation
  • Management powers are limited, and they may be used cautiously
  • Decision making may become centralized so that a unified company industrial relations policy can be formulated and practiced
  • The management may be required to give certain information about the company to union representatives

The reasons why individual workers refuse or avoid joining trade unions may include:

  • It costs money to be a union member
  • The thought/idea that trade unions are unnecessary
  • The belief that some benefits will be gotten since the CBA covers all workers in the same grades
  • Individual beliefs/convictions.

Organisation and Structure

The internal structure of individual trade unions varies greatly. However, they all depend on membership participation and they endeavour to practice internal democracy.

Although some trade union leaders are dedicated to the movement, others may seek the satisfaction of leadership or the opportunity to gain status, recognition and freedom from tight supervisory control.

The affairs of a trade union are run by elected union officials. The chief Executive is the secretary General who is elected by all the union members. The secretary general supervisors the full-time officials, controls service facilities and pursues the policies derived upon by union members.

Broadly speaking, trade unions officer are of three types:

  • The full time paid official, employed by the union
  • The part time voluntary official who is elected to be a branch officer of his union
  • The workplace representative – the shop steward or staff representative.

At their place of work, workers are represented by a shop steward. This s an employee of the firm, but who acts on behalf of a group of his fellow employees. The shop steward is expected to perform a full day’s work as the other company workers and gets his orders and instructions from the supervisors in-charge of the members he represents.

The shop steward is the daily contact between union members and management and is expected to represent both the member’s interest and the union policy to management.

A steward is charged with the responsibility of recruiting new members. In the earlier days, stewards used to collect union dues for the union, but this is no more. A check-off system now allows the employer to remit union dues directly. The stewards also pursue grievances with management and union officials. Large organisations with many stewards have a chief steward elected from among the shop stewards to be their overall representative to both management and union.

Shop stewards powers are constrained by various company and trade unions rules. The degree of power they hold depends on several factors including:

  • The extent to which collective bargaining is centralized at company / industry level
  • The state of the local labour market
  • The nature of the companys wage structure
  • The degree of support for the union amongst employees
  • Statutory provisions.

Shop stewards are less powerful if the labour market is plentiful, but have greater influence in conditions of skills shortage.

Where wages depend heavily on incentive payments, worked out locally, the stewards will be involved in negotiating pay-putting him in a strong bargaining position. However, if people are paid annually on an incremental scale, then the stewards have no influence on pay. The stewards also depend on their constituents for support – if available their position is strong, but if missing, their position is weakened considerably.

Types of Trade Unions

There are basically four types of trade unions

  • Crafts
  • Industrial
  • General
  • Occupational of non-manual

Craft Unions

They consist of skilled workers who pursue the same craft. Originally, such unions were exclusively for those skilled workers who had acquired their skills through traditional apprenticeship e.g. carpenters, masons etc. they are the typical closed-shop trade unions.

Industrial Unions

These are organized in a particular industry, irrespective of craft, trade, occupational skill or grade of the members.

General Unions

These bring together all categories of workers across a range of industries regardless of craft, industry or occupation. They are mostly for those occupations, which cannot be easily defined as either craft or industrial.

Occupational or Non-Manual Unions

These are basically concerned with organisation, technical, clerical, professional, supervisory and managerial staff separately from other workers.


  1. Generate a list of 10 trade unions in the Country and categories them by type.
  2. Discuss the achievements of the labour movement in Kenya in view of what has been identified as the principle objectives of trade unions

Functions of Trade Unions.

For the attainment of the above unions perform two types of functions militant and ministrant. Militant functions are the strikes and go slows. Ministrant functions are those services given to union members during strikes and lockout and to provide other benefits to them. Ministrant functions can again be either intramural or extramural.

The former include those welfare efforts of unions, which are made within the factory premises (e.g., improvement in working conditions, regulation of hours of work, provision of rest pauses, adequate wages, sanitation, safety, etc). The latter include those welfare efforts of unions, which are made outside the factory premises (e.g., provision of educational, recreational and housing facilities to workers).

We list below the various functions of a trade union under these four heads:

  • Functions relating to the union members
  • Functions relating to the union
  • Functions relating to the organisation
  • Functions relating to society.

Functions Relating To the Union Members

  • To’ safeguard workers against all sorts of exploitation by, political parties by the employer and by the union leaders.
  • To protect workers from the atrocities and unfair labour practices of the management.
  • To ensure healthy, safe and conducive working conditions, and adequate conditions of work.
  • To exert pressure for enhancement of rewards associated with the work only after making a realistic assessment of its practical implications.
  • To ensure a desirable standard of living by providing various types of social services-health, housing, educational, recreational, co-operative, etc.” and by widening and consolidating the social security measures.
  • To guarantee a fair and square deal and social justice to workers.
  • To remove the dissatisfaction and redress the day-to-day grievances and complaints of workers.
  • To encourage workers’ participation in the management of industrial organisation and trade union, and to foster labour-management and leader-follower co- operation.
  • To make the workers conscious of their rights and duties.
  • To impress upon workers the need to exercise restraint in the use of rights and to enforce them after realistically ascertaining their practical implications.
  • To stress the significance of settling disputes through negotiation, joint consultation and voluntary arbitration, and not through adjudication.
  • To raise the status of trade union members in the industrial organisation and in the society at large.

Functions Relating To Trade Unions Organisation

  • To formulate policies and plans consistent with those of the industrial organisation and society at large
  • To improve the network of communication between trade union and its members.
  • To eradicate various types of ‘isms’ like tribalism, regionalism and linguism within the trade union movement.
  • To keep away from advocating the adoption of unfair labour practices.
  • To save the union organisation from the exploitation by vested interests-personal and political interests.
  • To continuously review the relevance of union objectives in the context of social change, and to change them accordingly.
  • To prepare and maintain the necessary records.
  • To manage the trade union organisation on scientific lines.
  • To keep away from advocating the adoption of unfair labour practices.
  • To continuously review the relevance of union objectives in the context of social change, and to change them accordingly.
  • To Publicise the trade union objectives and functions, to know people’s reaction towards them, and to make necessary modifications

Functions Relating To the Organisation.

  • To increase production: quantitatively as well as qualitatively by laying down the norms of production and ensuring their adequate observance.
  • To help in the maintenance of discipline.
  • To create opportunities for workers’ to participate in management and strengthen labour-management co-operation.
  • To help in the removal of dissatisfaction and redressal of day-to-day grievances and complaints.
  • To promote dialogue and amicable relationships between the workers and the management by settling disputes through negotiation, joint consultation and voluntary arbitration, and by avoiding litigation.
  • To create favourable attitude the management towards trade unions and improve their status in industrial organisation.
  • To put pressure on the employer to enforce legislative provisions beneficial to the workers, to share the profits equitably, and to keep away from various types of unfair labour practices.
  • To facilitate communication between the management and the workers
  • To impress upon the management on the need to adopt reformative, and not punitive, approach towards workers’ faults.

Functions Relating To Society:

  • To render all sorts of constructive co-operation in the formulation and implementation of plans and policies relating to national development.
  • To actively participate in the development of programmes of national development, e.g. family planning, afforestation, national integration, etc.
  • To launch special campaigns against the social evils of corruption, nepotism, communalism, tribalism, regionalism, price-rise hoarding, black marketing, smuggling, sex inequality, illiteracy, dirt and disease
  • To create public opinion favourable to government’s policies and plans, and to mobilize people’s participation for their effective implementation
  • To enable unorganized sector to organize itself.
  • To create public opinion favourable to trade unions and thereby to raise their status


What are the effects on management of the existence of active trade unions in the organisation?

Historical Background of Trade Unions in Kenya

There are many reasons which lead to the formation of the trade unions in Kenya.  The main causes were:

  • Imposition of colonialism
  • Land alienation
  • Introduction of Indian labour
  • Introduction of cash rupees in the economy
  • Passing of repressive ordinances

1895 – 1938:

In 1895, the British Government decided to build the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Kasese in Uganda based mainly in commercial and political reasons.

During the same period, the British government was advised to encourage white settlement in Kenya based on its climate, fertile land and abundant labour. Africans were removed from their original land to give way for white settlement.

The construction of the Railway and white settlement required abundant labour, which was in short supply because African were reluctant to provide it. In order to resolve this labour problems, the British government introduced in Kenya in 1896 the Indian Labour. In 1901, hut tax ordinance and nature registration ordinance were passed.

Hut ordinance was deliberately introduced and enforced to make an adult African pay his hut taxing rupees while the nature ordinance was used to control and count the number of African – adult labour available.

Between 1919 –1922

Africans organized colonial government ordinances, Kipande, forced labour etc and various organizations were formed namely:- Kikuyu Central Association, young Kikuyu Association and the Kavirondo welfare Association.

In 1992, agitation against the colonial government was so tense that the government decided to arrest and detain Harry Thuku who was the leader of the young Kikuyu Association and his detention was followed by a strike in Nairobi.

Between 1922 & 1930 there were consultations sent to probe land and labour problems. It encouraged colonial Government to pass for the first time the colony trade union and trade dispute ordinances of 1937.

Despite the passing of the ordinance organizing and recruitment was difficult because of colonial government, employers and white settlers, hostilities against trade unionism.

Trade union leaders were harassed victimized and threatened with deportation by criminal authorities.

In 1938, the labour Trade Union of Kenya (LTUK) organized a big conference on workmen’s compensation in order to suggest clauses in favour of workers.

In 1939 the Labour Trade Union of Kenya was renamed Labour Trade Union of East Africa (LTUEA) so as to represent those from Tanganyika and Uganda. The LTUEA also organized trade union courses in Kiswahili and English.

(1939 – 1952): Trade union activities continued during the war period including:

  • The establishment of the Labour Advisory Board in 1942.
  • The first African Eliud Mathuu entered the legislature council in 1944
  • The formation of Kenya’s Study Union (KSU) in 1946 later renamed as Kenya African Union (KAU).
  • In 1947, the British Government brought in a colonial labour officer who was charged with the responsibility to advice the local trade unions in organizing, bargaining and grievance handling.
  • During the same period there was a general strike of 15000 members in Mombasa. It was organized by African Workers Federation (AWF).

In 1895 at a place called Ribe in Mazeras at the Coast Province, African workers who were employed by the church mission of East Africa formed as worker’s organization.

It recruited workers from the mission in Ribe. Some of its demand were to improve the conditions of the workers and assist in individual grievances.

Other trade unions formed in 1947 were African Taxi Driver’s Union (ATDU) later renamed as Kenya African Road Transport and Mechanic Union. (KARTMU).

Others include Kenya Houseboys Association Tailors and Garments Workers Union, Night Watchman Association and African Press Workers Association.

In 1949, Makhan Singh and other Africa trade unionists formed the East African Trade Union congress.

By the end of 1949, the East African trade union congress had brought together the wings of the labour movement in Kenya.

Various trade unions and political agitation took place in 1950-1952, the government declared a state of emergency banning all political activities including Kenya African Union.  It arrested and detained most political leaders.

1952-1965: In 1952, six trade unions formed the first African dominated National centre of trade unions namely: The Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions (KFRTU). These were:

  • Transport and allied workers union.
  • Tailoring, Tent makers and Government workers Union
  • Domestic and Hotel workers union
  • Night watchman, clerk and shop workers union
  • Typographical union of Kenya
  • East Africa Federation of Building and construction workers union.


The Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Union wads affiliated to Brussels based International Confederation of Free Trade Union.  In 1955 the KFRTU was renamed as Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL)

In 1960, a constitutional conference took place in London.  In 1962 Kenya was granted internal self-government and Tom Mboya became the Labour Minister.

In 1963, Kenya became independent and the role of trade union had to be redefined in an independent Kenya.

Internal disagreement led to a split in the organization leading to the formation of another Revival National center of Trade Unions which was called Kenya African Workers Congress (KAWC).  The four National Trade unions which formed the KAWC were:

  • Quarry and mine workers union
  • Dock workers union
  • Petrol and oil worker union
  • Custom workers union

The two National Centers Rivalism led to a scuffle, which left three persons dead in Mombassa in 1965. The government intervened by appointing presidential Ministerial Committee of trade unions. The committee made their recommendations in line with the government sessional paper on African socialism and its application No. 10 of 1965. The recommendations were as follows:

  1. The deregistration of both KFRTU and KAWC
  2. The creation of new Central Organization of Trade union (COTU)
  3. The committees recommendations were implemented.
  4. From 1965 to 1981 the Central Organization of Trade Unions held five elections.

The second person who became the secretary general of COTU was James Dennis Akumu who later became the secretary general in 1975 of the Pan African Trade Union Center. (The Organization of African Trade Union Unity – OATUU)

At the organizations forth coming meeting in 1975, Juma Boy who had taken over as the secretary General form Denis Akumu faced a strong opposition from James Karebe who was the secretary General of Kenya Local Government Union. Karebe finally lost to Juma Boy.

At one time, Karebe formed rival National center of trade unions called Federation of United Trade Unions (FUTU) but it was not registered by the government. The disagreement between FUTU and COTU was based on the representation of National Unions at COTU governing council meeting. In 1980 the COTU’s constitution was amended with those amendments registered by the government, Karebe fought to take over from Juma Boy but he lost again. The current COTU Secretary general Francis Atwoli


Explain reasons that lead to the formation of trade unions in Kenya

Outline briefly the historical background of trade unions

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