On the trail of COTU and trade unionism in Kenya


Historical accounts indicate that Labor Day celebrations, also known as the International Workers Day or May Day were initiated in the 1880’s to recognize the efforts of the working class individuals worldwide.  

In Kenya, Labor Day celebrations are organized by the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), the umbrella body of Kenya’s workers. The ceremony is usually presided over by the COTU leadership with top cream government representatives such as   Labor Minister and sometimes the President in attendance.

Employers and employees in Kenya anticipate Labor Day with bated breath as they wait for the formal address which normally reveals approved terms on the minimum wage in the country. 

Labor Day and activities of trade unionism can therefore not be divorced. It is during this season that the bug to trace the journey of trade unionism in Kenya strikes.

Tough Beginning

The evolution of trade union activities in Kenya has undergone and withstood turbulences. The upheavals can partly be attributed to leadership wrangles and antagonism within the labor organizations themselves and state interests, beginning with the British colonial regime templates, which favored employers in policy making. Their subtle aim was to neuter potential development of organized labor movement. 

Progressively, towards the end of the 1930s, mild policy changes paved way for the creation of unions but with restricted ways concerning their rights and operations.

This grand opportunity was seized by pioneer activists Fred Kubai, Makhan Singh and Bildad Kaggia to form trade unions.

In 1935 Makhan Singh formed the Indian Trade Union which morphed into the Labor Trade Union of Kenya. Later, 1940s, Kubai set up the Transport and Allied Workers Union (TAWU) while Kaggia formed the Clerks and Commercial Workers Union (CCWU)

By 1950, East African Trade Union Congress (EATUC) was formed when Kubai and Singh’s outfits merged. Singh became secretary-general with Kubai the President. Nonetheless, with their overt political activities confrontation with the colonial government ensued.

In 1939, an industrial action by the African Railways apprentices occurred in Mombasa. Unfortunately, it turned violent and spread upcountry. The authorities   blamed Singh,Kubai, Kaggia, Jesse Kariuki, Joseph Kangethe and Jomo Kenyatta among other African leaders  for it.

Consequently, Singh was arrested in 1951 and restricted to Lokitaung in today’s Pokot County where he remained until 1961.

By 1952, other trade unions were merged. The Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions (KFRTU) was formed by Aggrey Minya of Transport and Allied Workers Union (TAWU) to act as the umbrella body for labor movements in Kenya. Minya became secretary general of KFRTU. However, the outfit did not make an impact due to the declaration of state of emergency by the colonial government in October 1952. Many trade union leaders were detained on allegation of being Mau Mau Movement sympathizers. Among them were Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia.

Arrival of Tom Mboya 

The incarceration of leading lights such as Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia orphaned trade unions in Kenya. It was into this vacuum that Tom Mboya plunged. He was secretary-general of the Kenya Local Government Workers Union (KLGWU), one of the KFRTU affiliate unions, which he had developed from scratch while working as a sanitary inspector for the Nairobi City Council. 

Mboya’s stardom in unionism began in earnest when he replaced Minya in 1953 as secretary general of KFRTU. Shortly thereafter, in 1955, the union was renamed the Kenya Federation of Labor (KFL). At this point, with most political leaders in detention, the KFL and its leaders assumed leadership in the quest for political liberation and workers’ rights.

Just after assuming office as Secretary General of KFL, Mboya got an opportunity to display his trade union leadership acumen when he successful led the negotiation to end a strike by the Dockworkers Union strike in 1955. The strike had paralyzed operations at the port of Mombasa by workers demanding pay rise. He secured 33% pay hike.

COTU secretery General Francis Atwoli 


Before long, trade union activities in Kenya started facing internal wrangles. Multiple splinter groups emerged. For example, in 1958, Mboya’s deputy at the KFL, Arthur Ochwada Odongo formed the Kenya Trade Union Congress (KTUC).

Shortly thereafter, Mboya faced yet another challenge when he became politically active, formed the Nairobi Peoples Convention Party and used it to get elected to the Legislative Council in 1957. At this point, Dennis Akumu and Ochola Mak’Anyengo, his former allies within KFL rebelled and accused him of aligning the KFL with the West against the non-aligned position taken by African leaders  on the then prevailing  cold war between western countries led by the United States, and communist countries, led by the then Soviet Union.

Preceding independence in 1962, Mboya became Minister for Labor and subsequently relinquished his KFL’s secretary-general post to Clement Lubembe. The MakAnyengo-Akumu camp extended their antagonism of Mboya to Lubembe. 


In 1964, Mak’Anyengo and Akumu formed a splinter workers body, the Kenya African Workers Congress (KAWC). This escalated the wrangling with Lubembe’s KFL. In response, President Kenyatta intervened and set up an inter-ministerial committee chaired by the Minister for Labor and Social Services, Eliud Ngala Mwendwa to seek a solution. The committee recommended the dissolution of the two rival organizations and the formation of a new national outfit, the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU). Lubembe became the secretary-general while his nemesis Akumu became his deputy.

While the formation of COTU was aimed at bringing tranquil in the country’s trade union movement, politics was still the driving force in all national issues. Within KANU, the sole political party, simmering divisions along ideological lines soon started to get extended to COTU’s leadership.

In KANU, Mboya was associated with pro-western wing of the party against Oginga Odinga of the pro-eastern socialist wing. This would fester until 1966 when Oginga abandoned KANU for the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU), which Akumu and Mak’Anyengo had joined. Lubembe seized the opportunity to suspend them from COTU. 

With Odinga and his allies’ vanquished, the rivalry within KANU now moved to between Mboya and that of the so-called Kiambu group which was privy to  Mboya’s political muscles in his control of the country’s trade union movement led by his friend Lubembe. They plotted to pluck this control power from Mboya.


Historical accounts indicate that to succeed in their plans, they needed someone good at doing battle within the trade union movement. Consequently, Akumu got reprieve when he was released from detention in May 1967 to challenge Lubembe’s leadership in COTU. In February 1969, he defeated Lubembe for the post of secretary-general. Akumu’s stronghold on the workers’ organization became even stronger after Mboya was assassinated a few months later.

He however soon faced a new opposition, this time based on tribe. Until now, the labor movement had been dominated by people from western and Nyanza provinces such as Akumu , Mboya, Ochwada, Lubembe and Mak’Anyengo. 

The secretary general of Kenya Dockworkers Union, Juma Boy assumed leadership of COTU when Akumu left for Accra Ghana, in 1974 to head the continent-wide Organization of African Trade Union Unity. 

Even with Akumu’s departure, ethnic motivated disquiet continued to plague COTU, which pitted Boy and the group allied to James Karebe.

The wrangling between Juma Boy’s faction and the Karebe group went on until February 1975 when, once more, President Kenyatta intervened. He summoned the two COTU factions and ordered by-elections for COTU office bearers to be held before him. 

Juma Boy’s faction prevailed but in a move aimed at a truce, Kenyatta as President had powers under the law to appoint COTU leaders. He made Juma Boy secretary-general and Karebe his deputy.

Even with Kenyatta’s balancing act, ethnic rivalry in COTU persisted. It was only after Kenyatta died in 1978 and was succeeded by Daniel Arap Moi that the Juma Boy group finally assumed dominance in the labor movement. From then on rivalry within COTU’s leadership would assume a less tribal angle and more political formation.

Like Akumu before him, Juma Boy was also a politician and was elected MP for Kwale Central in 1969. His opponents capitalized on it and accused him of using COTU funds for political gains.

In the process, Yunis Ismail, a Mombasa based businessman, decided to challenge Juma Boy for the Dockworkers Union secretary general’s post. This move, if successful would have forced Juma Boy out of COTU’s leadership because the COTU constitution required COTU’s secretary-general to be the leader of his union as well. 

Ismail defeated Juma Boy for the Dockworkers Union post but Juma Boy outwitted him and survived in COTU by getting himself elected secretary-general of the Kenya Petroleum Oil Workers Union.

However, Juma Boy’s tenure was interrupted when he died in 1983 while undergoing treatment to England.

Justus Mulei succeeded him from 1981 and served up to 1986 when he handed over the mantle to Joseph Mugalla.

By the time Mulei handed over COTU’s leadership to Joseph Mugalla, Kenya’s constitution had been changed to make it a one-party state with KANU as the sole party.  KANU extended control over virtually every sphere of public life and trade unions were not spared. COTU was subsequently incorporated into KANU affairs. Henceforth; trade union affairs became subordinate to KANU whims.

However, some members opposed COTU’ association with KANU. Consequently, in December 1991, after Mugalla was re-elected secretary general, several unions led by the secretary-general of the Kenya Quarry and Mine Workers Union, Wafula wa Musamia, left COTU to form the National Congress of Trade Unions which was denied registration and in due course collapsed.

COTU supported KANU in 1992 General Election, the first multi-party polls in Kenya since 1969, which saw Moi retain power. KANU ended up with a majority of seats in Parliament but when Moi formed his government, Mugalla felt shortchanged because COTU and its political allies were left out.

KANU’s patronage over trade union activities ended when in 2000 the US government exerted pressure on the ruling party to de-link itself from COTU for Kenya to benefit from the American Financed African Growth and Opportunities Act 

War with KANU

He therefore went on the offensive and called for a nationwide strike in April 1993 raising a raft of issues including100% wage increase and the dropping of the Minister for Finance, Prof George Saitoti, whom he blamed for the country’s economic woes. 

A massive turn out of over 20 unions attended a meeting of secretaries-general and shop stewards at COTU headquarters in Solidarity House, Nairobi, where they backed Mugalla’s call for a nationwide strike to push for
their demands.

The government declared the intended strike unlawful and Moi skipped May Day celebrations that year for the first time. He was represented by his Minister for Labor, Phillip Masinde, who was forced to walk out of the meeting when he was booed by workers for announcing a 17% pay increase instead of the 100% that COTU had demanded. 

The strike COTU had called went on and for two days and in many urban areas, financial transactions were disrupted and people could not go to work due to transport challenges.

Mugalla was subsequently arrested and charged with inciting workers against the government, but he was later released without charges. 

Shortly thereafter, a clique within COTU, led by Johnson Ogendao, called for a governing council meeting at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi and announced Mugalla ouster from COTU leadership. This was however quashed by the court and the status quo maintained. 

Tough Times

Things would get tough from July 2000 when the Government started retrenchment in the public service to reduce its reported bloated workforce. By June the following year, it is reported that the government had let go about 42,000

This hostile economic environment adversely affected the private sector that took cue to retrench thousands of workers. Others folded blaming high taxation, poor infrastructure and insecurity, while others went into receivership. Some multinationals migrated from Kenya. These events left thousands of workers jobless and COTU reeling from the effect of reduced membership and doubtful credibility in its role as spokesman for workers. Consequently, COTU’s operations became severely curtailed due to cash flow constrains, a situation which reflected the state of other trade unions in the country.

KANU’s patronage over trade union activities ended when in 2000 the US government exerted pressure on the ruling party to de-link itself from COTU for Kenya to benefit from the American Financed African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) that enables exports from Kenya and other African countries to penetrate the competitive US market. Furthermore, the International Labor Organization threatened to blacklist Kenya if the government did let the labor movement to operate freely and independently.

Francis Atwoli

In August 2001, Francis Atwoli of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union walked into Solidarity House as elected Secretary General of COTU. He remains in office to date.

It is in his seasoned hands that the horrifying May 2020 of COVID 19 puts workers. It is in his care that the welfare of workers hangs during this unprecedented apprehension associated with the prevailing pandemic that has destabilized economies and left many workers unsure of their jobs. It is May 2020, the month of workers and their welfare like never before; May 2020, when employers and employees in Kenya anticipate Labor Day with anxiety as they wait for the announcement of prescribed minimum terms of engagement amid the dreadful threat of COVID-19 labor disruptions.  

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