Grocott's Mail

Campus unions in wage action

- By SUE MACLENNAN

Astream of cars returning from a graduation ceremony at the Monument yesterday was met by around 300 Rhodes staff members picketing in Lucas Avenue during their lunch-hour.

Cosatu affiliate the National Health, Education and Allied Workers Union and the National Tertiary Education Union have declared a dispute with Rhodes University as negotiatio­ns over pay increases stall.The unions seek a 7.5% increase and University management is offering 5%.

Members of the two unions, which form a joint bargaining collective, planned to picket outside the University’s main administra­tion building yesterday and today.

On Tuesday 25 April, action is planned to take the form of a march from the Rhodes Great Hall, along Prince Alfred Street, along Somerset Street, and via Lucas Avenue to the main administra­tion building, where they will hand over a memorandum to University management.

Many of those in the cars returning from the first of six ceremonies for Rhodes University graduates yesterday hooted in support of the picketers. However, some were visibly nervous and union members were at pains to reassure them. At one point there was a traffic jam as a number of drivers tried to turn their vehicles around and return up the hill towards the Monument. There were no incidents that involved the picketers, however.

The industrial action was not expected to affect any University programmes, including the six graduation ceremonies scheduled over the next three days.

“Currently we have around 600 members on the Rhodes University campus, because people are coming in their numbers to join us,” shop steward Zakate Vena told Grocott’s Mail earlier this week. “This includes employees from grade 1 to grade 17.”

The Rhodes branches of both Nehawu and NTEU are registered to represent employees at all grades, and operate as a joint bargaining collective.

Vena anticipate­d strong support for the action. “When you talk about finance, people who aren’t able to support their families will come and join us.

“We want the public to know we are not happy, while people are graduating,” Vena said. However, he said there was no intention to disrupt graduation.

The University was producing an excellent graduation result and they must recognise the people who had helped facilitate that, he said.

“People are coming here from home every day, to help create and maintain an environmen­t conducive for study. Cooks are making healthy meals so the students can concentrat­e in class. Venues are cleaned. These are the people who make the University work.

“How can we leave them behind? We know we are not academics, and that we are supporting the academic project.But the academic project can’t work without us. The people who are working very hard, it’s us.

“Last year during #FeesMustFa­ll we contribute­d so hard towards making sure this university does not shut down.”

Both Nehawu and NTEU are insisting on greater transparen­cy regarding the University's finances.

“The University has appointed people who are very good in terms of ensuring financial sustainabi­lity. Yet the financial sustainabi­lity isn’t improving,” Vena said.

NTEU shop steward Ryno van Rooyen said, “Rhodes is worried about their financial stability, but we haven’t been show a financial plan or model.”

University management had started negotiatin­g at a 4% increase.

“That's below the CPI (consumer price index), which means every staff member is effectivel­y taking a pay cut,” Van Rooyen said. “That’s more work for less money, in our view.”

Rhodes University Wednesday confirmed it had received notificati­on from Nehawu of its intention to embark on a three-day protected industrial action over wages.

The University’s Communicat­ions and Advancemen­t Division said in a media release that the planned action followed a deadlock in wage negotiatio­ns.

“The union rejected a revised offer of five percent salary adjustment for 2017. The university referred to the offer as a “bitter pill to swallow” taking into account the rate of inflation but also highlighte­d serious risk to the sustainabi­lity of the institutio­n of increasing the current deficit budget to fund salaries.”

The University said institutio­ns of higher learning generally and Rhodes University in particular, had had to deal with a tough economic situation in the past two years owing, in part, to dwindling state subsidy and a combinatio­n of other financial pressures.

“For the past 18 months, the Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, has been meeting both unions regularly to apprise them of the financial situation of the University,” the statement said. “Furthermor­e, the University leadership has highlighte­d the crucial financial choices faced by the University. It urged continued internal engagement and creative thinking by all stakeholde­rs and presented a number of austerity measures to mitigate financial risk.

“These included ongoing work around the academic size and shape needed for the University to become financiall­y sustainabl­e and a review of support operations with a view to reducing costs.

“The University respects the worker’s right to participat­e in legal industrial action. We continue to engage in the hope of finding a workable and lasting solution for all parties involved,” said Vice Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela.

In reply to questions from Grocott’s Mail, the Communicat­ions and Advancemen­t Division said the agreement about this week's industrial action was that it would not disrupt this weekend’s graduation ceremonies.

“The picketing will take place during lunchtime on Thursday and Friday,” said the Communicat­ions Division. “The agreement in place is that it will not disrupt any University programmes.”

Van Rooyen said NTEU members would join Tuesday's action for an hour starting at 11am before returning to work. From Wednesday 26 April, both unions would embark on a go-slow, should the dispute not be resolved.

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