Members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union protested against unfair wage increases on the trash-strewn steps of the main administration building at Rhodes University on Wednesday.
The protest was a part of a continued attempt by workers at Rhodes to pressure university management to meet the demands they presented at the end of last month.
On April 25, Nehawu and the National Tertiary Education Union (Nteu) handed over their respective memorandums to university management. Both unions rejected management’s proposed 5% wage increase.
Nehawu also presented university management with a list of demands after the wage negotiations deadlocked.
Some key demands included: a 7.5% wage increase, an increase of the housing allowance to R1500 a month, equalisation of pay between staff members of different races, and the firing of Dr Ian L’Ange, the executive director of the university’s infrastructure, finance and operations division.
According to a post on the Rhodes University student affairs Facebook page, university management issued a response to the memorandums yesterday.
While the post referenced a statement by the university’s communications and advancement division, the division refused to release a copy of the statement and of management’s response to City Press.
University management offered both unions a 6.5% wage increase.
Nteu accepted the offer, but Nehawu declined, sparking the workers’ protests and push for continued wage negotiations this morning.
Students and staff at Rhodes University marched with Nehawu members to the university’s Post Graduate Village, where additional wage negotiations took place today.
However, in a leaked internal document, Loshni Govender, the university’s human resources director, condemned the protest actions as illegal. According to Govender, the university reserved the right to take disciplinary action against all employees who participated in an illegal strike or stay away.
The Labour Relations Act requires unions to give 48 hours notice before any industrial action.
And in an official statement by the university’s communications and advancement division, “no notice was received from Nehawu about today’s protest action”.
“The decision to protest was made after 4pm and it was not feasible to notify the university at the time,” said Siyabonga Kobese, the Nehawu Eastern Cape regional secretary.
The decision to protest was not made by Nehawu’s national leadership.
Instead, it was the workers who decided to protest in the hope that this response would result in a different offer from management, Kobese said.
Negotiations for a new offer are still in process but a decision will be made before 9am tomorrow.
Should workers choose to reject a new offer, Nehawu will follow the dispute resolution mechanisms as outlined by labour law.
Nehawu is prepared for more action if necessary, including a possible full-blown strike, Kobese said.
“We would prefer to resolve the dispute internally, but if the dispute remains unresolved, then we will decide what is the next line of action,” Kobese said.
“We are committed in resolving the impasse. The students are currently feeling the heat of it and it is not our intention. Hence, we are hoping for a quick recovery.”
The negotiation deadlock last month resulted in a go-slow, which has negatively affected university residences and has forced dining halls to close.
However, the Rhodes student representative council has pledged solidarity to the workers and their struggle.
“Students are very supportive of the movement because they feel this is an unfair situation workers have been put in,” said Chanel Retief, a student at Rhodes University and editor of Activate, a student publication on campus.
“This morning, some students joined the movement and the Rhodes SRC was part of the marches as well. They have been standing in solidarity.”
While the workers’ demands are the same, the university’s position also remains firm.
“This is not the case of being unwilling to pay more,” said Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela in a statement.
“There is simply not enough money to cover all the essential operations of our university.”