Rhodes cash squeeze may spark strike

Rhodes University faces possible industrial action after refusing to budge on a 5% wage increase offer to support staff.

Rhodes University is facing a possible strike from members of staff who are demanding a 5% wage increase. The university says it can barely afford it. Picture: FILE

The university, which is facing massive financial challenges, says even the 5% on the table will cost it an extra R20-million which it can barely afford.

Something has got to give but both unions at the university – the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) – who have formed a joint bargaining forum – say it won’t be them.

NTEU general secretary Grant Abbott yesterday confirmed the union was polling its members on whether or not to embark on what the union termed planned, incremental and responsible industrial action to push back against management’s offer.

While Nehawu could not be reached for comment, the union has reportedly already voted to begin escalating industrial action.

Wage talks deadlocked last week and the CCMA issued a certificate of non resolution, which opened the way for a vote on industrial action.

Abbott yesterday said the NTEU was looking at industrial action such as picketing during lunch hour, but this would likely escalate if their demands were ignored.

The unions have dropped their initial increase demand from 8% to 7.5% on their salary basket.

They also initially requested a shorter work week of 37.5 hours and a two-year moratorium on retrenchments. Management has reportedly rejected all its demands, including the moratorium on retrenchments.

The unions say a 5% offer is below the CPI and effectively reflected a salary cut. The unions both maintain that while Rhodes is one of the best universities in the country, its staff received the lowest salaries in the country.

The NTEU executive pointed out in a recent letter to its members that universities such as Walter Sisulu University, which are reportedly in a worse financial situation, have received increase offers of 7% or more.

But Rhodes vice-chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela said the 5% offer, while a “bitter pill to swallow” reflected the university’s strained financial situation.

“The current offer translates into an additional R20-million in salaries. We cannot increase this budget further without placing the future of this university and the academic project in serious jeopardy,” he said.

He called for “cool heads” as the institution faced critical financial choices. Declining state subsidies, the zero fee increase in 2016 and other factors had put all universities under immense financial pressure.

He said the university was working on a turnaround plan. To remain viable, he said the university had to realise savings of just under R10-million in the 2017 financial year and an additional R28-million in 2018.

“This presupposes some sacrifice, great creativity in our thinking and judicious use of resources.”

While the VC did not mention retrenchments, he said the university had introduced a partial moratorium on the filling of support staff vacancies, and on the re-grading of support staff.

A full moratorium on non-essential consultancy contracts was also in place.

Abbott said part of the unions’ frustration was that the university had no short, medium or long-term turnaround strategy in place. “Its budgets are reactive not proactive. We don’t want to find ourselves in exactly the same situation next year but the chances are we will.”

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