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WSU braces for court battle

WALTER Sisulu University yesterday gave striking employees an ultimatum to negotiate or face a court battle.

Yesterday began the third week of the crippling strike involving most of the 1800 employees affiliated to the National Education Health and Allied Worker’s Union (Nehawu) and the National Tertiary Education Union (Nteu).

Close to 21000 students have been affected by the strike.

The university made an urgent court application to the Labour Court in Johannesburg on Monday to force workers to return to work.

The matter was postponed for a week to allow both parties to prepare. However, desperate to avoid a bruising court battle, WSU management yesterday asked employees to agree to:

lRefer the dispute to a private arbitrator; or

lAllow a mediation process with an official from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

The strike is to be called off immediately should either option be chosen.

But unions yesterday said they would not back down on their demand for pay rises of between 8% and 10%.

The university offer is a 4.25% pensionable salary increase for 2013, backdated to January this year, and a leave buyout in terms of a 2009 agreement with a 2010 addendum.

Third-year students at WSU’s College Street Campus in East London, who are preparing for their final exams, said they were concerned.

In addition to exams, students are worried about internship programmes that some have to complete in order to graduate.

WSU spokeswoman Angela Church said management had made the proposal to “sit around the table with labour” and avoid going to court.

However, she said management was still preparing for the court showdown if unions refused both offers.

WSU was doing all it could to address the impasse and ensure students were not affected, she added.

“We have a provisional catch-up plan that includes cancelling the September vacation to make sure that no student suffers. The catch-up plan will be presented to senior management and academics .”

Church said a proposal containing the two options was sent to union leaders.

“Management awaits a response from labour. Both options would require the immediate suspension of the strike and the lockout.

“This would allow students to return to class and operations to resume whilst the dispute is addressed.”

She said a private arbitrator would be given the power to make a binding ruling, while a DHET official would oversee a mediation process that would include a suitably qualified external financial expert to ensure both parties had the same understanding of the financial status of the university.

Church said WSU had sought to interdict Nehawu and Nteu from striking and to declare the strike unprotected.

“This step is being taken in the interest of saving the academic year for our 21000 students and enabling management to lift the lockout clause which imposes a ‘no work, no pay’ clause upon our staff,” Church said, adding that management was concerned about the loss of academic time.

Late yesterday the interim spokesman for the unions, Zwelidumile Mditshwa, said the strike would continue until demands were met but they were open to mediation as long as the focus was on their demands. — msindisif@dispatch.co.za

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