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Wage strike perspectives

“It matters to me that I don’t join a white only union. It matters to me that the university acts fairly and I think it’s necessary for us to stand together in solidarity.”

This is my chance to stand up

Written by: Jess White

Photographs: Michelle Laver


Professor Carolyn (Tally) Palmer is an ex-Rhodes student, a professor, the Director of the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality and a member of NEHAWU. She joined the union two weeks ago inspired by one of Mahatma Gandhi’s quotes at the forefront of her mind, “Let us live simply, so that others can simply live.” Tally is vividly aware of the enormous divide between those who form part of the working class and those who earn higher salaries. She believes that one of the simplest solutions to addressing this divide is to disrupt and shift that salary gap while working steadily towards improving the financial crisis that the university faces.

“I have never been unionised,” she admits, “but I felt strongly that there was a need for solidarity for a whole group of people today and it makes a difference in a hierarchical organisation if people who are traditionally at the top stand up and say this is not OK. It’s OK for us, but it’s not OK for everyone.”

The strike that took place on Tuesday was engaged in, with good faith, by NEHAWU members. The university was given clear notice by members of the union of their intention to progress from a Go Slow to an escalated strike, and the Heads of Departments who agreed to support the union’s demands indicated to the university, that they believed that this was a moment to engage sensitively with the unions. At 8am on Tuesday morning Tally met with the other NEHAWU members to walk to the Post Graduate Village for a meeting with the university. Unfortunately, the university moved the meeting venue to the Protea hotel even though it is only legal for such a meeting to take place on university grounds, so union members returned to campus.

The strike on Tuesday was declared illegal by the university, however, further investigation by Tally into the Labour Act reveals that it does not explicitly state that a second notice must be given before a Go Slow can become a strike. The certificate legalising the Go Slow, should in turn, legalise the subsequent strike. Previously, there have been cases in which the Court dismissed the need for a second notice, so although there is not a legal position on the matter, there is case law to suggest that Tuesday’s strike was still a protected strike. Several members of the union received letters from the university warning them that their action was illegal and that if they failed to return to work by 12pm, disciplinary action would be taken against them. As far as Tally is concerned, adequate investigation into the matter of the legality of the strike should have been conducted before such allegations were made.

It is highly unlikely that the university will apologise for the letters sent out to members, however, they have now offered a 6.9% wage increase and that has been accepted. “Seems a little, do I dare say, petty, to settle at 6.9% and not simply say 7,” Tally comments.

“I have my T-shirt but it is not a case of having the T-shirt to say, ‘I have been there’, it is a case of going there and learning. I don’t know anything about protests, I really don’t. I didn’t even engage in the protests against apartheid, so this is my chance to stand up and say that things need to be right.”

What do we do as students during this tough time?

Written by: Hlumela Dyantyi

Photographs: Gemma Middleton

“It was difficult for students to support the protest because of their academic commitments, they can’t miss a lecture because there is no academic shut down, however the SRC has attended the meetings and the students are standing in solidarity with the workers.”

Tensions have risen in the past week at Rhodes University as students stood in long queues in their respective dining halls awaiting their daily meals. Staff members have been on a go slow demanding a seven percent wage increase. Students complained about the protest affecting their academics as they sometimes got to classes late or even went to class hungry.

According to Independent Online, Mabizela said, “A single percentage increase in the remuneration bill would be equivalent to R4 million. The university has always depended on fee-paying students for its annual income and cash flow. Since 2015, the university carries a multi-million rand debt owing to non-payment of fees by students.”

During the previous fees must fall protests, support staff stood in solidarity with student protesters, however, a low turnout of students at protest meetings led to many staff members feeling disappointed. SRC International Affairs Councilor Graham Maruta expresses that, “It was difficult for students to support the protest because of their academic commitments, they can’t miss a lecture because there is no academic shut down, however the SRC has attended the meetings and the students are standing in solidarity with the workers.”

The students interact with the workers everyday and based on inflation and the economic climate, students should understand the importance of the protest, however, the warnings issued by the university of possible disciplinary action intimidate students especially when it comes to the possibly of them being interdicted. Maruta says, “The academic shutdown proportion to the protest is not necessary at this moment.”

There has been a wide concern on social media over the past week about a clause included in the registration contractual agreement which supposedly prohibits students from protesting. Maruta says, “The clause has always been there, however it was just highlighted this year. The university respects your right to protest however you cannot disrupt lectures.”

The SRC has received many complaints concerning hygiene during this protest. Graham even goes on to mention an incident whereby in a meeting held the SRC reported complaints to management from female residences whose sanitary bins were not being attended to. Graham pleaded with students to be understanding and patient at the time, and encouraging them to send their complaints through the right channels.  

What is at stake for you?

Written and photographed by: Michelle Laver

Deputy Chairperson of NTEU and Associate Professor in the Rhodes University Linguistic Department Mark De Vos sits down to share his sentiments on the recent workers protest.

There are two kinds of things at stake here. One is the money and the other is an issue of principle.”

They might talk the human talk but ultimately we are a number, simply just a deduction on a pay role. This is why it is so important that unions, one of the few mechanisms that allow ordinary people to voice their concerns to the management systems, force management to be accountable. We are making decisions now that will affect the long term sustainability of this institution in the future. We are certainly not the best paid institution but we are one of the top 3 research universities in the country, we have got the best throughput rate in the country, we have got more research chairs per capita than any other university in the country. We are a top performer. Yet when it comes to payment, no one knows how badly we get paid. We are getting paid far below the norm but yet we are outperforming.

Here’s the issue. If you are going to give people salary cuts by giving them below inflation increases, who would ever want to come work here? The highly qualified people who do work here will start to look for places elsewhere and then the university will be in real danger. If we do not pay salaries that are commensurate with our competitive position we will not remain competitive and over time there will be a gradual brain drain. I do know that we are in a difficult financial situation at the moment and that is no secret but I also know that our staff is incredibly loyal here. People do not come to Grahamstown for the money in the first place but they definitely do not expect to be paid in peanuts either. There is no immediate danger, I mean they are not just going to rush off but at the same time if we continue to not pay people, compared to our competitive wages, they will.

So, what is at stake for us? Your staff are at stake because they need more money to survive. You need to increase the pay because you need to support the community. Secondly the institution is at stake. We are a first rate institution and if you want to retain that position in the highly competitive market then you have got to pay up. You will lose the most loyal and highly qualified people over time.

We have a massive support system here and helping anyone that needs it is crucial. Everyone in this whole community supports 44 other people, that’s a fact. A perfect example of a metaphor for everyone else would be someone I personally know.

She is actually one of our members who is about to retire at 63 years old. With no husband, she is currently living with around 10 orphans. These orphans are all friends of friends, people that she knows from her church. I honestly do not know how she manages. How can we ask people who are performing such extremely humane acts to sacrifice their humanity because of financial reasons, something they shouldn’t be confronted with in the first place?

Obviously everyone wants more money, the more we have, the better but with our current inflation soaring high, buying basic necessities, like food for example, hits hard. As soon as you walk into that shop you can feel it. Sugar for instance is now about R38, a few months ago it was about R20 and I can even remember when it was about R18 a year ago. Sugar is just one example of something that everyone needs. My point is that getting a reasonable offer above inflation is essential to survive. We are not asking for 15% or even 10%, which is what they want in NMMU. All we want is to support our community by giving the staff a reasonable wage to survive.

NEHAWU’S fight for a decent wage and peaceful lives

Written by: Jess White

Photographs: Michelle Laver

Nontuthuzo Vena is a mother, a community member, a NEHAWU representative, and above all, a strong woman. This strength has enabled her to stand, one worker among many, and lend her voice to those who have not been heard. She stands with those fighting for their right to a decent wage and a peaceful life, their right to be treated with dignity and appreciation. Their rights to equal opportunity and their rights to education. The rights that NEHAWU is fighting for are not impossible to achieve, and it is time to stop treating the issue as though it is too complex to be understood.

“I live each month hand to mouth,” explains Vena. “I try to survive each and every month….and without this seven percent increase, our financial situation will not get any better.” Vena lives within a community of generous and supportive women, all of whom do what they can to make the financial burdens of one another less oppressive. On each woman’s birthday, the others put together a sum of money or a collection of food stamps to help her and her family get through the month a little bit more comfortably. “It is a reality that this birthday money is not going towards a new dress. It is going to help the women get out of the financial situation we are all in, even for a short period of time.” However, Vena concedes, the money earned and received is not used to take care of one’s immediate family alone. During your birthday month, the community and your extended family know that you will have a small extra sum, and suddenly that cheque is not going as far as you need it to. “It becomes everybody’s cheque.”

The wage increase is essential in ensuring that Rhodes employees can take care of themselves, their families and the countless other people that depend on them. Vena has watched too many men sink into depression because of their financial situations and turn to liquor to alleviate the stress. She needs the seven percent increase so that she can send her children to a good school where they will be educated and hopefully escape the stressful financial environment that they have had to grow up in.

“We want a wage increase not because we want to live a wealthy lifestyle, we want the increase so we can live a decent lifestyle. So that we can pay our bills and support our families. So that we can put food on the table, and let our children know that they can depend on us.”

The protests affect local business too

Written by: Taylia Meese and Jade Kebbie

Photograph: Jade Kebbie

When analysing protest action at the University Currently Known As Rhodes (UCKAR), it is pertinent that we ask ourselves whether this action has an immediate effect on the town at large. Grahamstown is a hub that is highly dependent on its educational institutions and students and staff play a huge role in the running of those institutions. Who better to find out about the financial implications of the recent workers’ protest, however separate it may be from said educational institutions, than the Chairperson of the Business Forum in Grahamstown, Richard Gaybba.

With regards to the current workers protests happening in Grahamstown, Gaybba says that the town is severely misinformed and doors of communication should be opened between the University and the Town. “We don’t find out much, the university and the town are almost separate.” What is at stake for him personally? Not much in the short term, but himself as well as the multitude of businesses in Grahamstown will feel the financial impacts of a process in the long run.

“We don’t find out much, the university and the town are almost seperate.”

 As he is a business owner himself, the owner of Independent Property Consultants (IPC) Properties in Grahamstown, where he is a Master Practitioner in Real Estate, he believes that the town should be informed about the events that happen in Grahamstown because we will notice the effects in the long-term. He is however grateful that he does not deal with rentals because that is often regarded as being a tricky business to be in.

Currently there is an unprecedented boom in the local economy due to the fact that students are receiving payments of R70 a day, each day that the workers are on a “go slow” and the dining halls are shut down. This boom obviously supports the local economy tremendously but it is usually short-lived. Gaybba also suggests that the town is indeed dependent on the university students and staff and should the UCKAR ever make good on their threats of shutting down, it will not only have a detrimental impact on the university population but the town as a whole.

What does he believe is the main problem within the protests, he believes that time has shown that “University staff and students do not feel cared for, appreciated or listened to,” which results in remonstrative action. He emphasizes how the act of listening is fundamental in cases like this because, “People like to talk, they do not like to listen,” he says and thus communication often becomes difficult between the different constituencies involved. If there was an open platform where ideas were not only shared but understood and carefully considered, many problems would be eliminated according to Gaybba.

The Struggle Continues...

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