Unions accuse Wits management of acting in bad faith

Wits staff members staged a picket on Tuesday to ask for a salary increase. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Wits staff members staged a picket on Tuesday to ask for a salary increase. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Tuesday's strike was the second this month. The industrial action is "historic" because it is the first time academics have striked and that all unions representing staff across the university's sphere of operations have united, said David Dickinson, president of the Academic Staff Association of Wits University (Asawu).

Asawu joined forces with the Wits branch of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and Administrative, Library and Technical Staff Association (Altsa) for one-day actions on Tuesday and on August 2. All the unions are calling for 9% salary increases for 2012. In addition, Asawu is pressing for implementation of a decade-old salary-benchmarking agreement.

But after Tuesday's action, management circulated a letter to all staff that said it was waiting for unions to respond to its proposal of new negotiation terms.

This indicates "bad faith", said Dickinson. "Management wants more talks about talks. It's negotiating in bad faith because instead of addressing our demands about the [benchmark] agreement they now introduce new proposals," he told the Mail & Guardian.

On Tuesday staff picketed at various sites on four campuses and held a rally outside the Great Hall building on the main campus, where hundreds sang and danced. Union and student leaders took turns to lambast management.

"We don't want talks about talks, let's continue negotiating our demands," Richard Sadiki, Nehawu branch chairperson, told the M&G.

Altsa's Susan Parkes told the M&G the union had accepted that new negotiation terms could be adopted. But the union still remained in dispute with management because "there is no offer on the table".

Wits vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa denied that management's proposal of new terms for negotiations constituted bad faith. "You cannot have one side making demands. Now that we've given proposals, the other side has to tell us formally why they reject them."

The proposed terms do not include negotiating increments for academics based on the 2001 benchmark agreement nor does it address Asawu's demand for increased academic research funding. The new terms suggest salary increases should rather be linked to performance.

Bone of contention
"Management proposed that [National Research Foundation] ratings or other proxies could be used as evidence of high performance," management said in the letter.

But the benchmark agreement promises to remain a bone of contention in the negotiations. Asawu, which represents 750 of Wits' 1 300 lecturers, maintains that the failure to implement the agreement is making Wits lose academics to other universities.

"We need to pay competitive salaries to attract quality," said Dickinson. "As academics, we continue to pursue an increase that is linked to the agreement signed in 2001."

But management said increases should take into account the university's financial sustainability and is recommending an independent review of the agreement. "We need to understand the implications of granting to demands," Nongxa said.

University spokesperson Shirona Patel said Wits is "currently a market leader in academic salaries", according to a comparative analysis the university undertook to evaluate how Wits's salaries measure up against those offered by four other research-intensive universities in the country.

The thrust of Asawu's argument is that "uncompetitive salaries" have led to heavy workload on lecturers. The number of lecturers has remained stagnant, while students' numbers have shot up by thousands over the last decade, said Dickinson.

Academics are no longer able to dedicate themselves to research because of the workload, Dickinson said.

But Nongxa said this was result of head of departments failing "year in and year out" to fill vacancies using allocated funds. He said the funds are presented as part of surplus in the university's finances, but remain available for filling vacancies.

Bongani Nkosi

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