On Thursday it appeared that strike action was averted for the time being at UCT. Emphasis on “the time being”. While the Executive appeared relieved and said negotiation was going well, union members said the issues resolved thus far were “quite small” and they had little faith that the university was ready for the kind of change they envisaged. This is where it gets clear as mud. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
There’s a comedy skit that shows an old married couple getting along a little better the deafer they get, because they can’t always hear each other. This skit sprang to mind, mischievously and unbidden, when the various parties at UCT commented on the negotiation progress on Thursday.
Of course, how negotiations are going is a matter of perspective. A year ago, negotiations on campus had entirely broken down. That there is progress at all is significant.
And yet, progress aside, there is a frequent disconnect in the communications. Yes, we are getting somewhere. No, another shutdown. Yes, we are making progress. No, nobody is listening.
On Thursday 14 September 2017, both union representatives and Vice-Chancellor Max Price gave their blessing to the negotiations, saying they were concluded successfully. This had not been achieved without hairy moments: Varsity’s Twitter feed on Wednesday reported tense pauses, caucus requests and a SALIPSWU ultimatum: “[I]n the interest of workers we will have no other choice but to go on strike action as we have given them ample time to come to an agreement.”
Price appeared to be breathing a sigh of relief on Thursday over “put[ting] an end to the threat of strike action”. In a statement, he said the UCT executive and trade unions had reached “a significant degree of common ground last week”.
SALIPSWU, on the other hand, told Daily Maverick that the issues being discussed thus far were fairly insignificant.
“The bigger issues are coming up, and soon,” warned SALIPSWU organiser Abraham Agulhas. “The issues we have been dealing with up to this point are fairly small. We have to start somewhere in September or October on the substantive matters.”
He added: “We can only hope the negotiating team from UCT’s side will be mature enough to engage with those issues… [But] based on their past track record I am not sure that the management team is ready for the kind of transformation and changes that we have in mind.”
This was in stark contrast to the tone adopted by the Executive on Thursday. “We are pleased to report that the two outstanding points were resolved and an agreement reached that puts an end to the threat of strike action,” said Price.
“The agreement establishes a joint consultative forum and a small special task team on which all recognised trade unions may be represented to tackle any residual issues following the insourcing exercise last year.”
Additionally, Price confirmed, the parties agreed to a work study programme that would assess reasonable staffing levels across operations, with priority given to insourced operations; resolved concerns about pregnant employees working shifts; committed to a new shift pattern in residence catering from October onwards; agreed on a time frame to offer full-time roles to a group of four-hour part-time workers by 1 November, and resolved a long outstanding dispute over Sunday pay and shift allowances – including additional payment for night work and Sunday work.
“We believe that the spirit in which negotiations were conducted, involving representatives of five different trade unions, provides a positive signal that effective collective bargaining is possible, even with multiple parties and in an extremely challenging financial environment,” an upbeat Price said. “If the terms of the agreement can be successfully implemented, it will provide a good example of what can be achieved when parties commit to meeting interests on both sides of the table…
“This will be crucial for UCT and its recognised unions in the forthcoming collective bargaining cycle.”
This is not the first time the UCT executive has issued an optimistic statement, only to have a very different tone emerge from the SRC, the unions, or other parties at the negotiating table. On 5 September, the SRC referred to a “a faux perception of progress made” by the Executive and added: “The constant portrayal of irrationality by the university in its statements is saddening and condescending.” On Thursday morning, it was silent.
While Agulhas agreed with Price that it was encouraging to have seen co-operation between multiple voices, he was hesitant to declare victory. “We are happy – we have achieved most of the things we wanted to,” he told Daily Maverick. “But negotiation is about give and take, so we look at the net result.”
The bigger discussions coming up include substantive structural changes, starting with the pay gap between lowest and highest paid workers. A discussion with CPS workers on campus was held on Thursday morning, said Agulhas, with the goal to increase the minimum wage substantially – one suggestion was R15,000, not yet confirmed.
“We don’t have a full mandate but that’s just one of the suggestions from one department,” he pointed out. “People are saying the gap between the lowest income and the top person must be negotiated – that’s critical if we are to reduce inequality.”
A further consideration is medical aid, as many of the lower-earning workers have little access to healthcare, he said. Cross-subsidisation was a possibility.
Other upcoming points of discussion would be health and safety for workers like security guards, and broader transformation within the university – such as encouraging career advancement for blue-collar staff. While staff did have access to study benefits, many female workers carried a disproportionate domestic burden which made it difficult for them to study, Agulhas said. “We have to find a way where UCT accommodates them if they are studying, for example with time off to study if it is to advance their careers.”
SALIPSWU is the new kid on the block, the latest union to join the fray. For this reason, says Agulhas, it doesn’t want to make too many waves through unprotected strikes or protest action that is not procedural.
But, he adds, if the situation calls for it, they will make an exception. And one of the situations that may call for it is one in which the student-worker alliance is at stake.
This leaves the university overall in a precarious position. From a communication perspective, the Executive must keep stakeholders calm. It must be reassuring. But there is widespread awareness that where negotiations drag on for weeks or months, the potential fallout for all is greater. Blanket decisions must be made, and quickly, which ultimately affect bodies that are not homogenous.
Ongoing instability and insufficient funding is already costing UCT (and other universities) a stable position in the Times Higher Education rankings, and countrywide, students wait in suspense for President Jacob Zuma to release the findings of the Fees Commission.
When the report is released, says Agulhas, unions are standing by if students want their support.
Price’s leadership has come under fire from multiple sides. Protesters have argued that promises are made without action; other critics have taken a hard line on negotiations, accusing Price of bowing to pressure from protesters. Late in 2016, Price defended his strategy, telling Daily Maverick: “I do not condone the violence, vandalism and intimidation that some protesters used to pursue their goals. Far from it – I condemn the fact that other students’ rights were seriously infringed in that they were prevented from studying and attending classes; likewise, the threats and intimidation against students and staff are unconscionable…
“But we successfully concluded the year. We wrote all the exams without even the threat of disruption. Libraries, computer laboratories and residences were peaceful and some 17,000 students wrote their exams; many are graduating or continuing to the next year of study. There was minimal security presence required which itself is a factor that affects students’ ability to relax and write exams in a calm environment. Other students (about 25%) took the option of deferring their exams until January, since the disruptions of the last term compromised their ability to study and perform at their best. This conclusion should not be taken for granted.”
Speaking to Daily Maverick on Thursday, UCT’s Communication Department said the university was alive to the possibility of long-term instability. “The executive is aware that labour relations by their very nature demand ongoing engagements,” it said. “It is important that all negotiations are carried out with the spirit and the final intention to strengthen and improve the institution and employer-employee relations – not to break it down. The recent negotiations occurred in that spirit and the executive trusts this will continue.”
In short, it remained optimistic, and resolved to negotiate with unions on whatever issues were raised in future. But it called for avoiding strikes or shutdowns. “The executive is pleased that the outcome of these negotiations indicated that it is possible for collective bargaining to occur despite the involvement of multiple parties in a challenging financial environment,” it added. “The executive is committed to dealing with the issues that have been raised in order to find resolutions. [It] also remains committed to further engagements over any other issues that any party might wish to raise in future in order to have these resolved amicably rather than to resort to strike action.”
For now, once again, we don’t know. All frustrated staff and students can do is watch and wait. Transformation, it turns out, takes a very long time. So long, in fact, that the process may outlast this old couple – who one can only hope will remain patient with each other. But, of course, as with any old couple, there’s also the matter that one may be left behind. DM
Photo: Students hold a protest meeting on the University of Cape Town under the banner #FeesMustFall, on 20 September 2016. Photo Nic Bothma/(EPA)
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