About 100 workers at the university currently known as Rhodes began a strike on 10 August after the institution failed to recognise their union, the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw).
Housekeeping, cooking and other general workers at the university carried placards with the slogans “unity is power”, “worker-controlled union” and “we demand transparency and transformation”.
Nupsaw is a South African Federation of Trade Unions affiliate, but the university will only bargain and negotiate with the Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), affiliated with the Federation of Unions of South Africa, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Explaining why she joined the strike, a laundry worker, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of disciplinary action, said, “I have been working here for 15 years but I am still on the same grade. I was a casual for eight years. Actually, there is no staff development here. You can stay on the same grade until you … reach your 65th birthday. We are not treated the same. If you ask how to get promoted, you won’t get any answer. There is no transparency.”
A worker on the Nupsaw steering committee said transformation and a lack of staff development are key problems. “If you are a cook and you are asked to work as a supervisor for three years, the university will not make you permanent. They will hire someone from outside and say you don’t qualify even though you did the job for three years. Another thing, when you have a grievance against your manager, the university will listen to the manager and you will get a letter saying you will be in trouble if you proceed with the grievance. In this place, there is no transformation or staff development.”
Another worker, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said, “I joined Nupsaw in 2018 and pay monthly subscription fees, but the university also deducts an agency fee. This is not legal. The agency fee is supposed to be only for non-union members [to cover the cost of NTEU and Nehawu collectively bargaining for them]. But we are not non-union members. We have our own union, which is registered in South Africa. We are paying twice, which means the university is trying to destroy us.”
The workers pay about R90 a month each in this double union fee. Section 13 of the Labour Relations Act says that if an employee gives a written instruction to the employer to deduct union fees from their salary, employers must do this “as soon as possible and must remit the amount deducted to the representative trade union by not later than the 15th day of the month first following the date each deduction was made”. In this case, the university deducts the agency fee instead of deducting a Nupsaw fee because it does not recognise the union. The member must then pay their Nupsaw dues over and above the agency fee for non-union members.
Section four of the Labour Relations Act says every employee has the right to join a union of their choice. When asked why the university would not recognise Nupsaw, the institution’s senior communications officer Velisile Bukula said, “Nupsaw is not sufficiently representative and, as such, does not qualify for the organisational rights afforded to the university’s representative unions, Nehawu and NTEU.”
But the Labour Relations Act does not prescribe the percentage of members a union needs to be “sufficiently representative”, nor does it allow employers to simply reject unions. Instead it says that if a registered union applies for organisational rights, the employer must meet with the union within 30 days and “endeavour to conclude a collective agreement”, setting out how the union will exercise its rights at the workplace. If an employer refuses to recognise a union, then an arbitrator will make a binding ruling on whether the union should be recognised or not.
Nupsaw field worker Siviwe Twani says the union has more than 160 members at the university, about 10% of the total workforce. Despite this, the university has refused to meet Nupsaw. “The university claimed that for a union to get recognised, it needs 10% of the total workforce as members. They might have made this up because they did not want a meeting where we could verify this. They prefer certain unions to work with,” said Twani.
According to Nupsaw provincial organiser Lerato Thethe, union leaders tried to meet with vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela, but his assistant said his “diary was full”. “We wanted to bring to his attention that as the father of the house, he should be interested in trying to solve the problem. He is an educated person and we rely on him as a doctor to assist us. We are just asking for a slice in the cake because we are being exploited here. We won’t rest until such time that we are listened to. No one from outside will come and assist us,” said Thethe.
The university had not responded to questions about the alleged lack of promotion opportunities for workers and the agency fee Nupsaw members pay by the time of publication. The university also did not say why they argued that Nupsaw was not “sufficiently representative” to gain recognition.