On midnight Saturday, non-teaching staff at public universities went on strike, arguing that they wanted the government to include last year's arrears in the salary enhancement, coming in June. MOSES TALEMWA assesses whether the strike, which was suspended last Thursday, achieved its objectives.
At various general assemblies, the mood in the public universities was charged. Starting in Busitema and spreading to Kyambogo, Gulu, Makerere Business School and finally Makerere, the staff called for the government to enhance their salaries, as promised by the president, in line with their academic counterparts.
Clad in a black suit, the chairman of the Public Universities Non-Teaching Staff Executive Forum (Puntsef), Jackson Betihamah, bellowed that the finance ministry had defied a presidential directive to pay them their dues.
“We are demanding for the resignation of the minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development. We are also demanding that the permanent secretary for finance resign first,” Betihamah roared. “We also want the arrears of the financial year 2015/2016 to be paid together with enhanced salaries for 2016/2017 financial year.”
He argued that the salary harmonization effort carried out before the enhancement had also been based on the lowest-paid salaried staff, at Makerere.
“Gulu pays their staff better than any other university, then Mbarara ranks second, [followed by] Busitema, Kyambogo, and then Makerere is the lowest,” he said. “So, when you enhance people using the Makerere payroll, other staff members of the other universities are left in negatives.”
The congregations loved the rhetoric, lapped it up quickly and resolved to go on strike, after they were convinced that the state would only deliver, if they called industrial action.
“I can assure you that once we go on strike, we shall get the money in less than three days,” Betihamah argued.
And so, all but Mbarara University of Science and Technology resolved to go on strike effective May 1, 2016. The staff at Mbarara did not seem to be as convinced and opted for a go-slow, in their actions.
“We were in solidarity with the strike, but since the government had already shown a commitment to our cause, we felt it was better to continue negotiations,” said one senior administrator, who preferred anonymity.
NOTES OF DISCORD
Betihamah had bitter words for Mbarara’s vice chancellor, Prof Celestine Obua, whom he accused of suppressing the strike by threatening to sack any dissenting employees and have their jobs advertised. “We have written to Prof Obua, asking him to revise his working methods, by respecting the rights of employees.”
For his part, Prof Obua chose to ignore Betihamah, saying: “I have more important things to occupy my mind with”.
Elsewhere, many senior administrators at Mubs, Makerere, Gulu, Muni, Lira, Soroti and Kabale showed up for work on Monday, ignoring the strike call, although many of their underlings were nowhere to be seen. While he was tough on Mbarara, Betihamah had some kind words for newer public universities.
“We respect the differences in opinion, and in the case of Lira, Muni, and Kabale, we understand that they are still new, even the associations are not yet properly constituted – but we embrace them.”
Satisfied with their action, the Puntsef executive met to chart their next course of action. To ensure the success of their strike, they had agreed that administrators would not answer any calls from senior management.
“We are the only ones to call you back to work,” Betihamah declared.
With the strike underway on Monday, the phone calls came in, quick and first. Their first invitation came from police chief, Gen Kale Kayihura, who met the Puntsef executive at his headquarters in Naguru from 4pm for three and a half hours.
“He initially complained that we had not alerted him in advance about the strike, but later when we briefed him about the protracted negotiations we had been involved with, he was convinced,” Betihamah told us.
According to other Puntsef executive members, the meeting looked at negotiations with the finance and education ministry over the pending arrears. They told Kayihura that the permanent secretary in the finance ministry, Keith Muhakanizi, had advised that the arrears be included in the 2017/18 national budget, a matter they disagreed with.
Kayihura advised them to meet Muhakanizi again the following day, even securing a midday appointment for Tuesday, by telephone. The Puntsef executive was at the finance ministry by midday, where Muhakanizi reportedly apologised for the inconvenience and briefed them the government would include the arrears in an application for a supplementary budget to parliament in August.
As Betihamah tells the story, “the rest was as we had agreed previously; Shs 28bn had been allocated in the 2016/17 budget for a salary enhancement”.
The team was then asked to meet with the education ministry to harmonise their position on salary enhancement. And so on Wednesday, the Puntsef team met Muhakanizi’s counterpart in the education ministry, Dr Rose Nassali-Lukwago from 4pm, for a two-hour session.
“The meeting was cordial, but inconclusive, since she had another meeting to attend. We agreed to return [today] on Monday to discuss the salary harmonization … wherever the scale is higher – that is what we shall go with and the finance ministry would meet the deficit, if any.”
That out of the way, Betihamah was not done.
“We once again call upon [finance ministers] Matia Kasaija and David Bahati to apologise for the inconvenience or resign.”