Hundreds of dollars were handed to UCOL workers in the thick of pay negotiations in a bid to "buy off" opposition, according to the Tertiary Education Union.
More than 220 UCOL workers across the North Island went on strike this week.
Academic and support staff set up picket lines outside the polytechnic's campuses in Palmerston North, Whanganui and Masterton, calling for fairer pay.
The action was spurred by a breakdown in negotiations between the union and the polytechnic, which said there would be no across-the-board pay rise this year. The union wanted a 2.5 per cent pay rise.
In the midst of negotiations last month, UCOL's 447 equivalent fulltime staff received a $800 one-off payment.
Union deputy secretary Nanette Cormack said the payment was a bid to bypass bargaining and to quieten querying workers. "This was them trying to buy members off right before Christmas."
The money was also previously unmentioned by the polytechnic, which had told the union that due to funding cuts it could not afford a pay rise.
UCOL, which has made three one-off payments since 2010 worth more than $1.12 million, said the polytechnic became aware of the money only after bargaining stalled.
"It wasn't practical to engage with the union in bargaining about it at that point as the union had made it clear that only an across-the-board wage increase would settle the negotiations and they weren't seeking a lump sum payment," UCOL spokeswoman Christine Beech said.
The payment was to recognise the employees' performance in reaching student volume numbers and course completion rates, Mrs Beech said.
It was drawn from the staff salaries budget and became available at "late notice", which meant it needed to be accounted for by December 31, she said.
Ms Cormack said the use of one-off payments was well-known at UCOL and eroded the real value of salaries.
"That speaks to me as a bit of a pattern; as an employer who doesn't want to deal with his employees." In light of the new money, the union asked UCOL to return to the bargaining table but the money was paid without this happening.
UCOL union branch president Tina Smith, who is a nursing lecturer, said there was an unfair disparity between polytechnic chief executive Paul McElroy pocketing nearly seven times what a low-wage UCOL worker earned.
Mr McElroy earns more than $260,000, according to the States Services Commission, and the lowest salary position covered by the union is $37,500.
The union has called for negotiations to resume but UCOL has said it is unsure whether that will happen.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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