In an era of COVID-19, AU staff deserves a voice

Disruptions in higher education have highlighted the need for change

In an era of COVID-19, AU staff deserves a voice
Photo for Op Ed “AU Staff Union”

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Linda Golden's name. It has been updated with the correct spelling.

A strong and committed workforce is essential to American University’s success in its mission and its cohesiveness as a community. As the coronavirus wreaks havoc on higher education, the profound disruptions have placed a harsh spotlight on staff working conditions and professional concerns. We are all invested in student safety and the educational experience, but we cannot secure those fundamental aspects of AU’s mission while facing the uncertainties of furloughs and layoffs, increased job responsibilities without increased pay, and lost benefits. 

Even before COVID-19 upended our lives, we confronted deteriorating working conditions and unaddressed workplace issues. For many, a full-time job with benefits at AU still means a second or even third job to cover the basic costs of living in the DMV. High workloads, a lack of transparency around pay and advancement, and limited input into decisions that directly affect our lives have led to high turnover and poorer outcomes for the entire AU community. 

The effects of turnover were most evident in the Registrar’s office last fall. Multiple vacancies in essential positions that handled scheduling delayed courses being added to the catalog and frustrated students trying to register. Beyond the registrar, it’s the front desk staffer, who is no longer there to greet you and resolve your questions. It’s the academic adviser who listened to your panic attack about graduating, while you mapped out your course plan, but departed before you reached the goal. It’s your favorite supervisor who left for better opportunities and can’t be replaced because of the hiring freeze.

Each of these changes in personnel translates into a rupture in services and a break in institutional knowledge. Even more importantly, it leaves gaping holes in the fabric of our community. If a vacant position gets filled, services to students remain slow while the new team member learns the role. While the position remains empty, the rest of the staff struggles to complete extra work on top of their own duties. 

These are some of the reasons that AU staff has been organizing a union with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 to ensure we have a say in our future at AU. Over the last year, we’ve heard from hundreds of staff members across campus, surveyed colleagues, held meetings with the adjunct faculty and graduate workers’ unions, hosted a panel on organized labor in higher education, and written letters to and met with the administration. The conclusion is undeniable. We, as staff, need to join together in union to ensure AU provides a functional, safe and equitable working environment for all employees.

“Building and sustaining community is a part of our mission,” President Sylvia Burwell wrote, in a recent email to AU students, staff and faculty. “We work to support each other and lift each other up — through good and especially through bad times.” 

The bad times are now, and for the last several months, AU staff members have worked hard to support students, faculty and each other as life shifted online. Throughout the summer, staff has organized online orientations and events, advised students through the chaos of changing plans, and carried out the work required to make those plans happen. Community is impossible to build and sustain when its members regularly leave for better opportunities or because they have burned out. A truly strong community gives power to its most vulnerable members. We are organizing a union with SEIU Local 500 to continue to support each other and lift each other up by winning bargaining power for our colleagues. 

If you’d like to support us, sign onto our community support letter here: https://forms.gle/KNtsAv2Y7yDVyR7V9

If you’d like to learn more about the union, contact austaffunion@gmail.com or visit http://www.austaffunion.org 

Members of AU Staff Organizing Committee:

Linda Golden, Assistant Director, Marketing and Communications, Career Center

Aubrey Hill, Student Employment Coordinator, Career Center

Charlene Ploetz, Academic Advisor, SPA

Kelsey Boyd, Program Coordinator, SPA

Samuel Sadow, Visual Resources Curator, Art Department

Michele Mazzocchetti, Senior Contract Coordinator, CAS Dean’s Office

Julie Coe, Academic Advisor, SPA

Amanda Kleinman, Disability Access Advisor, Academic Support and Access Center

Calvin Elison, Administrative Assistant, Department of Literature

These authors are staff members at American University. The opinions expressed by these authors are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.

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