AU community shows support for adjunct, graduate student and staff unions amid negotiations

Tenured faculty address Burwell in letter advocating for union negotiations

AU community shows support for adjunct, graduate student and staff unions amid negotiations

As meetings at the bargaining table continue, students, staff and faculty protested in support of AU’s adjunct, graduate student and staff unions outside Provost Peter Starr’s address at the School of International Service on Wednesday morning.

The protest of approximately 100 attendees was led by adjunct, staff and graduate worker union members, as well as representatives from the Young Democratic Socialists of America at AU. 

“I hope the administration wastes no time and does what we have been demanding they do for months, accept the unions' demands for higher wages and better benefits immediately and work in good faith to hash out a fair contract,” said Rohin Ghosh, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and member of YDSA. 

On March 2, over 80 tenured faculty sent a letter to President Sylvia Burwell advocating on behalf of adjunct faculty, staff and graduate workers as union negotiations and protests continue.

Contract negotiations are currently underway as adjunct faculty and graduate worker unions re-negotiate, and the staff union negotiate their initial contract. The groups are calling for an increase in their wages, and non-economic compromises like improved discipline policy. As all three groups push for better pay, they have organized multiple campus protests in hopes of using students to call on the administration to act.  

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The letter, signed by professors from four schools and the Washington College of Law, calls Burwell to come to the bargaining table. 

“American University pays our adjunct colleagues substantially less on a per course basis than term faculty and significantly less than adjuncts are paid at our peer institutions in the city. Consequently, we are unable to retain the best talent,” the letter read.

The minimum pay for a three-credit course is currently $3,875 per semester at American University. At Georgetown, the pay for a three-credit course is $7,000. When George Washington University’s part-time faculty contract ended in June 2021, the rate was $3,877

"President Burwell responded to the faculty members who sent the letter, outlining the ongoing negotiation process, our history of arriving at agreements with SEIU Local 500, and the need to consider the union proposals within the context of the university budget,” University spokesperson Matt Bennett told The Eagle in an email.

Bennett said that increasing wages would impose increased costs on the University:

“Decisions made in the negotiations have a direct impact on many other parts of the university, including how much we can invest in other priorities including research and financial aid,” he said. 

Kira Ashton, a first-year Ph.D. student at AU, spoke to the crowd about where the money from the 5 percent tuition increase is going. 

“We’re here because we want to make things better for us and the student workers after us,” she said. 

The protestors spoke about how students have the power to demand change from the University. Another protest is planned at the Change Can’t Wait campaign at The Kennedy Center on April 7. 

“Here we are having to fight AU for change on our own campus,” YDSA President Eduarda Serafim said during the protest.

One concern for workers is the rising inflation rates in the country, and how that affects the wages of workers. As of now, the inflation rate is around 7 percent. William LeoGrande, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, said during a briefing on the union that there are limits on what the University can do to address inflation.

“We understand the financial pressure that inflation puts on our employees, but the University is also feeling that same pressure in its operating expenses,” LeoGrande said.

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Ph.D. student Danielle Wilson, who is on the bargaining team for graduate workers, said organizers hope that the administration will listen to tenured faculty, a group the University values. 

“Other constituencies on campus can wield power and can push the administration to make the right choice, do the right thing and settle these contracts with each group,” said Sam Sadow, adjunct professor and staff member in the arts department. 

At this point, the administration is negotiating economic issues with graduate students and adjuncts, according to LeoGrande. With the Academic Affairs staff, the focus has been more on non-economic issues. 

The two sides recently agreed on a new discipline policy for staff members, which Sadow said is an accomplishment as staff members can now only be disciplined for just cause, which is, “a legal threshold that comes with requirements for evidence and open hearings and representation in those hearings.” Prior to negotiations, staff members had no such protection, and could be fired or disciplined for minor infractions. 

LeoGrande said while the union “creates the impression” that the administrators won’t talk about economic issues, that is not true.

Rather, LeoGrande said, the administration is trying to build a relationship with the unions by negotiating the non-economic issues first. But the administration has provided the adjuncts and graduate students with counter-proposals for economic issues.

John Willoughby, a professor of economics at AU who signed the letter, said adjuncts deserved to get paid more than what AU is offering them now.

“We view adjunct faculty members as colleagues,” Willoughby told The Eagle. “They’re an important part of the university.” 

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