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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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change can't wait

Adjuncts, graduate student workers and staff protest ‘Change Can’t Wait’ event at the Kennedy Center

Union workers continue contract negotiations in the wake of the fundraising event

American University hosted the D.C. presentation of its fundraising tour for the ‘Change Can’t Wait’ campaign with an event at the Kennedy Center on Thursday while the University’s union workers protested outside. 

Represented at the protest by the Service Employees International Union, the union workers are currently in contract negotiations and are pushing to have the University meet their demands by May 1. 

“I’ve attended some of the negotiations, and to say that they don't pay attention to our demands is an understatement,” said Laurent Risler, an adjunct professorial lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences and a spokesperson for SEIU. “We won't accept this situation anymore, and we are ready to fight.”

The event hosted roughly 250 alumni, parents, donors and leaders of the University and alumni association, according to Leah Brady, the executive director of the campaign. Speakers included President Sylvia Burwell, Alumni Association President Jonathan Mathis and a panel consisting of leaders in education and communication. 

Approximately 200 people, including undergraduate students, union workers and outside members of SEIU protested outside the event, according to Sam Sadow, a union organizer and full-time employee in the CAS. Protesters chanted “no contract, no peace” and “what’s disgusting? Union busting,” as event attendees entered the Kennedy Center. 

“We, as adjunct faculty, have been treated unfairly. We have been paid much less than other faculty at AU and in the D.C. metropolitan area, and we hope to address that inequality,” Risler said. “AU stands for a lot of values that are very noble causes: social justice, equality, or inclusiveness, and it’s also important to apply that to the school.”

AU freshman John Paul Mejia said that the people protesting are the people who provide the education the campaign uses as a “fundraising tactic.” 

“I think it’s egregious that a president whose salary is ballooning well above a million dollars can be hosting a fundraising event without paying face or paying homage or paying a living wage to the people that make this institution great,” Mejia said.

The Eagle reported that in fiscal year 2019 Burwell earned a base pay of $800,117 and $186,700 in bonuses, bringing her total earnings, which also include nontaxable benefits, over a million dollars. 

Protesters wanted the event to be “loud and raucous, but also fun,” according to Sadow. 

Sadow and a number of other protesters came into the event inside and distributed informational flyers about their cause to attendees. The flyers point out contradictions between the ‘Change Can’t Wait’ philosophy and the treatment of union workers. 

Low wages for staff lead to high turnover rates and a need for some to take on outside jobs, which negatively impacts students, according to SEIU members. Some University employees commute hours every day because they can’t afford to live in the city, said academic coach Amanda Kleinman.

“I just want my colleagues to stay in their positions. For the community, the student experience, you know, when you have really high staff turnover because they can't live in the area where they were,” Kleinman said. “I believe it does impact students, and I want us to all stay together.”

Kleinman currently lives in a house share in Mount Pleasant, but says that if something happened to her landlord, who keeps her rent low, she would have to move out of the city to find housing she could afford. 

President Burwell listed AU’s recent accomplishments in her speech, including athletic and academic achievements and the campaign passing the $300,000 mark, and addressed the protesters.

“I do want to take a moment to say, as you may have seen, there are members of our community here tonight, and they want to share their voices on issues that are urgent and important to them, and we respect that,” Burwell said. “We also appreciate their respect for our program tonight, and for our event and the rules of the Kennedy Center. So I do want to recognize that, their voice, and our appreciation for their respect and our respect for them.”

In a statement to The Eagle, Brady wrote that the diversity of voices and free expression at AU are part of what makes it “special.”

The ‘Change Can’t Wait’ event focused on education and the D.C. community. The event theme was “Partnering with Purpose: Advancing a Vibrant DC Region.” Patty Stonesifer, president and CEO of Martha’s Table and honorary degree recipient from CAS, moderated a panel discussion featuring Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of the School of Education, and Erika Pulley-Hayes, general manager at WAMU.

change can't wait

Panelists answered questions about how the University can ensure a vibrant D.C. region, how the pandemic has advanced education, how the AU community can support teachers and the biggest roadblocks to giving opportunities to D.C.’s Black community.

Burwell also emphasized AU’s commitment to working with the larger D.C. community at the event, quoting her own inauguration speech. 

“[We want to] make sure AU is a part of, not apart from Washington, D.C.,” Burwell said.

The event began with an appearance from AU’s women’s basketball team and coach and ended with a performance from AU’s gospel choir and chamber singers, showcasing AU students’ talent. 

Chanting and singing was also present outside, where protesters continued their demonstration even after the event inside got underway. 

“At the end of the day, us on the outside and the donors on the inside, we're both there to make AU a better place,” Sadow said. “I think that's the sort of key underlying message for both events, we are there, we want AU to be the best institution that can be … we believe that in order to do that, you must prioritize investing in its teaching faculty in its grad workers and and and staff.” 

apritchard@theeagleonline.com 


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