As union members strike, frustrations with contract and wage increases causes tension with University
Union members, University unable to agree on contract
From Aug. 22 to 26, members of American University’s Staff Union are striking, demanding higher wages and a fair labor contract.
Aug. 22 marks the first day of classes at the Washington College of Law as well as the first day of All-American Welcome. Roshan Abraham, first-year advisor and American University Experience instructor, said that the selection of these dates was purposeful, providing a motive for the University to adhere to their demands before students return to campus. Aug. 24 and Aug. 25 are move-in days for first-year students, and Convocation is on Aug. 26.
“You have a lot of incentive to end the strike before those things happen,” Abraham told The Eagle in an interview before the strike.
The University and the union did not reach an agreement on contracts and wages during a bargaining session on Thursday.
“While it is unfortunate that the union still apparently intends to ask our employees to strike and has dismissed the sizable gains we have made together, we hope that it will reconsider and agree to the favorable terms for a first contract that we have offered,” Peter Starr, provost and chief academic officer, wrote in an email to the AU community on August 19.
According to the union, meetings were proposed anytime before the strike began on Monday, but the University declined to participate.
“Over almost two years of bargaining, the union has made multiple proposals around wages and equitable pay structures. The administration’s choice to walk away from negotiations and refuse to meet over the weekend gives staff little choice but to strike,” Pia Morrison, president of SEIU Local 500, said in a press release on August 19.
In November 2020, the staff of the Provost’s division voted to unionize and has been bargaining with the University since May 2021.
“We've been treated disrespectfully … AU’s bargaining team [frequently yells] at us,” Abraham said.
Among the main concerns of University staff are salaries. One of their main grievances is called a merit pool, where supervisors evaluate staff members on performance and decide on raises and salaries.
Abraham said that many problems arise with this form of raising wages, such as implicit biases against race and gender, unequal distribution of the pool and being overly dependent on supervisors. Employees are also pitted against each other for possible raises.
“They’re completely inequitable,” Abraham said of the merit pools.
Additionally, according to Sam Sadow, a visual resources curator at American University & SEIU Local 500 Member, the University’s two percent raise moves staff back in their pay bands. Depending on the position and amount of time spent at AU, staff member’s salary can fall within three zones, each with a minimum and maximum salary. Instead of the five percent raise, the two percent raise is causing staff members to move down in zones.
“The wage increases alone average 4.6 percent in the first year, compared to the union’s demand for a 5 percent guaranteed wage increase,” Starr said in the email. “It is disappointing that the union still plans to strike given the closeness of these positions.”
This has contributed to an extremely high turnover rate among staff, especially in advising offices. It is rare, Abraham said, for someone to be there for more than a year. This directly interferes with students, who are often given multiple advisors in one year, making the advising process more difficult and confusing.
“We love working at AU. We love our students. That's why we commit so much to them. But we can’t support our students if our turnover rate is as high as it is,” Abraham said.
Amanda Kleinman, an academic coach in the Academic Support and Access Center, says she will be starting off the semester as an “office of one,” as two other academic coaches have left AU.
“There's a huge gap each person leaves that's going to require that someone in the division takes up those responsibilities,” Kleinman said. She can see around 35 students a week, but may have to see more as she is currently the only academic coach.
In an email sent out to the AU community on Friday, Starr, Counselor to the President Seth Grossman and Vice President of Campus Life Fanta Aw provided an update on the University’s stance.
“The university has negotiated in good faith since last May after staff members in the bargaining unit voted to organize a union. Through more than 30 bargaining sessions we resolved all the non-compensation issues the union raised and provided safeguards and guarantees they sought.”
In a follow-up email sent out to the community on Sunday, President Burwell echoed this, saying that, while an agreement has not been reached on compensation, “the university has negotiated in good faith. Our fair and equitable compensation proposal, which represents our best and final offer, is based on our commitment to our staff.”
However, bargaining meetings with the University have historically been unproductive, Abraham said. Although the vote to unionize happened in November of 2020, the University did not start bargaining until April of 2021. It took another year until economics were discussed, and Abraham said that the University would frequently cancel meetings.
In a statement to The Eagle, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Matthew Bennett responded to these allegations, saying that the administration “strongly” disputes the claim that members of the AU bargaining committee have been disrespectful to union members. He also said that, since the fall of 2021, more than 30 bargaining sessions have been conducted.
“All [sessions] were conducted professionally and constructively. We have worked cooperatively and have listened intently to committee members during all negotiating sessions and tried to be responsive to their concerns,” Bennett said.
The email went on to announce its support for students and the community during the time of the strike, promising to proceed with move-in and other services as scheduled.
In the email, Starr, Grossman and Aw said they did their best to work with the union throughout bargaining sessions. However, Union members do not feel that this is accurate.
“The Provost’s email is misleading and divisive,” members of the union wrote in an email to The Eagle. “It is incredibly important to note that it was the administration that walked away from negotiations. We offered to continue to meet every day through the weekend and into next week to come to an agreement, but AU’s leadership flatly rejected that offer.”
In the statement, union members said that everything the provost wrote in the email were things that the union had previously won and had not been offered by the university.
“Frankly, bragging that a 2.5 percent guaranteed increase in pay is unprecedented in AU’s history is simply an indicator of how poorly AU has always treated its employees,” Union members said.
Until recently, some staff members worked full time at AU and made less than $40,000 annually, Abraham said. One thing that Abraham said the University did agree upon was to remove the lowest salary bands.
“While this is a win for the union, they only agreed to it because of the threat of a strike,” he said. Currently, no one at AU will be making less than $40,000 per year, according to a comparison chart.
By saying that the University is prepared “to support our community in the event of a strike” implies that the union, made up of AU staff, are not part of the community, Abraham said.
“He [Starr] is trying to paint the union as an outside agitator trying to bend AU staff to its will. Nothing could be further from the truth. The union is AU staff. Every decision that is made comes from a consensus of AU staff. There is no third party,” the statement said.
Abraham encourages community members who wish to show their support to show up to the strike and post on social media. There is also a form to send a letter to members of the administration to demonstrate support for the Union’s call for fair wages.
“When we've done speeches on the quad or picketing at the Kennedy Center, when I see my students out there fighting with us, it's the most heartwarming. It just makes me believe that I know we're doing the right thing,” Kleinman said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that some full-time staff members made less than $20,000 per year instead of $40,000. The story has been updated with the correct amount.