Following weeklong strike, University and Staff Union come to an agreement on contract
AU community responds to Staff Union's strike during Welcome Week
After 468 days at the bargaining table and the past week spent on strike, the American University Staff Union secured a contract with the University. The Union went on strike from Aug. 22 to Aug. 26, against what staff said were unfair wages, a result of unsuccessful bargaining sessions with the administration during the negotiating process.
The timing of the strike was strategic, with Washington College of Law classes beginning last Monday, first-year move-in on Wednesday and Opening Convocation on Friday.
“It is unconscionable [that] the AU administration walked away from bargaining at the end of last week or two and has refused to come back,” said Sam Sadow, the visual resources curator for Katzen Art Center, on Tuesday. “So if there’s an intermediate goal, it’s bringing them back to the table.”
On Aug. 21, President Sylvia Burwell sent an email to the AU community ahead of the strike. Burwell said that in negotiations with the union since May 2021, they have been able to achieve agreements on “almost all the contract provisions,” including a four percent salary increase.
“While we have not reached an agreement on the compensation measures, I want to assure you that the university has negotiated in good faith,” Burwell wrote in the email. “Our fair and equitable compensation proposal, which represents our best and final offer, is based on our commitment to our staff.”
Frustration with University administration and a lack of proper compensation was among the main concerns of strikers, as well as the results of what a lack of compensation has caused.
‘We have families too’: High turnover rates and low pay take their toll
Jessica Meagher, a study abroad advisor in the SIS Office of International Programs and adjunct professor for AUx, has been a full-time AU staff member for the past six years. During this time, she has seen high turnover rates and issues with retention.
“This is our school. This is our campus. We want to keep working here. I want to have a long-term professional future at AU, but it’s not sustainable,” she said on Tuesday. “I was here yesterday; I’m here today. I’ll be here until we have a fair contract.”
Another result of staff quitting and turnover rates has been an emotional toll and unfair workloads put on those who have stayed at AU. Mirashaye Basa, a full-time circulation services specialist in Bender Library, hopes her colleagues no longer have to make difficult financial decisions.
“I'm really hoping that they just get everyone paid enough to where they don't have to make tough decisions like whether they're going to get rent this week, or whether they're gonna get their groceries,” she said. “Everyone really likes their jobs here … but it's really hard to stay committed to that when you're not getting paid enough.”
Mike Murphy works as a Senior Administrative Assistant in the Department of Sociology, and told The Eagle that he has had to juggle several different responsibilities due to the high turnover in the offices.
“We work a lot,” Murphy said. “I’m the only staff person supporting 19 people, some of them being students. I’m asked to do seven different databases, to be a psychologist, to be an advisor, to be everything. I get paid a paltry amount.”
Murphy specifically pointed to the University’s use of merit-based raises as a concern held by many union members. This is a type of pay raise that is based solely on performance, which many say is biased and often leads to an unjust distribution of wage increases.
“The merit pool is the problem,” Murphy said. “It is so unevenly applied, because it depends on who you work for. I’ve submitted job evaluations, and said five out of five, and my boss said, ‘but I can’t give 5’s on everything, so I have to bump this one down.'”
Basa said that fighting for better working conditions has ripple effects that help the entire AU community. Overall, she said, their goals will create the quality of education and services that AU students are paying for.
“Just like these parents are feeling emotional about their kids going off to college and having feelings about their families, we have families too and we’re trying to provide our best for our families as well and be paid for what we’re worth to give the students what they need and what they pay for,” she said.
Students show support
Zoe Smith, a sophomore, works in the circulation department at Bender Library. While attending the strike on Monday, Smith said circulation students are now responsible for things that lie outside of their department due to lack of staffing; her bosses, she said, are taking on “ten times” that amount. Smith said she has witnessed firsthand how being paid a wage that isn't livable has impacted library employees.
“The library is a vital resource, and I think it's really important that we advocate for our workers to be better paid because resources like that on campus are sustained by our workers and our staff,” she said.
Other students supported the cause as well. John Paul Mejia, a sophomore, joined the strike on Wednesday outside of the freshman dorms.
“I come from a working-class, low-income family. I'm a student of color and here it's honestly sad that a school that says it invests in me is not willing to invest in people who look like me who have the same class background as me,” he said. “And ultimately what I seek is, an investment in my education and what is promised to me from AU by supporting the union and so that's ultimately why I'm here.”
Despite the number of students supporting the strike, it wasn’t without consequence. Freshman experienced delays during move-in on Wednesday as the union marched across campus from the Katzen Arts Center to the Letts-Anderson Quad, blocking cars in the tunnel under Bender Arena. Strikers remained in the LA Quad for the remainder of Wednesday’s strike, slowing down move-in.
As long lines of cars backed up nearby roads, students eventually received an email from the Department of Housing and Residence Life encouraging students who had yet to arrive to move in on Thursday as the move-in process was slowed. Students were told how to access food and urgent services should they need them.
Evan Miller, a freshman who had moved in on Wednesday, said he saw his advisor on strike. “I ran into my advisor striking, actually,” he said. “I went up and said hi.”
When coming to D.C., Miller said he “expected this type of behavior,” and that strikes and protests were important to him in an environment of activism. He did, however, say the strike happening during move-in reflected poorly on the University’s treatment of its staff.
“I think that the University should listen to the union and listen to what the teachers and faculty are asking for and give them the fair pay that they deserve,” Miller said.
Ellie Sweet, a freshman, was moving in with her dad Mark Sweet, who is a labor attorney. Mark Sweet addressed the crowd on Thursday.
“I’m upset that the University is not allowing you to get paid properly so you can sleep comfortably at night,” Mark Sweet said.
Ellie Sweet said her peers who consider themselves politically active should come out and stand with the staff.
“If you go to such a liberal school and you call yourself so politically active, which a lot of people do that go here, stick to what you said and do what you say,” Ellie Sweet said. “You said you’re politically active, get out here and do stuff.”
Other students echoed this sentiment. Nicole Stevenson, another freshman who had just moved in, was surprised by the reasoning behind the strike. When coming to “such a liberal school,” Stevenson didn’t expect employees to have wage issues, and realized that the liberalism “had more to do with the student body” and less with the administration.
“I was also surprised that the President is being paid [about] $1 million per year. I was like, ‘that's where my tuition money is going, not to these people who need it.’ It's going to some woman, who doesn't really need it at all,” she said.
Other freshmen found the timing of the strike to be effective. Julia Patton and Shahd Sharaf, both freshmen, said that it raised awareness among themselves and their parents.
“This is a good way to just get the message out there because I think that a lot of us, we want to learn about it and we want to support it,” Patton said.
Sharaf, who told her parents about the strike because of an email her advisor sent her, agreed.
“On the day [my parents and I] moved in, they saw the strike and wanted to know about it … I feel like move-in is the perfect time to strike so people can hear about it and know what’s going on,” Sharaf said.
On Thursday, union members gathered on the first floor of the Mary Graydon Center as first-year students and their families filtered through to obtain their OneCards.
Students of all classes joined the union members, many wearing purple in solidarity with the Service Employees International Union. Sumaiyah Alyadumi, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, said she was inspired to stand alongside the union during her move-in process.
“I was here again Tuesday with my mom and my aunt, so I joined [the union protestors] while they were in the bathroom,” Alyadumi said.
Hannah St. Arnold, a junior in SPA, said she hopes that other students have been supportive of the strike despite potential disruptions in accessing University resources.
“I completely understand why students are hesitant to join [the strike] because no one wants to pay tuition and not be able to go to class,” St. Arnold said. “I understand that, but if we can’t stand in solidarity with the people who are actually supporting us, the people who are giving us our education and making this school run…then what are we doing here?”
Burwell said the University administration had asked the union for dates to continue negotiations and to continue discussing the adjunct faculty contract in an email to the AU community Thursday.
Matthew Bennett, AU’s chief communications officer, said in an interview with The Eagle that these negotiations have always been held in good faith, with three main principles in mind.
“The important thing from you know, from the University's perspective is throughout the negotiations throughout last week, we were really guided by three core principles: focus on our people, advance equity in the community, and be good stewards of the university's resources,” Bennett said.
The framework for looking at the economic proposals, Bennett said, was driven by a “focus on our people,” and was “guided by” the two-year budget that began in July.
“There are not more dollars out there to use. So any decisions we have to make have to be within that defined universe of resources,” he said.
‘Welcome to your union school’
On Friday, the last day of Welcome Week, the AU Staff Union protested AU’s Opening Convocation at Bender Arena.
As Provost Peter Starr introduced Burwell to the crowd, some freshmen shouted and began exiting Bender Arena.
Once outside, students were greeted with chants of “AU students are so cool, welcome to your union school.”
As students exited the building, they were met by the AU Staff Union, who were behind a barricade. Those who exited joined the union as they made their way to the President’s House.
“These support staff are very close to me. I have a disability and for the first time in the world I feel like I have a support system of people that actually want to help me and actually care,” said freshman Lauren Kluttz on why she decided to leave Convocation.
468 days later, an agreement
Late Friday afternoon, the University and the union both announced that they had reached an agreement on contracts for the staff union and the adjunct union. Outside of Kerwin Hall, union members and their supporters could be seen celebrating and embracing each other, a tidal wave of emotion washing over them as the week came to an end.
“I’m a little bit dumbstruck…It’s going to take a while to process this,” Sadow said, to a cheering crowd.
In an email to The Eagle, Sadow expressed his relief and gratitude toward the AU community for standing with the union during the strike.
“While no contract is perfect, the agreement we just came to and have recommended for ratification represents a transformative victory for staff at AU,” Sadow said. “It guarantees that AU will become a workplace where staff are guaranteed more respect, a prominent voice in their working conditions, more job security, fair raises, a more equitable pay structure and more affordable healthcare.”
In an email to the AU community, Burwell said that the contract will be ratified in the coming days.
“Since these are tentative agreements, further details will be available in the coming days,” Burwell wrote in the email Friday.
Securing a contract for members of the union has been a long and at times arduous process, but with the contract comes an immense sense of pride, Sadow said.
“It’s been well over three years of my life now, and one thing about getting involved in this is that it just keeps growing and growing and growing and it’s just been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.” Sadow said.