Student organizations host celebration for AU Staff Union labor contract agreement, encourage solidarity between students and workers
‘The university exists because of education, because of students, so it is just as crucial for students to build their own power to resist the administration as it is for us’
American University’s Claudia Jones Club and Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter hosted an event to celebrate the success of the AU Staff Union’s August strike and promoted solidarity between students and workers on Sept. 27.
Speakers at the event, which the Claudia Jones Club and YDSA co-hosted in the McDowell Hall formal lounge, praised the work of the roughly 550 AU staff members represented by Service Employees International Union Local 500 . The staff members conducted a five-day walkout between Aug. 22. and Aug. 26. to demand higher wages and a fair labor contract.
These efforts resulted in an agreement on a contract between the Union and University administration that included better advancement opportunities and board raises totalling 5.5 percent over the next two years, according to an AU Staff Union Instagram post.
Aubrey Hill, a systems administrator at the AU Career Center who has been involved in the union organizing process since 2019, spoke at the event and said the road to victory has not been easy.
“When you talk about how long the process is and how we got here, it may seem like a lot of this popped off in the last six months or the last year, and it definitely did,” Hill said. “But that’s built upon years and years of organizing amongst the staff and with great support from student organizations.”
In a statement posted on the AU Staff Union’s Instagram during the strike, the staff union said that they had spent nearly 500 days at the bargaining table with AU administration before announcing their strike two weeks in advance, to give the University a chance to meet their request for increased compensation. The University reached a tentative agreement on the fifth and final day of the planned strike.
Hill said that the slow-going negotiation process was helped by student organizations like YDSA who participated in rallies and protests with union staffers. The relationship between students and workers is an essential part of creating change on a college campus, she said.
“The University exists because of education, because of students, so it is just as crucial for students to build their own power to resist the administration as it is for us,” Hill said. “Only if we do that together will we actually make strides.”
Hill said that the staff union’s struggle for equitable treatment reflects a larger issue in higher education.
“This whole situation is a bigger indication of the corporatization of academia and of the universities,” Hill said. “It is indicative of thinking of American University first and foremost as a business as opposed to a community with goals and with a commitment to the members of that community.”
Eli Pine, a senior and the vice president of the Claudia Jones Club, said that he hopes students see this victory as motivation to continue fighting for workers’ rights as well as demanding change from AU’s administration.
“We see anti-worker sentiment building across the world,” Pine said. “When we think about what we can do in our own communities, we have to think about where the power lies, and where the power lies on campus is with the administration. So when we think about how to combat those larger movements … then we really have to think about how to confront the administration on campus,” he said.
YDSA leadership team member Rohin Ghosh said that the University should work to ensure students and employees have “a seat at the table” of decision making.
“That’s how we really change what we’re doing as a university, by making a constitution that’s for all of us,” Ghosh said.
Hill stressed the importance of receiving ongoing support from students to maintain the momentum of their win going forward.
“It’s not about looking for that quick victory, it is looking to build sustained power and sustained relationships,” Hill said. “That is what eventually culminates in the extremely powerful event that you all witnessed this summer.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Sylvia Burwell needed to sign the collective bargaining agreement. Completed collective bargaining agreements are not signed by the University president.