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American University staff go on strike after contract talks stall

A staff union has authorized a strike of up to five days

American University staff members participate in a picket line while on strike on Aug. 22 outside the school's Washington College of Law in the District. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Amid stalled contract negotiations, hundreds of staffers at American University went on strike Monday as students moved onto the campus in the District.

Workers gathered at the Washington College of Law on campus to protest what they say are inequitable health-care and wage systems that place too many employees at a disadvantage.

Service Employees International Union Local 500, which represents about 550 clerical, technical and academic staff members at American, has been negotiating the workers’ first contract since May 2021. Through more than 30 bargaining sessions, they have made gains on issues of job security and disciplinary procedures but remain at odds over compensation, according to the university.

“I’m disappointed,” said Kelly Jo Bahry, assistant director of AU Abroad and a member of the staff union. “I love my job so much and have spent the majority of my career at AU. For the AU administration to take it this far is really astonishing.”

Staffers want a 5 percent raise in the first year of the contract and a 4 percent increase in the second. They want the university to extend annual raises to part-time staff members and ensure no full-time member earns less than $40,000 a year.

American is offering a 2.5 percent increase across the board and a 1.5 percent performance pay bump this year, which the university says is in line with what it has provided to other staff and faculty this year. The university said it also offered additional pay increases to reduce salary disparities among long-serving employees. Administrators proposed eliminating the lowest rungs of the staff’s tiered pay system to create more pay equity.

In a letter sent Sunday to the school community, American University President Sylvia M. Burwell said that the staff plays a vital role and that the university’s “fair and equitable” compensation proposal is based on its commitment to the workers. She said the administration has bargained in good faith and has to consider the health of the institution.

“With our deep dependence on tuition, we must be thoughtful stewards of our resources,” Burwell said. “If we want to continue our focus on affordability, further our commitment to research and learning, and invest in our people, we must carefully balance the best use of our available resources in each area. But it also means we can’t do everything in every area.”

American University staff preparing to strike over wages

Leila Hernandez, a member of the union and a customer service specialist at AU’s Career Center, said she found Burwell’s letter disheartening.

“There is a budget of money at American University and choices are being made and they are choosing to allow staff members to be paid below a living wage,” Hernandez said. “They don’t have to make those choices. We know AU has money. We know they increased tuition. We know how much the provost and the president make. AU is not poor.”

Peter Starr, American’s provost and chief academic officer, said the proposed increases — which he called “unprecedented” — are “consistent with the significant compensation framework investment in the most recent two-year budget, which is the largest increase in compensation in almost a decade,” according to a letter sent to the university community Friday.

The union argues that the payment system is convoluted and arbitrary. While workers could not get the university to do away with it altogether, they are asking American to either reform the system to be more equitable or increase wages enough to get to the same end goal.

But the last bargaining session on Thursday ended at an impasse. Union leaders said they made more concessions but that the university did not match the effort.

Starr said the union rejected the school’s “best and final offer” and “dismissed the sizable gains we have made together.” He said the administration hopes the union will reconsider and agree to the terms.

“We value the work of the staff in the unit, which is reflected in the university’s good faith commitment to bargaining and comprehensive and generous proposals,” Starr said.

As of Monday, there were no additional bargaining sessions scheduled, according to the union.

The staff union voted this month to authorize a strike of up to five days if a contract agreement was not secured by Monday. The decision came after union leaders filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the university of violating labor laws by excluding members from annual merit-based raises. American said it could not make changes to wages until a contract agreement is reached.