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American University staffers go on strike over low wages


Citing low wages, health care and an abusive work environment, over 500 members of the American University staff union went on strike Monday morning.

The strike, which is scheduled to last five days, comes after leaders with SEIU Local 500 and the school administration failed to come to a compromise on new contracts to address these and other issues earlier in August.

The main obstacle to an agreement continues to be compensation. The union says they want raises totaling 9% over two years and to ensure no full-time staffer makes less than $40,000 a year.

In a statement, American University President Sylvia M. Burwell said the offer to union members included a “4 percent salary increase (consisting of a 2.5 percent across-the-board increase for all unit members and a 1.5 percent performance pay pool this year), among other compensation increases.”

And one striker, Amanda Kleinman, said that instead of addressing staffers’ needs equitably, that offer pits staffers against one another.

“The system is based on the idea that those that get more of an increase exceed their professional goals for the year,” explained Kleinman, who works in the Academic Support and Access Center.

“But our turnover is so high, that it makes it really challenging to even meet your basic goals. And to exceed them when sometimes you’re doing the job of two or three people is an exercise in futility.”

About 550 clerical, technical and academic staff at the school say they will picket at the school for up to five days. According to the union, 91% of American University staff had voted yes for the Unfair Labor Practice Strike.

In a letter to the American University community on Aug. 19, Provost and Chief Academic Officer Peter Starr said the University’s current offer, which includes higher increases for long serving staff, would be the largest increase in compensation in over a decade.

But union representatives said in a letter to Starr that the current call for a strike was in direct response to the university choosing to withhold their annual merit increases as a part of the negotiation.

“By withholding our annual merit increases this year, the university has unilaterally changed our working conditions,” they wrote. “We have received these merit increases every year, with limited exceptions, since at least 2005 — including in the Summer of 2021, after we had won our union election and begun negotiations. To withhold them now is an unfair labor practice.”

Starr also said in his letter that other “non-compensation issues” had been largely resolved, including agreements on “a ‘just cause’ standard for all disciplinary actions; a grievance process with appeals to outside arbitration; a joint labor-management committee for ongoing dialogue; a revised reporting system for health and safety concerns; a process to ensure newly hired employees do not receive a higher salary than current employees for the same work; and enhancements to the annual leave benefit, among other updates.”

On Twitter, supporters of the strike have been posting pictures of their cats with the hashtag #FairContractMeow.

And another striker, Emily Kim, said much of the student body is behind the striking staffers.

“There are a lot of students who are totally on board and student groups who are wondering how to get involved pushing stuff on social media,” she said. “… It’s nice to know that the students are on our side, and I feel like they also value us because we’re helping them with their greatest needs.”

In her letter Sunday night, Burwell said, “We look forward to welcoming our students and addressing any potential impacts as this process moves forward.”