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Monday was the start of Welcome Week at American College. Students and parents arriving on campus in Washington, D.C., were greeted not only by smiling university ambassadors, but also by a picket line of more than 100 members of the university’s staff union, gathered for the first day of a week-long strike.
Strike, announced August 11, was endorsed by 91% of the union, which represents more than 500 professional staff in a wide range of positions. These are primarily student-facing roles, including academic advisors, program coordinators, library staff, and support staff at admissions and financial aid offices.
They are demanding higher wages in contract talks, which began in May 2021 and broke off this summer after the administration made concessions on benefits and working conditions but failed to deliver. in terms of compensation. None of the strikers will receive wages as long as industrial action continues.
“I really hope this is the final pressure point required to bring the administration to the table and finally settle this,” said Sam Sadow, a visual arts librarian who has been involved in contract negotiations ever since. they started last year.
Raising handmade signs and equipped with fans and water bottles to beat the heat, strikers began picketing the UA Washington College of Law, where freshman law students were starting their orientation and those who came back had their first day of classes. They later marched to the main campus to protest outside the residence of college president Sylvia Burwell.
In a statement released to members of the AU community on Sunday, Burwell said the administration’s latest stance on staff contracts represented its “best and final offer.” This offer includes a 2.5% salary increase for all union members and a 1.5% increase in the university’s “performance pay pool” for merit-based raises determined by performance appraisals. yield. It also includes an increase in base salaries at all levels to “reduce wage compression for long-serving employees”.
Burwell added that recent financial setbacks, including nearly $100 million in losses in the first year of the pandemic, factored into the university’s offer.
“I want to assure you that the university negotiated in good faith,” she wrote. “In this process, we must take into account the health of the establishment. With our deep dependence on tuition fees, we need to be thoughtful stewards of our resources.
But the union says American’s offer does not allow staff members to live comfortably in such an expensive city as Washington, DC – an issue that members say has hurt retention. The union’s contract demands include a 5% wage increase for all union-represented staff for the first year of the contract and a further 4% the following year.
“If they say the market has changed 5% and they have to pay 5% more to new hires in a given year, then people who have been here longer should see those gains as well,” Sadow said.
Kelly Jo Bahry, Deputy Director of the Study Abroad Office, has worked for the university for more than 15 years. She said she was surprised that the administration was not responding to union demands and that she never expected to go on strike, the first time in her long university career.
“We don’t ask for the heavens and the stars,” she said. “We ask for base salaries.
Empty cabins, stagnant wages
The union, organized by SEIU Local 500, won its 2020 election at the height of the pandemic, riding a wave of collective organization in higher education. Sadow said the main motivating factors for UA staff were low, fixed salaries, which led to high turnover rates in many student-serving offices.
“You look around UA and see empty cubicles everywhere, empty desks…Staff were leaving in droves, and the No. 1 reason was stagnant wages,” he said. “It’s really starting to affect student and faculty services.”
Amanda Kleinman is an academic coach, helping struggling students maintain their grades. She said the turnover in her office, which helps about 1,100 students each semester, was frantic. A few months ago, two of her colleagues left for better paying jobs, making her the only remaining academic coach for the entire UA academic body.
“I am committed to supporting students and I will do my best, but I am only one person,” she said. “I can realistically only see about 40 students a week.”
A university spokesperson said all affected departments had prepared continuity plans for the strike. But the first week of classes is a particularly disruptive time to suspend services students who might need help with class scheduling or advice on course load, or who would like to attend a program introductory meeting.
“All of the staff are very involved in move-in week … there are a lot of welcome-type activities that we help organize,” Kleinman said. “It’s a different way to go to university.”
The strikers said the union knew this and chose the welcome week specifically because it would maximize visibility and highlight what they say is the undervalued role of professional staff at American.
“I think it looks really bad for the AU administration,” Bahry said. “As a student, I would wonder what type of establishment I am in.”
William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, is the co-author of a study 2020 on the prevalence of organized work stoppages in higher education. He said that while there is a long history of union organizing among professional staff at colleges and universities, militant tactics have become more common in recent years.
“There has been a marked increase in strikes at higher education institutions, and there is also much more community and student support for these strikes,” he said.
This support took the form of donations to the union’s strike fund, which had raised over $26,000 starting Monday.
Herbert added that most of the time unions threaten to strike just to bring managers back to the bargaining table when talks stall. But he said the fact that this is the union’s first contract with the institution raises the stakes and the chances of following through on the threat.
“Reaching a first contract through collective bargaining is one of the most difficult times for both parties,” he said. “They are often very difficult to reach and end up shaping the development of the collective bargaining relationship in the future.”
Strikers speak out
Bahry said she didn’t want to strike and taking a week without pay was difficult for her. But it would be even harder to continue to get by on her current salary, she says, or to explain to her children why she refused to support the union.
Her family recently had to move from the city to Falls Church, Va., because her pay didn’t keep up with the rising cost of living in DC When they lived in town, she said, she and her husband shared an apartment with one of their sons for five years.
“My quality of life has declined the longer I have been here due to stagnating wages. When I go to the grocery store, I have to make tough decisions, and it’s very tough after 20 years of being affiliated with this institution,” she said. “I imagine anyone in the AU administration living for a month on the salary they provide to staff would be a great learning experience.”
Kleinman, who is nearly 50, said that in her four years working for American — and 11 in college — she hasn’t earned enough to afford to leave her group home in Mt. Pleasant, where she has lived for the past two decades.
“I love working with students, but I didn’t expect the pay to be flat and low,” she said.
A university spokesperson said there are currently no plans for administrators to resume contract negotiations.
Today union members will meet again, this time outside the Kodos School of Business, for the second day of the strike.
“We won’t give up,” Sadow told the crowd outside Burwell’s house. “We’ll be back tomorrow, the day after, for as long as it takes.”