After student strike, American U. agrees to new contract with striking employees

Sylvia M. Burwell was preparing to address the new students at American University on Friday when a loud shout rang out through the auditorium: “Pay your workers!‘ Before she said a word, dozens of students began to complete out of solidarity protest with employed teachers and staff hit for a week, looking for higher pay.

At the end of the day, American announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with both the adjuncts and staff, bringing to a close a chaotic week that saw new students crowd the Washington, DC university while staff moved campaign for better working conditions.

Service Employees International Union Local 500 voted to end the strike on Friday afternoon, and next week members will vote on whether to ratify the new contract. Details of the tentative agreement were not immediately available, but union members said they had achieved higher wages and better healthcare benefits. The university did not include details in its announcement and did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

While union officials met with administrators Friday, other union members gathered on the lawn of the President’s House on the American campus. They wore purple T-shirts, the union color, shared food and talked about why they were striking.

One of the union’s main demands was a pay rise, which many said was necessary due to inflation and the high cost of living in the region. Jacob Wilson, an academic advisor to freshmen, said he joined American from an Illinois university and, even after negotiating, was surprised at the low salary he was offered. “A regional university in the Midwest paid me more than a reputable, private institution here in the nation’s capital,” he said.

At American, Wilson said he saw colleagues leave because they couldn’t afford to live in the Washington, D.C. area. “Look at this campus, look at the facilities here, look at the $60,000+ in tuition and fees. Then it’s wrong if full-time employees earn $40,000 a year. It’s immoral. They consider us replaceable.” (Tuition and fees at American are trades at almost $55,000, but College Navigator lists the estimated total cost for a senior on campus as $70,000 last year.)

Many employees told The chronicle They struggle with healthcare costs. Michelle Eller, a specialist in library circulation services, said that any staff member who makes more than $40,000 a year ends up paying more out of pocket because of the university’s adjustment policy. But she said Friday afternoon that the university had agreed to a change that would cover more staff.

Another issue that worried many employees is a merit system that rewards employees with raises based on manager ratings.

Shadia Silimana learning specialist, said the union’s position was that employees would rather use the money to pay raises for all employees.

“We’d rather have money going towards salary increases that are guaranteed to everyone every year, rather than pitting ourselves against each other to see who can do best,” she said. “It’s just disheartening to see that we are working on a system of sharing and maintaining each other and that the university insists on creating hierarchy and competition.”

Emile Kim, a program specialist at the School of Public Affairs, said she was proud of the work the union had done over the past week. “I cried. I just got really emotional because we’ve been doing so much since Monday,” she said.

Wilson, the first-year academic advisor, said he foresees a bigger move after today’s win. “I’m so hopeful that what we’re doing today will not only have a lasting impact on America’s college campus, but that it will resonate across the country and throughout higher education,” he said.

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