Sylvia M. Burwell was preparing to address American University’s new students Friday when a loud shout echoed through the auditorium: “Pay your workers!” Before she said a word, dozens of students began filing out in a protest of solidarity with adjunct instructors and staff members who had been on strike for a week, seeking higher pay.
By the end of the day, American announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with both the adjuncts and the staff members, bringing to a close a chaotic week in which new students crowded the Washington, D.C., university while employees agitated for better working conditions.
Service Employees International Union Local 500 voted to end the strike Friday afternoon, and next week members will vote on whether to ratify the new contract. Details of the tentative agreement weren’t immediately available, but union members said they had won higher pay and improved health-care benefits. The university didn’t include details in its announcement and didn’t respond to an immediate request for comment.
On Friday, while union representatives met with administrators, other members gathered on the lawn of the president’s house on American’s campus. They wore purple T-shirts, the union’s color, shared food, and spoke about why they were striking.
One of the union’s main demands was a salary increase, which many said is a necessity due to inflation and the high cost of living in the area. Jacob Wilson, an academic adviser for first-year students, said he came to American from a university in Illinois and was surprised by the low salary he was offered, even after negotiating. “A regional university in the Midwest paid me more than a prestigious, private institution here in the nation’s capital,” he said.
At American, Wilson said he has seen 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 over $60,000 in tuition and fees. Then to have full-time staff make $40,000 a year, it’s wrong. It’s immoral. They view us as replaceable.” (Tuition and fees at American are listed at almost $55,000, but College Navigator lists the total estimated expenses for an on-campus student as eclipsing $70,000 last year.)
Many staff members told The Chronicle they struggle with health-care costs. Michelle Eller, a circulation-services specialist at the library, said that any employee making more than $40,000 per year ends up paying more out of pocket due to the university’s matching policy. But she said Friday afternoon that the university agreed to a change that would cover more employees.
Another issue that concerned many staff members is a merit system that rewards staff with raises based on supervisor evaluations.
“We would rather that money go into raises that everyone is guaranteed every year, rather than pitting us against one another to see who can do the best,” she said. “It’s just discouraging to see that we are working on a system of sharing and holding one another up, and that the university insists on creating hierarchies and competition.”
Emily Kim, a program specialist at the School of Public Affairs, said she is proud of the work the union has done in 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 adviser, said he envisions a bigger movement after today’s win. “I am so hopeful that what we’re doing today is not only going to have a lasting impact on the American university campus, but that it is going to reverberate across the country, across the field of higher education,” he said.