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American University staffers plan to strike over working conditions and low wages

Students on campus at the American University in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The Bloomberg Businessweek 2021-22 Best B-Schools MBA ranking created a Diversity Index for U.S. business schools that for the first time measures race, ethnicity, and gender. Photographer: Dee Dwyer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Students on campus at the American University in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The Bloomberg Businessweek 2021-22 Best B-Schools MBA ranking created a Diversity Index for U.S. business schools that for the first time measures race, ethnicity, and gender. Photographer: Dee Dwyer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hundreds of staffers at American University in Washington, D.C., say they are planning to go on strike Monday over complaints of unfair working conditions and low wages.

The strike, which is scheduled to last for five days, comes after the university and its union did not reach an agreement on a new contract that provides employees with better wages and equity pay, according to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500.

Currently, there are 550 staff members at the university — ranging from administrative staff, counselors, advisors, technicians and coordinators — who are represented by SEIU 500. More than 91% of American University's staff voted in favor of the week-long strike, according to the union.

"Over almost two years of bargaining, the union has made multiple proposals around wages and equitable pay structures," said Pia Morrison, president of SEIU Local 500, in a statement to NPR.

"The administration's choice to walk away from negotiations and refuse to meet over the weekend gives staff little choice but to strike," Morrison added.

SEIU says they are aiming to get raises for staff totaling 9% over two years. In addition, the union has also filed unfair labor practice charges against the university.

In a statement released Sunday, President Sylvia M. Burwell said the university has been negotiating with SEIU 500 since last May, citing agreements were reached on "almost all the contract provisions."

However, the university and its union were unable to reach an agreement on the measures of compensation for its employees.

"I want to assure you that the university has negotiated in good faith. Our fair and equitable compensation proposal, which represents our best and final offer, is based on our commitment to our staff," she added.

"While we appreciate recent movement in negotiations and received the most productive offer we've seen in months — it happened because we are willing to take action," according to a tweetfrom American University's academic affairs staff union.

Kelly Jo Bahry, assistant director of AU Abroad and a member of the staff union, told The Washington Post that she's disappointed at the university's administration and its handling of the negotiations.

"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," Bahry told the Post.

In a letter to the American University community on Aug. 19, provost and chief academic officer Peter Starr emphasized that the university's current offer to the union, which includes the increase in wages for its long-serving staff, would be the largest increase in compensation in "almost a decade."

"Although we are disappointed that the union is choosing this path rather than the cooperation that has characterized our relationship with other campus bargaining units for the past decade, we recognize and respect their right to engage in legally protected union activity," Starr said in his letter.

Earlier this month, the staff union voted to authorize a strike of up to five days if an agreement in its contract was not reached by Aug. 22. Classes for the fall semester begin for students on Aug. 29.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.