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Background Information

This background information about unionization and unions at American University is provided for non-supervisory staff within the bargaining unit, to make an informed choice about voting if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) holds an election for representation by the union.

A union is a private organization that represents a group of employees in their dealings with their employer. The group the union represents is called a “bargaining unit.” The union negotiates with the employer over terms and conditions of employment, such as wages, benefits, schedules, and promotional opportunities.

Currently, SEIU Local 500 represents adjunct faculty and graduate assistants on campus. There are currently no staff unions, but an election has been scheduled for union representation by SEIU Local 500 for non-supervisory staff in the Provost’s division.

We want to provide you with all of the information about unions so that you can make an informed choice about voting if the NLRB holds an election for eligible AU staff to decide if they want to be represented by the union.

Yes. The University has had several staff unions in the past, for small groups of the staff. The staff in most of these groups voted the union out after a few years.

No, American University is not anti-union. It did not oppose the decisions of the adjunct faculty or the graduate student employees to be represented by SEIU Local 500. AU and SEIU Local 500 have had a constructive relationship since 2013.

Staff constitute an integral part of the University’s academic mission and the University respects their right to decide whether union representation is in their best interests. 

The University encourages every staff member to become knowledgeable about what unionization would mean, consider the pros and cons, make an informed decision, and vote.

In a unionization election, the outcome will be decided by a simple majority of those who cast ballots, even if only a minority of staff members vote. For example, if the proposed bargaining unit has 500 employees but only 100 of them vote in the election, the majority vote of those 100 will decide will determine the status of unionization for all 500. In this example, the “yes” vote of some 51 staff could decide the election for staff covered by the bargaining unit. This makes it critical that all eligible staff members engage in the process.

The timeframe is being driven by the union and staff organizers. The union decides when to petition the NLRB for an election. 

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) grants employees the right to form, join, or assist labor organizations, or to refrain from so doing. It sets out who is covered by the law, how the parties must participate in the bargaining process, and puts the NLRB – an independent federal agency – in charge of enforcing the law. The NLRA applies to all organizations whether or not there is currently a union at that organization, and states that neither an employer nor a union may interfere with, intimidate, restrain, coerce, or discriminate against an employee because the employee has exercised rights granted under the law or refused to do so.

Employees have the right to organize, form, join, or assist any employee organization. They have the right to bargain collectively or engage in concerted activity for collective bargaining. They also have the right to refrain from engaging in any of these activities, although if a union wins an election, all the members of the bargaining unit, whether they voted for, against, or didn’t vote at all, are in the union.

Absolutely not. On this matter, as in all matters, the University is firmly committed to freedom of expression and freedom of association. It recognizes the right of staff to engage in concerted activity to advance their common interests. Under no circumstances will the University take adverse action against a staff member for exercising those rights.

In addition, as a matter of federal law, the NLRA protects individuals from retaliation for their advocacy either for or against unionization.

It would depend on what is included in the collective bargaining agreement. Staff within the bargaining unit will be represented by an outside organization (the union) for purposes of negotiating a uniform set of employment terms and conditions, including pay, benefits, promotions, and grievances.

Currently, staff can communicate directly and individually with the administration regarding working conditions and can also work with Staff Council and other existing staff committees within individual schools and colleges to address their unique circumstances. A union would create an alternative structure for the represented staff, with rules that could limit flexibility, including limiting direct talks with AU management and the use of existing processes and structures. Problems and concerns regarding terms and conditions of employment would run through a shop steward or union committee rather than a manager, Staff Council, or AU-sponsored project teams, such as the Benefits Advisory Committee.

This potentially sets up two sets of rules for wages, benefits, complaints, promotions, and other terms and conditions of employment – one for represented staff and one for non-unionized staff.

For example, it is possible that, as a result of the collective bargaining agreement, the administration would no longer be able to discuss pay or benefits directly with staff covered by the union. The union would be involved in all complaints and grievances. Likewise, alternate rules could be implemented that dictate how staff in the bargaining unit are selected, promoted, or evaluated.

Who has to pay dues?

Typically, everyone in the bargaining unit pays the union for the representation it provides or chooses not to join the union and pays an agency fee that covers operational costs, including salaries and expenses for union personnel. The amount of dues is set unilaterally by the union. The dues for AU’s adjunct faculty and graduate students are $17.50 to $20.00 per bi-weekly pay period.

If you have questions or feedback for American University regarding staff unionization, email