Thursday, September 15, 2011

AUC Strike: Drums and Drama

AUC students and workers strike. Photo Credit, Al Masry Al Youm

Dear readers

In a previous post, Back to Campus Egyptian Style, I mentioned that a strike had started on Sunday, September 11, 2011 at the American University in New Cairo, where I teach public policy.

Today is Thursday, and the strike has gotten successfully bigger, more dramatic and stressful. A few days ago, the students and security guards let in all the students' cars, even those who had not paid parking fees. The result was a massive traffic pileup. I asked the bus driver to let me out, and I walked with my three year old over the sand and through Gate 4 onto campus. A kind student held one of my son's hands, and I held the other one, to make sure he did not get run over or trampled.

There are a host of constituencies and a host of demands. Among the demands are that the recent 9% increase to student tuition be reduced. The students believe it is too high. The custodians, security guards and desert landscaping crew want two days off a week, as well as a minimum wage of 2000 Egyptian Pounds (roughly 400 dollars). I am more sympathetic to the workers' demands, and less sympathetic to the students' demands.  There is no question that the workers at the university are underpaid and overworked, as I discussed in a previous post.  The Custodian Project.

Custodians at AUC make about 1100 EGP (roughly 200 dollars).  That being said, 1) the University faces a punishing deficit of over 8 million dollars 2) President Anderson increased wages of all essential workers as one of her first acts of coming into office in January and 3) AUC workers are paid far more than workers in similar positions at comparable universities. Essentially, the students and staff want the university to reduce revenues, while increasing costs. This does not work. It does not work in the United States Congress, it does not work in my house, and it won't work at AUC.

Yesterday there was a meeting in Bassily Hall. The University President, the Vice President for Planning and Finance, and the Provost were all there to answer questions. I attended that meeting. From my perspective, I felt that the President was listening and I felt that she was reasonable. She said that the University agreed that they needed more transparency in budgeting, and that they needed to resolve negotiations with striking groups such as the security guards, the custodians and the desert landscaping team more quickly. She also said they would consider freezing tuition for incoming students.  Some custodians spoke, some students spoke, and some security guards spoke. There were many faculty present, but none spoke.

At the same time as the meeting in Bassily Hall, there was a "counter-meeting," in HUSS. The students and workers set up an opposite meeting at the same time as the president's meeting. They came and got students out of our meeting, and marched towards HUSS. They were accompanied by some wonderful drum playing Folkloric Musical students. There was some fantastic drumming, a little dancing, and a lot of revolutionary spirit. It was quite a show. I felt a pang of guilt as I saw some academic colleagues walking in the other directions with the students, while I walked the other direction, towards the administration.

I am a union person, and in my heydey, when Lisa Anderson was my professor at Columbia, I participated in protests against my university. Out of solidarity, I attended the first rally on Sunday.  I cannot gainsay the students' spirit. I am really happy to see the students and workers working together. That is wonderful. I think they have some points, but I also feel really badly for the administration, which has been slashing costs, retiring and firing staff, and cutting faculty wages. I wonder if I was like this twenty years ago? Did I not listen, or try to hear the administration's perspective? Was my cause more just, and the Columbia administration less responsive? Memories.

I also want to note that the administration opened negotiations with all the constituencies, and the response of the students was to not attend the negotiations but to simply provide a written list of demands. 

Yesterday, the students occupied the administration building. There has been plenty of local news coverage of the strike, which generally exaggerates the size of the crowds. It also does not seem to be giving correct figures re salaries. The average custodian at AUC makes 1100 EGP. After deductions, that person may take home 750 EGP. It is important to note that the custodians struck in 2010, and did receive a raise at the first of 2011. 

Here is some press coverage

AUC students on strike 

AUC students and workers launch strike against soaring fees and wage cuts

Here is an email from President Lisa Anderson to the AUC Community, dated September 13, 2011. 

Dear AUC Community,

As I wrote in yesterday’s message, several members of the senior administration and I all cleared our schedules today in anticipation of meetings with each of the groups who had identified grievances and articulated demands in the protests of the last few days, as had been arranged by their representatives.

This morning, however, new sets of representatives, whose members are listed below, emerged and instead of participating in the scheduled meetings, they chose to submit sets of written requests. Over the course of the day, we reviewed each set of requests, and our responses are also outlined below.

I am pleased at the progress we have made today and applaud the skill of each of the groups in articulating a clear set of concerns. We are aware, however, that there are other groups of workers, in the library and elsewhere, whose concerns are not represented in any of these discussions, and we are committed to continuing this kind of consultation as a mechanism to identify and address shortcomings or areas in need of improvement at the University.

To allow all members of the AUC community the opportunity to discuss the current events on campus, I would like to invite you to attend what will now be our first University Forum of the year during assembly hour in Bassily Auditorium. To ensure ample time for discussion, we will hold a special extended session, from 1 to 3 pm.

Below are the representatives for each group who have identified the issues that are listed, as are the demands they brought forward and the University administration’s response.

Thank you,

Lisa Anderson
Sector Representatives

Desert Development Center: Antar Nageh, Seoudi Hassan, Khaled Eid and Hossam Mohammed
Custodial workers: Walid Shebl, Mostafa Mohallel, Nasr El Saqa, Andil Ashour and Mohamed Khamees
Students: Ahmed Ezzat, SU vice president; Mohammed Hassan, student; Ahmed Alaa, SU president; and Marrie France, student
Security: Khaled Ibrahim, Ahmed Saad, Hemya Sayeed, Mohamed Saad, Ayman Sayed Aly and Ahmed El Sayed Ahmed
Faculty adviser: Sameh Naguib, adjunct faculty, SAPE

Demands and Responses

Desert Development Center/Campus Landscape

1-   “Meal allowance of LE 200”
The monthly meal allowance of LE 200 was included in the November 2010 pay scale revision with the understanding that no additional meal allowance would be considered.

2-    “Friday and Saturday off”
All workers at the DDC currently have Friday off. Those who work on Friday do so at their request. Otherwise, official working hours for Level 2 and 3 staff are full days Sunday through Thursday, and a half day on Saturday. As long as the required 43 hour working week is met, however, working hours can be adjusted to permit staff to have longer weekend breaks. In fact, non-irrigation staff are encouraged to work these 43 hours during the five-day period Sunday through Thursday. For irrigation staff, a rotation will be established to permit individual staff members to work five days a week while ensuring that the landscape is irrigated several days a week.

3-    “Change the uniforms”
Uniforms are ordered once a year, and the uniforms for 2010-2011 were ordered in June 2011. We are looking into the possibility of canceling the order for the half of the uniforms that have not yet been received so that we can consider alternative designs. A committee composed of managers and staff will be formed by the end of this month to deliberate on alternatives that may be available within the present budget allocation.

4-    “The switch of temporary hires to permanent full-time employees”
Due to the current hiring freeze at the University, the DDC is not able to move all workers to regular employee contracts. Moreover, it is typical of any operation of this size to rely on the use of non-permanent employees in a number of areas. All staff on a temporary basis are clearly informed of their provisional status at the University when they are hired. The DDC landscape unit has a number of vacant positions presently "frozen" due to budgetary constraints. When these positions are open for recruitment, seasonal workers with appropriate experience are invited to apply for the positions. When there are applicants of equal merit, an applicant with previous successful work experience at AUC will be given preference.

5-    “Replace the bus”
The University administration has agreed to include the landscape and irrigation staff bus within its AUC administered transportation service. The contract between the DDC and the present service provider will be cancelled with appropriate notice in the next two months, and the DDC workers will be provided transportation through the University’s contractors.

6-    “Minimum wage of LE 2,000”
All DDC workers receive, at a minimum no less than LE 1,180 as a base salary, which is the market rate for landscaping and gardening workers in New Cairo. AUC reviews its pay scale periodically and makes adjustments to reflect labor market changes.

1-    “Raise the level of wages from Level 2 to Level 4”
Security guards at AUC are spread across Levels 2 to 5. The determination of level is contingent upon years of service and performance. As of September 2011, the market salary for Level 2 security officers is LE 1,320 and the market salary for Level 4 security officers is LE 2,630. To be eligible for movement to Level 4 placement, security officers must have at least 10 years of experience. All security guards at AUC who are at Level 2 have been working for the University for less than five years, and can expect to progress in the levels as they accumulate experience at the University and good performance reviews.

2-    “Return of the additional 60 hours of overtime”
In the past overtime was often used not to compensate staff who worked exceptionally long or late hours but to reward good behavior (and it was withheld to punish bad behavior). We do not believe that it is healthy or safe for staff to routinely work 60 hours of actual overtime a month and hence we are moving gradually to ensure that overtime is paid for time actually worked, and is allocated fairly and safely. Therefore, this year we have moved the individual monthly overtime limit to 48 hours, instead of 60.

3-    “Provide risk allowance”
The job specifications and requirements are reflected in the placement of the job on the appropriate level on the pay scale. All security guards receive medical and life insurance. The University regularly evaluates the risk level for each job and the market rate in determining the appropriate level.

4-    “Shift to the technical level”
There are discrepancies in the benefits packages provided to staff at the same level which are the legacy of an older and now discarded system that categorized workers as Staff A or Staff B.  We are aware of this inequity and expect that the report recommending a mechanism to rectify it will be ready by November 1, 2011.

5-    “Shift security on the buses to permanent employees”
After the January 25th revolution, the University added security guards on buses as a temporary measure, which was deemed a necessary but additional unanticipated expense. All security guards on buses were brought on with the full understanding that they are temporary employees, and that their contracts would end.

6-    “Consideration of years of experience and sequence of degrees in the hiring process”
The University deeply appreciates all members of its security force, especially those with more than a decade of dedicated service. In light of this, the University reviewed the distribution of guards across levels. Seven cases were identified of guards on Level 3, who have worked at AUC for more than 10 years and should have been on Level 4. The University will move them to Level 4, effective September 2011. In addition, 20 security guards in Levels 4 and 5, who have been working at AUC for more than 10 years, were not receiving salaries consistent with their time and level, and they will receive increases to bring them to the market value for their level (which will be above their colleagues on the same level who have less experience). To fund these increases, the University will reallocate a portion of the overtime budget and will not fill vacancies in the security office.

7-    “Return of terminated security personnel”
No security guards have been terminated this year. Several contracts have not been renewed; a decision that may reflect either performance-based issues or changing operational needs of the University. The termination of an employee, on the other hand, requires an elaborate process and the approval of not only the direct supervisor, but also the area head.

8-    “The departure of Dr. Mahmoud Zouk”
The University does not discuss the employment of specific individuals.


1-    “LE 200 for meal allowance”
The monthly meal allowance of LE 200 was included in the November 2010 pay scale revision with the understanding that no additional meal allowance would be considered.

2-    “Take Friday and Saturday off”
All custodial staff currently take Friday off. In September of 2010, Saturday was a regular workday for all custodial staff. After negotiations with custodial workers last year, the University began in November 2010 providing all workers with one Saturday off per month. This means that workers have a five-day work week once a month. AUC is now prepared to arrange an additional five-day work week in each month, thereby moving half way toward giving all custodial staff two days off and a 35-hour work week. The second day off will not be a Saturday for all workers, but will be provided on a rotating schedule to ensure the University is able to maintain the required level of custodial service on Saturday. This will be achieved through the reallocation of resources in the housekeeping unit.

3-    “Appointment of casual hire workers”
The use of temporary employees is a common management method to cover fluctuations in University needs during peak periods. All staff on a temporary basis are clearly informed of their provisional status at the University when they are hired.


1-    “Removal of 9 percent tuition fee increase for 2011-2012”
Any continuing student not able to fund his or her tuition will be provided with assistance sufficient to permit him or her to complete his or her degree. This is thanks to the larger pool of financial aid, which is about $26 million, including a recent million dollar gift earmarked for this purpose. There are still ample funds available and all students requiring assistance should apply. As explained in earlier messages, the University is not able to cancel the increase.

2-    “A ceiling on tuition fees for continuing students”
A ceiling will not be placed on tuition fees for continuing students. Once again, however, the University will ensure that no student is prevented from continuing at AUC because of financial need. Payment plans will be introduced next semester that will allow our students and parents to select from a range of more flexible payment options.

3-    “Effective representation of students during the decision-making process in strategic decisions that impact the lives of all students”
The University currently has student representation in the University Senate, including on the Senate Budget Committee, but would strongly encourage more active participation on the part of students in the decision making process. The administration reiterates a standing offer to student representatives to contribute their creative problem-solving skills in helping to address the current budget deficit. The University’s 2012 budget will be reviewed in an open forum on September 20 and the associated documents placed on the Web site. Any and all suggestions on how the University can meet its deficit and enhance its services are welcome.

4-    “Take into account the general principles of human and employee rights in matters of personnel affairs”
The University subscribes fully to all principles of fairness and human dignity in all of its practices. Any situations where policies or practices do not reflect that belief should be identified and will be remedied. 

5-    “Development of educational services at the University in order to upgrade the status and name of AUC”
Provost Medhat Haroun recently sent an e-mail to the AUC community providing an overview of the current plan to further enhance the University’s academic programs. We encourage all students to read the e-mail overview and interested students may also request a copy of the plan from the provost’s office. All comments and suggestions are welcome.

6-    “Prevent any security interference in the political activities of students”
The University’s new freedom of expression policy expressly prohibits interference in the expression of any view, political or otherwise, by anyone as long as the regular operation of the University is not disturbed.

7-    “Do not hold students accountable for absence during the protest”
All members of the AUC community, including students, are accountable for their actions and the associated consequences. Students who elect to miss class do so of their own volition and fully knowing the associated consequences. It is not consistent with the mission of the University or its level of academic excellence to expect that the administration would interfere with academic policies regarding class attendance.

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