Duke Is Fighting Formation of a Grad Student Union. Here’s What’s Going On in Durham.

Duke University isn't just fighting a union among its own grad students. It's challenging the legal status of all graduate students as workers nationwide.
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  • Duke will not recognize the graduate student union and has released two statements against graduate student unionization.
  • The union aims to be the first recognized union at a private university in the South.
  • Duke said the National Labor Relations Board's decision to allow Columbia University graduate students to unionize in 2016 was "incorrect."

Duke University's graduate student workers last week filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election to form a union. Now, the administration isn't just fighting the union, it's challenging the legal status of all graduate students across the country as workers.

Here's how unionization efforts at Duke are unfolding as the university pursues a union-busting strategy that could impact graduate student unions nationwide.

March 3 — Duke Graduate Workers File for an Election With the NLRB

The Duke Graduate Students Union (DGSU) filed for an election by delivering authorization cards from a majority of the university's Ph.D. workers to the NLRB. The union said authorizing the union would bring it one step closer to forming the first recognized graduate student union at a private university in the South.

A week prior, DGSU had delivered a letter to the Duke administration requesting recognition by a March 3 deadline, but Duke did not respond.

"We are disappointed and yet unsurprised that the administration failed to stand with its workers," Duke graduate student Lauren Jenkins said. "While Duke has a notorious history of union busting, they once again have the option of standing with their workers by recognizing our bargaining unit and moving ahead with a timely election. While we continue to hope Duke will learn from their mistakes, we will win no matter what they do."

March 6 — Duke Responds to Graduate Students' Petition to Unionize

Interim Provost Jennifer Francis sent a letter to Ph.D. students and faculty encouraging the Duke community to be well informed on the unionization issue and all eligible Ph.D. students to vote.

Francis said the graduate student community previously rejected the Service Employees International Union in 2017.

"They were correct in doing so," Francis wrote.

She acknowledged how labor unions had given employees voice and agency and recognized Duke's strong relationships with its employee unions. She said, however, that the educational context matters greatly.

The university's institutional position remains that Duke's relationship with our students is centered on education, training, and mentorship, fundamentally different from that of employer to employee," she wrote. "Ph.D. students are not admitted to do a job; they are selected because of their potential to be exceptional scholars."

She said Ph.D. students can voice concerns through faculty advisors, deans, and school leadership. If a nonacademic third party were to represent students, the productive channels for shared governance would change, Francis wrote.

In an election, the outcome will be decided by a simple majority of those who vote, despite the fact that a union would become the sole representative of all current and future Ph.D. students," she wrote. "Duke supports our Ph.D. students' development as professionals, scholars, and citizens of our scholarly community, and we hope they will — each and all — make an informed choice in this consequential matter."

March 7 — Duke Graduate and Professional Student Government Supports Unionization

Duke Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG) reissued a resolution from Sept. 20, calling for Duke to voluntarily recognize the union and maintain true neutrality by refraining from dissuading students, particularly international students, from signing union authorization cards.

GPSG alleges that a Duke-hosted website conveys false information that the Service Employees International Union Local 27 seeks to represent graduate students.

The government said that most graduate student workers are petitioning for an election to authorize a union made up of colleagues, not outsiders.

"We urge Duke University administration to remove misleading information from their website on graduate student unionization, to bargain in good faith if graduate student workers should authorize the designation of a union as their representation, and to be neutral and to not interfere with the upcoming union election," GPSG wrote.

March 10 — Duke Challenges Graduate Student Union Legality

Duke released a statement, as reported by The Raleigh News and Observer, that doubled down on its previous message that graduate students are not employees and will present evidence against it.

The university condemned the NLRB's "incorrect" decision to allow Columbia University graduate assistants to unionize in 2016, saying that a court of law did not review that decision.

Duke referenced a U.S. labor law passed in 1935, saying that graduate assistants were viewed as students, not employees, who could not unionize.

"Duke provides significant financial and programmatic support for Ph.D. students to help them reach their academic goals," Chris Simmons, Duke's interim vice president for public affairs and government relations, said in the statement. "That support is very different from an employment relationship."

The DGSU tweeted a response to Duke, saying no other peer institution has taken such a hard anti-union stance. It called for the university to stop using union-busting tactics and meet them at the bargaining table.

"... Duke's tactic threatens to reverse the immense progress won by the grad union movement since 2016," DGSU said in the Twitter thread. "We will win recognition in the end, but this transparent delay tactic is keeping us from the fair contract we deserve."

"Adequate childcare, int'l student protections, and COLA (cost-of-living-adjustments) cannot wait: we call on Duke to live up to their DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) commitments and listen to their workers."