Duke University Ph.D. Students Vote to Unionize

The Ph.D. students voted 1,000 to 131 in favor of officially unionizing. This includes Ph.D. students and students employed to instruct undergraduate or graduate-level courses or labs.
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Published on August 24, 2023
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  • Duke said the outcome will affect all 2,127 eligible Ph.D. students who hold teaching or research appointments.
  • National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Lisa Y. Henderson listed several arguments that consider Ph.D. students as employees.
  • Duke said it looks forward to working with the Southern Region Workers United to enhance the graduate experience at the university.
  • Duke University previously opposed graduate student unionization and questioned the legality of it.

Duke University Ph.D. students voted overwhelmingly Aug. 22 in favor of unionizing — forming the first graduate student union in the South.

Duke announced that of the 1,145 ballots cast, 1,000 voted to unionize, while 131 voted against being represented by the Southern Region Workers United. The remaining 14 ballots were not counted because of eligibility questions about the voters who cast them.

The vote affects all 2,127 eligible Ph.D students who teach or hold research appointments.

"Duke has always cared deeply about our graduate students," Provost Alec Gallimore said in a university press release announcing the unionization. "We look forward to working with representatives from Southern Region Workers United on the shared goal of making the graduate experience at Duke the very best it can be."

In July, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided in a July 10 ruling that Duke University Ph.D. students can unionize and approved their petition to hold a union vote. The NLRB mailed ballots to the grad students on July 24.

The July 10 ruling includes all students who are working toward Ph.D. degrees and those who are employed to instruct undergraduate or graduate-level courses or labs. It does not include students at Duke Kunshan University and Duke-NUS Medical School or students not working toward a Ph.D. degree.

Regional Director Lisa Y. Henderson listed several arguments in the NLRB decision that consider Ph.D. students as university employees.

Henderson wrote that teaching assistants (TAs), graders, and humanities research assistants (RAs) reduce the faculty's workload by performing duties faculty would have to do; Ph.D. teachers eliminate the need for a faculty member; and RAs do many tasks non-student staff would do.

"The amounts are reported on a W-2 as regular income, and students must provide I-9 employment verification. Duties are referred to as 'work,' and although the Employer may prefer the term 'service,' those duties are mandatory," Henderson wrote.

The Duke Graduate Student Union petitioned the NLRB to unionize on March 3. Duke released a statement, reported by The Raleigh News and Observer, challenging the legality of graduate student unionization.

Duke previously condemned the NLRB for allowing graduate student unionization in a 2016 decision to allow Columbia University graduate assistants to unionize.

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