To Keep Grad Students From Unionizing, Duke University Wants to Change the Rules

To Keep Grad Students From Unionizing, Duke University Wants to Change the Rules

To Keep Grad Students From Unionizing, Duke University Wants to Change the Rules

After the Duke Graduate Students Union filed for an election, the university announced that it would challenge the NLRB decision from 2016 that granted graduate workers across the country the right to organize.


Earlier this month, after the Duke Graduate Students Union filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, the university initially told its graduate workers that the administration would “support the right of all eligible voters to freely consider and register their views” because, ultimately, “the decision about unionization is up to Duke students.”

We were hopeful that the administration would keep its word, adopt a neutral position, and allow a vote—as many peer institutions have done. Instead, Duke administrators confirmed that they will, in fact, attempt to roll back the landmark 2016 NLRB decision, which affirmed that graduate students at private institutions are workers with a right to unionize. “Duke’s relationship with our students is centered on education, training, and mentorship, fundamentally different from that of employer to employee,” wrote Jennifer Francis, the interim provost.

Instead of allowing its grad workers to vote, the university is hoping to obstruct workplace democracy across the country. In 2017, Duke challenged the same NLRB decision, but failed before the regional board. Its current challenge will likely meet the same fate. Duke’s only real path to prevent our unionization requires them to delay at every turn in hopes of an anti-labor Republican winning the White House in 2024 and reshaping the NLRB.

Duke likes to talk about equity, and we hoped that the university would take the opportunity to recognize our union. Unions reduce the gender wage gap along with racial and economic inequality. Having a seat at the bargaining table would improve my life and the lives of thousands of my colleagues. I recently sought gender-affirming care and, with appointments spread over multiple years, I hit my out-of-pocket maximum and then some. We are fighting for a better Duke where graduate workers with kids, those on international visas, and those with chronic health issues can contribute to cutting-edge research and world-class education without going into debt.

But our fight is not about equity at Duke alone. It is about advancing labor and racial justice across the city of Durham, where Duke is the largest employer. This is a historic moment beyond Durham, too; when we win, we’ll be the biggest union victory in North Carolina since 2008. Duke could meet the moment with partnership instead of hostility. Still, we’re seeing obstructionist delays straight out of the corporate playbook. The university has taken reputational hits for its errors before, from pulling the plug on a Triangle-wide light rail to supporting a racist administrator to consistent union-busting.

While we are among more than 45,000 graduate workers who have begun unionizing in this academic year, our union campaign is unique: We are proud to be worker-led, with no full-time staff. The administration has shown that without a contract, no promise they make to Duke workers is binding. Its efforts to undermine our movement—at the expense of their community and graduate students nationally—affirms that an employer-recognized union is more important than ever in order to reign in a seemingly unscrupulous administration. In other words, Duke’s best-resourced efforts will backfire and further cement our win.

It’s not too late for Duke to do the right thing and allow a vote. It’s up to us to bring our institution back to the right side of history. With our yes vote, we will be able to demand that Duke live up to the values of racial equity, economic justice, and participatory democracy that it espouses at the bargaining table. In doing so, we’ll demonstrate that people power and unbreakable solidarity can beat multibillion-dollar endowments and union-busting law firms.

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