Duke grad students continue unionization efforts without recognition from administration

By: - March 9, 2023 3:00 pm
Duke University graduate student workers rally for union recognition.

Duke University grad students are pushing forward with their campaign to unionize, despite the administration declining to voluntarily recognize and negotiate with their union.

As Policy Watch has reported, the Duke Graduate Students Union filed for a union election last Friday.

In a Monday e-mail to doctoral students and faculty, Interim Provost Jennifer Francis said Duke negotiates and has good relationships with a number of unions, including the Duke Faculty Union and  Duke University Press Workers Union. But the university looks at its relationship with its students differently, she wrote.

“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,” Francis wrote.

“Ph.D. students are not admitted to do a job,” she wrote. ” They are selected because of their potential to be exceptional scholars. The experience of teaching and conducting research is designed to prepare them for a multitude of careers in classrooms, laboratories, industry, and non-profits — a model that has served generations of graduate students well.”

Though Duke isn’t voluntarily recognizing the union, enough graduate students have declared their intention to unionize that the issue will head to a National Labor Relations Board certified election later this month. If enough students vote for unionization, Duke will be legally required to recognize and bargain with the union – a first for a student union at a private college or university in the South.

The university’s decision not to voluntarily recognize the union has only strengthened support for it among both graduate students and the wider community, union representatives said in a statement Thursday.

“Duke grad workers newly signed authorization cards and inquired about becoming involved in organizing,” they said in the statement “Statements of support from alumni and allies urging Duke admin to cease their opposition including from the Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG), Duke alumni, Duke Law students, concerned non-Duke academics, the Durham Association of Educators, and Durham City Council.”

“We would have preferred Duke admin respond to our efforts by voluntarily recognizing us, as Brown University and NYU administrators chose to, or with neutrality like the recent decision at Syracuse,” they said in the statement. “But in light of the outpouring of support this week, we are more confident than ever that we will join the ranks of peer institutions that earned formal recognition with overwhelming majorities of graduate student workers – nearly 45,000 nationwide – saying union yes in the face of anti-union rhetoric.”

Last year, Policy Watch reported on the problem of graduate students – especially International students – trying and failing to live on the stipends provided by their universities. Many reported relying on food banks to eat and struggling to pay for housing, transportation and basic medical expenses.

The unionization efforts at Duke are part of national trend. Graduate student worker unions have seen recent election victories at Yale, Boston University, Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.

The interim provost’s e-mail has only galvanized the movement, said Anita Simba, a graduate worker in Biology and co-chair of the union campaign, in a Thursday statement.

“Despite that email’s intentions, this week has been a win for the DGSU,” Simba said. “As we work towards our election – which we have requested be held in March so that graduate student parents do not have to wait any longer for improved childcare, and that graduate renters in this skyrocketing market can afford to renew their leases in the spring – will continue to hold out hope that the administration will change course and recognize the contributions its workers make by recognizing the DGSU.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.