Duke Ph.D. students vote to unionize, bargain collectively with university

By: - August 22, 2023 5:05 pm
A sign reads "We Won! 88% voted yes for DGSU"

Image: Screen grab from the Twitter account of the Duke Grad Union.

Ph.D students at Duke University in Durham voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing Tuesday, the result of a years-long campaign to bargain collectively with the university. When the election is certified, the graduate student workers will form the first graduate union at a private university in the South and one of the largest unions in North Carolina.

“I’m thrilled to see graduate workers at Duke come together for this union victory,” said Jaeyeon Yoo, Union co-secretary and third year student in Literature, in a statement Tuesday. “Graduate workers made sure their ballots were in and their voices were heard. That’s because our needs – things like a living wage, grievance procedures, and comprehensive healthcare – cannot wait!”

As NC Newsline reported earlier this year, a majority of the university’s approximately 2,500 Ph.D. student workers signed union authorization cards, declaring their desire to join Service Employees International Union Southern Region Local 27. The university declined to voluntarily recognize the union, leading graduate workers to file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.

When mail-in votes were tallied Tuesday, 88%of ballots were in favor of the union – 1,000 votes for the union to just 131 against.

As North Carolina is a “Right to Work” state, membership and dues in the graduate student workers’ union will be voluntary, just as it is with faculty and staff unions at the university.

“PhD students are our colleagues, and I’m delighted to have DGSU join the family of unions here at Duke,” said Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy, in a statement Tuesday. “Duke works because its workers – including graduate students – do, and I am certain that better working conditions for them will enhance the undergraduate experience and improve the university for all of us who learn, teach, and work here.”

Student workers say the union is necessary to begin addressing long-standing issues of workplace harassment, pay, transportation, international student protections and healthcare access. In addition to tuition, their stipends pay on average $38,600 per year – just over the minimum living wage in Durham. The university points out that salary is for 20 hours per week and doesn’t factor in the value of tuition and health insurance.

Getting by on those stipends is particularly hard for the just over 40% of Duke Ph.D. workers who, as international students are prohibited from taking on other work while in the U.S. on a student visa.

“We are back on campus and ready to start negotiating with Duke – it’s time for them to come to the table with us!” said Kerry Eller, Union co-chair and third year student in Biomedical Engineering, in a statement Tuesday. “Duke is a union campus and I’m so proud to join other unions here including AFSCME Local 77, Duke Teaching First, Duke University Press Workers Union, and ATU Local 1328. All of us are facing the same cost of living increases and rising rent in Durham, and bargaining can help us secure a dignified workplace and a living wage.”

Graduate students at Duke, most of whom do research work or teach classes at the university, have been trying to unionize for years. The last attempt, in 2017, failed when 691 voted against the union and 398 in favor. Another 502 ballots were challenged or impounded by the NLRB over questionable eligibility.

Since then, a wave of pro-union sentiment has swept the nation’s colleges and universities. Graduate student worker unions have seen election victories at Yale, Boston University, Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.

Prominent Duke alumni from North Carolina have for months weighed in on the unionization efforts as they headed toward Tuesday’s vote.

In February, the Rev. William Barber, former head of the N.C. NAACP and new leader of Yale University’s Center for Public Theology & Public Policy, encouraged Duke to recognize and begin bargaining with the union.

“It’s time to allow this labor union vote to go through without any tricks,” said Barber, who earned his Master of Divinity degree at Duke. “You ought to be ashamed that schools in the north are ahead of you in the South. You ought to be leading the South. You ought to be leading the nation. You ought to be leading the way.”

“These students are not going anywhere,” Barber predicted. “They are going to win. In fact, Duke, you ought to be encouraging it.”

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

Under state law students at private universities like Duke can vote to unionize, but students at public universities cannot.

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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.