Duke University graduate student workers push for recognition of union

By: - February 28, 2023 10:00 am

Graduate student workers at Duke University in Durham are joining a wave of students at other prominent private universities in unionizing. After a rally late last week, they are waiting for the university administration to formally recognize the union and begin negotiations on a first contract.

Duke University graduate student workers rally for union recognition.

“When we gain recognition, [Duke Graduate Students Union] will be one of the largest union workforces in North Carolina, in one of the least unionized states in the country” said union co-chairs Anita Simha and Matt Thomas in a statement Tuesday. “What’s more, we’ll be one of the first graduate worker unions in the South. This is a historic moment for our state, our community, and the rights of the workers who live here. We hope Duke recognizes that and does the right thing.”

A majority of the university’s approximately 2,500 PhD student workers have signed union authorization cards, declaring their desire to join Service Employees International Union Southern Region Local 27. If Duke’s administration recognizes the union, a third party will verify majority support. If the university refuses, graduate workers can file for a National Labor Relations Board election. The students have asked for a reply from the university by Friday, March 3.

Student workers say the union is necessary to begin addressing long-standing issues of workplace harassment, pay, transportation, international student protections, and healthcare access.

“Everyone here is fighting for something, and we are all fighting for everyone,” said Kristina Mensik, a first year graduate student in the Political Science department. “A living wage, comprehensive healthcare, and workplace equity: we all know our platform is common sense, and Duke knows it too. Gaining a seat at the table is the way to make it a reality.”

“For the 2022-2023 school year,
40.1% of Duke’s PhD population is formed of international grad workers,” said Duke graduate worker Jaeyeon Yoo, a second year Literature student, in a statement. “Even though we are dependent on the university for the right to live and work in this country, we are often the least-protected demographic.”

“Unlike U.S. citizens, we’re not allowed to earn additional income to supplement our stipends, and are often living in a state of legal precarity,” she said. “It’s crucial that international grad workers have a union to protect our rights – we’re an indispensable part of the Duke community.”

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.

At last week’s rally 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.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

“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.”

Universities not just in the northeast but midwest and western states are well ahead of Duke on this issue. Graduate student worker unions have seen recent election victories at Yale, Boston University, Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.

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

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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.