Opinion

Engineering faculty express concerns about unionization of all graduate students

With the recent filing of the union petition, a group of engineering students has realized that they cannot just sit this out and wait for it to blow over. These students have done their research, and reached the conclusion that a campus-wide union of all graduate students: meaning Ph.D. and master's students from every department in The Graduate School would be quite detrimental to them. Some of these students expressed disappointment that some faculty (primarily from non- STEM fields, and with none from engineering) would throw their weight behind this movement without considering the negative impacts that it can have on large groups of students. These students have reached out to us, their faculty, and asked for our support in their cause: retaining their right to control their academic status, and the freedom to do their research in the way that best meets their needs.

We are not opposed to unions in general—they are an important tool for oppressed workers with common interests to band together and have their needs met. However, key in that is that they must have common interests: they must do similar jobs, with similar needs. If you have a union of airline pilots, they all do basically the same job, and need basically the same compensation, working conditions, and rules. Likewise, if you have a union of factory workers, they can form an effective union as they all have similar jobs and similar needs. However, what would happen if you tried to have one union with pilots and factory workers? Their jobs and needs are drastically different, so they cannot work together towards the same ends.

Now, consider the overly broad union being pushed by SEIU: every Ph.D. and master's student from every department in The Graduate School. They want to form a union which combines electrical engineers, chemists, philosophers, musicians, political scientists, historians, and dozens of other disciplines into one union. As if that breadth were not concerning enough, they want to include both PhD and Masters students into a “one size fits none” contract. None of these roles look at all similar, so it is difficult to see how this varied group can work together—and this is one of the concerns that several engineering students have expressed: that their needs will be drowned out and voted down in a sea of students with dissimilar roles, dissimilar needs, and little to no common interest with them. These concerns are only magnified by the actions of the students organizing the union, who have torn down and defaced signs which these engineering students have put up, attempting to silence their viewpoint.

Beyond the grave concerns as to how functional or dysfunctional this union would be, there remains the question as to exactly what the students hope to achieve from this dire step, how realistic those hopes are, and how well informed (or mis-informed) they are in making this decision. One student approached a faculty member and said “I signed my union card, when do I get my raise”—showing a grave misunderstanding of what they had done and how collective bargaining works. Other students have expressed fears and concerns rooted in misinformation that has spread through the rumor mill.

If a union is voted in for Duke Graduate Students—and given the rising opposition, that is a bigger “if” by the day—What the pro-union students do not seem to realize is that everything goes back to “zero.” Meaning, when you are negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with an employer, just because you “had” some pay, benefit, or working condition before the union come on the scene, does not mean you will continue to have it—everything is up for negotiation! And it often takes years to get a first contract.

We need to be more vigilant about correcting this misinformation, and to that end, I would like to take a moment to bring some data to bear on the issue of PhD student stipends. Our stipend rates are actually quite good. Just how good? The graph attached shows Ph.D. student stipend rates at various major universities (including the other two in RTP) adjusted for Cost Of Living (i.e., expressed in terms of purchasing power in Durham). For some universities, there was a range expressed in the information I could easily find, so both the low and high end of the range is shown. This list is obviously not complete, but represents what I could easily find on Google with a bit of work.

Adjusted for COL, Duke’s stipends are the highest on this (obviously incomplete, but accounting for several major schools) list. Of particular note, is NYU. This is one of the universities where the efforts of a union (which I will note does NOT include the sciences or engineering!) are touted as an example of the effectiveness of student unionization. Even without adjusting for COL, their stipend is $26,789 this year—less than what Duke students earn!

Lastly, I get the impression (especially from some signs I have seen on campus lately) that many of you do not understand that a legal contract—the to-be-negotiated collective bargaining agreement— must be followed exactly. We can’t make exceptions even in nice ways—doing so exposes us to legal liability. Some signs have claimed that if the contract has hours restrictions, students who want to can just ignore them. That is not how a union contract works–everyone has to follow the rules exactly. Even if a student wanted to agree to some other terms (“I agree to work more hours!”) that student cannot enter into such an agreement, as unionization removes the student’s right to negotiate his/her own working conditions.

Now, we recognize there are students who feel like they are in a bad enough situation that they need to have SEIU’s lawyers come protect them. To those students, first, you have our sympathy for whatever problems you are having. Your advisor and DGS should be looking out for your interests, and I hope you have talked to them about whatever concerns and problems you have. However, before you envelop all grad students in a one-size-fits-none agreement to try to solve those problems, we would ask that you genuinely listen to the students who have a different viewpoint. Discuss the situation with them. Take their concerns seriously. Remember that there are always trade-offs. Think carefully about all the consequences—not just for yourself, but your fellow students from other fields—of what you are contemplating doing. And ultimately, ask yourself i f you and every other Ph.D. and master's student across the entire Graduate School can agree on what you need so much, that you are willing to give up your rights to your own control of your academics and relationship in exchange for SEIU’s lawyers crafting a contract for you?

Dr. Martin Brooke, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Krishnendu Chakrabarty, Professor and DGS, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Leslie Collins, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Richard Fair, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Aaron Franklin, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Warren Grill, Professor, Biomedical Engineering
Dr. Kris Hauser, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Drew Hilton, Assistant Professor of the Practice and DGS, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. William Joines, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Benjamin Lee, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Willie Padilla, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Miroslav Pajic, Assistant Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Rebecca Simmons, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Mechanical Engineering and Material Sciences Dr. Neal Simmons, Associate Professor of the Practice, Mechanical Engineering and Material Sciences Dr. Daniel Sorin, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Gregg Trahey, Professor, Biomedical Engineering & Medical Physics Program
Dr. Kishor Trivedi, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering


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