This week the Supreme Court will be hearing a case that stands to profoundly affect the power of public sector unions in the United States. In Janus v. American Federations of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Supreme Court is expected to make the entire public sector right-to-work-for-less. Unions will be required to bargain for and represent non-members who pay nothing for those services. The lawsuit is backed by corporate special interests who have mounted a decades-long attack on the rights of working people. 

This case comes at a challenging time for collectively organized workers in the U.S. Just as the strength of collective bargaining is under serious threat, we need a stronger and shared understanding of how unions work, why they are important, and whom they benefit. Lucky for us, there’s an example quite close-at-hand that shows the importance and strength of union power. Today, the Duke Faculty Union, the Duke Graduate Student Union and other organizations of workers in higher education are at the leading edge of why new kinds of worker organizing are essential. 

Here at Duke, instructors across all disciplines know there can be a profound gap between what everyone assumes our working conditions to be and what we know our working conditions to be. The gap is not benign, and we need to be organized to fix it. For more than two years, representative instructors from the Arts & Sciences, the Graduate School and the Center for Documentary Studies worked with a team of union organizers, negotiators and attorneys to bring some much-needed balance back to the system. Today, as we work to implement our signed contract, we remain focused on making Duke a better place to work and learn. 

I imagine people think that bargaining a union contract might be like an especially long and complicated staff meeting. In part, this is true. We bargained ours sitting down at a table, making the case for more equitable and sustainable university employment. We made great strides. But the contract is the start of a process. It presents a new vision for university life, one that celebrates the value of teaching to a Duke University education. Still, it is a challenging undertaking, and we rely on each other to get the job done. 

We are steadfast in our commitment to changing the status quo. We know the damage it has brought to colleagues, coworkers and friends. Collective organizing and union membership are powerful mechanisms for creating change. But, in addition to that strength, articulating our demands as workers has also created new kinds of camaraderie and new spaces for generative ideas. It is helping us break down the barriers common to university life, bringing together people who would otherwise have little cause to cross paths. A new community of colleagues has emerged, a group that includes adjunct and tenure-track faculty, graduate students, staff, community members, elected officials and other unions in the area and across the state. Our goal is to take account of our diverse working experiences and invest as a collective in making them better. 

Many assume universities would not have these issues. But institutions of higher education across the country are operating under the logic of the so-called “gig” economy in their approach to teaching faculty. This comes at the expense of both teachers and students. Today, adjunct faculty are increasingly vulnerable across all of higher education. It takes courage, intelligence and passion to organize a union and collectively bargain a contract. The prevailing political conditions make it a heavier lift still. But the members of the Duke Faculty Union have done it, putting Duke in the vanguard once again. 

MJ Sharp is the Vice-President of the Duke Faculty Union. This piece was written on behalf of the Union.