Union-busting at Duke: a brief history

(g)rad left

This week, contingent faculty at Duke took the historic step of filing for a union election. The decision comes in response to the administration's ongoing attempts to replace stable, full-time, tenure track jobs with part-time, precarious, low-wage positions. Predictably, the burden of these policies is distributed unevenly across race and gender lines; while roughly 40 percent of Duke's teaching staff are now contingent, more than 50 percent of faculty of colorand more than 60 percent of female faculty—labor off the tenure track. As our faculty take a stand for long-term contracts, health care and fair pay, it seems an opportune moment to look back at the history of wage suppression and union-busting here at Duke, which has been chronicled by Erik Ludwig.

Our journey through history takes us back to 1963. Duke, one of the last major universities to desegregate, has just admitted its first Black undergraduate students. Restrooms on campus remain segregated; there is a separate entrance to Wallace Wade Stadium marked "colored." There are no Black faculty, administrators or trustees.

There are, however, plenty of Black workers. They are clustered in a variety of service positions, predominately housekeeping, groundskeeping and food service. Here there is segregation of a different sort—in the cafeteria, for instance, where Black women bus tables and prepare food, while white women serve as cashiers. (Managers are white and male.) Black women make an average of $0.85 per hour and Black men about ten cents more, although the federal minimum wage is $1.25. They are required to address white students as "mister" and "miss."

In 1965, Black workers on campus organize the Duke Employees Benevolent Society and affiliate as AFSCME Local 77. The administration refuses to recognize the Local and, despite modest pay raises, Black workers continue to make well below the federally-mandated minimum wage. (In the words of President Douglas Knight, "it is far more important both for the University and the region to make certain that salaries continue to rise for more skilled people than [for] those who receive minimum compensation"). Meanwhile, Duke launches an ambitious $200 million construction and renovation project.

In 1966, two Black maids associated with the union effort are fired without cause. Shirley Ramsey, the first Black worker to be promoted to the position of cashier, is also dismissed. Despite this, the organizing effort continues. In 1967, Local 77 launches a five-day picket. More than 200 students and faculty join the workers' picket line. In response, President Knight announces a ban on "disruptive" demonstrations and a "No Solicitation Policy" forbidding union discussion in work areas on campus.

Undaunted, Local 77 plans an all-strike of university service workers for the first full week of April 1968. Then, on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr. is killed.

The ensuing "Silent Vigil" is often portrayed as a spontaneous, student-led protest. In reality, it was the product of many years of planning, organizing and coalition building by Black workers (and primarily Black women). True, more than 2,000 students camped out on the quad—the largest demonstration in Duke's history. What is often overlooked, however, is that they did so in support of a general strike of Black housekeepers, groundskeepers and cafeteria employees (later joined by white service workers) that brought university operations to a standstill. In the face of this, President Knight finally acceded to the demand for a minimum wage, although it would be five more years before Local 77 achieved union recognition.

This victory, one of the first for the union movement on campus, would also be among its last. If workers had learned new lessons from these long years of struggle, the administration had as well. Multiple subsequent attempts of Duke University Hospital workers to unionize would be beaten back by the administration's forceful anti-union efforts, including firing and intimidating workers suspected of union sympathies and hiring anti-union consultants to the tune of some $500 per day. (In contrast, many hospital workers were still paid only minimum wage.)

Getting back into our time machine and setting the dial for 2016, what looks different now than in 1968? Many things have changed. We no longer have segregated bathrooms or a "colored" entrance to the stadium. Our student body is considerably more diverse. We have some Black administrators and Black faculty. We have three Black trustees.

On the other hand, the majority of workers of color on campus continue to be clustered in a few sectors—primarily housekeeping, groundskeeping and food service. Today only 3 percent of tenured faculty are Black (and only 9 percent of administrators). Meanwhile, almost 84 percent of non-exempt service workers are Black and Latin@. Local 77 still exists, and some of our service workers benefit from it. Most, however, do not—including hospital workers as well as part-time, temporary and contract campus workers. These non-unionized workers are paid as little as $7.25 an hour, lack benefits and are frequently fired every summer, even after working at Duke for many years. Meanwhile, the University continues to remain less concerned with fair wages than with multi-million dollar construction projects.

Unionization cannot fully resolve the problem of race, class and gender inequality, but it's a very good place to start. Studies repeatedly show that unionization reduces both the racial and gender wage gap by more than half. Nor are the benefits merely material; at a conversation on campus diversity early last week, members of the California Faculty Association explained how their union achieved significant gains, including developing "unconscious bias" tools for hiring committees which led to significant increases in staff and faculty diversity across ranks. Building strong unions both helps to increase diversity within ranks and to narrow the wealth gap between them.

Perhaps the most striking difference between 1968 and 2016, however, is the pervasive apathy of today's campus culture. In 1968, more than 2,000 students protested in solidarity with the demands of campus workers for racial, social and economic justice. Where are such students today?

Bennett Carpenter is a graduate student in the literature department. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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