Faculty, students and Durham community members gathered Monday evening to celebrate faculty unionization.
Approximately 80 people gathered at the Chapel for a victory rally following the announcement Friday that a majority of adjunct faculty voted for representation by the Service Employees International Union. Of the 203 ballots cast in the election, 174 (85.7 percent) were cast in favor of unionization and 29 against union representation.
“People who are vulnerable are never in a good position to advocate for themselves,” said MJ Sharp, an instructor in the Center for Documentary Studies, who spoke at the rally. “This is a profound opportunity for structural change. We want a University—and we voted for a University—where our colleagues teaching positions are just as important to us as our own.”
The unionization effort was led by , an organization of non-tenure track or contingent faculty. After the results are certified, the SEIU will represent approximately 300 non-regular rank, non-tenure track faculty in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Documentary Studies and the Graduate School.
Students and faculty who spoke at the rally said they hope to expand the unionization to include regular rank, non-tenure track professors—including professors of the practice, research professors and lecturers—who were excluded from the voting process after an agreement with the University was reached.
“We’re next,” said Jaybird O’berski, assistant professor of the practice in the theater department. “I’m really excited about this victory for adjunct faculty, because their concerns were especially grievous, so they needed a union the most. We’re hoping to ride the momentum and include regular-rank faculty soon.”
O’berski explained that regular-rank faculty would be their own bargaining unit with the SEIU if they were to become a part of the organization. He said that the Duke administration considers regular-rank, non-tenure track faculty as “managerial” and that if the two groups were lumped together there would be more pushback from the University.
The unionization effort garnered support from numerous community activist groups including Fight for $15, which aims to raise the minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour; The Durham People’s Alliance, a local citizen watchdog group; and UE local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union.
Additionally, the initiative previously received support from the Durham City Council, which passed a resolution March 10 to express support for Duke faculty members right to petition for greater benefits.
City Council member Jillian Johnson, Trinity ’03, remarked that higher wages for Duke faculty benefit the city by increasing the long-term investment in the community through increased job security.
“Because Duke is the biggest employer in Durham, what happens here really has a huge impact on the city,” Johnson said. “We have a group of people who are now able to have a collective voice and bargain together to try and improve their working conditions, and that is really something that the community can celebrate.”
Several speakers expressed desire to expand the unionization efforts to other campuses throughout the state and region.
Altha Cravey, associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she hopes the successful faculty unionization at Duke will inspire similar success at UNC and noted that North Carolina is a historically difficulty state for workers to organize in. She said that North Carolina is a place that is so hostile to organization that the
“This is a historic day,” Cravey said to the crowd gathered on the Chapel steps. “Your victory is a victory for workers standing together in solidarity in the U.S. South. Your victory is a victory for all working people in North Carolina. Your victory is a victory for faculty across the country.”
Junior Zoe Willingham, president of , also described the victory as a “meaningful step forward” for the Duke community, noting that she hopes it will campus become more transparent and give professors a larger voice.
Willingham also explained that she has heard that professors will focus on pushing for better pay and improved health care coverage, among other things.
Freshman Tala Fakhoury also voiced her support for the union, explaining that when she first came to Duke she had a “perfect image” of the University, but has quickly realized the difficulties many faculty face.
“Honestly, what better way is there to work on enhancing our academic experience than to start with helping our very own professors?” Fakhoury said.
Neelesh Moorthy contributed reporting.