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Closing in on the plantation

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Living wages and impartial arbitration of grievances—those were the key demands of Duke service workers and allies in 1968, and those are our core demands today.

In a January 1968 newsletter titled "Local 77 Closing in on Plantation System," members of the nascent AFSCME Local 77 proudly proclaimed that these demands were close to being met. 50 years on, we are still fighting to ensure decent wages and work conditions for all Duke employees and contract workers; an end to harassment, intimidation and discriminatory hiring and firing; and a fair, transparent and impartial arbitration process. Today, Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity uplift the memory of those who have come before us and reiterate our commitment to continue their work until we #DismantleDukePlantation.

The hit-and-run committed by Executive Vice President Tallman Trask—and the two-year cover-up involving Vice President Kyle Cavanaugh and the Duke University Police Department, among others—is merely the prominent tip of a very deep iceberg. Over the past few years, at least eight parking and transportation employees have filed complaints of discrimination with Duke's Office of Institutional Equity; none received any form of redress.

Employees who have been the victim of harassment or discrimination—or of vehicular assault, as in the case of Shelvia Underwood—have three institutional mechanisms through which to seek recourse: DUPD, OIE and Human Resources. Yet DUPD and HR report directly to Kyle Cavanaugh, while OIE possesses an intimate relation with the latter; Cavanaugh, of course, reports directly to Tallman Trask. We cannot expect the same administrators who have themselves committed such discriminatory acts to adjudicate cases of racial and other discrimination.

The "impartial" grievance proceedings currently in place at Duke were crafted in response to the struggles of service workers in the 1960s and '70s as a way to control and contain their movement for dignity, justice and self-determination. These proceedings are not impartial and never were. On October 24, 1966, to take but one example, 42 maids (all black women) submitted grievances in a joint effort. The administration insisted on adjudicating all cases individually to stave off the threat of collective action and to conceal the deep structural nature of racial abuse and discrimination at Duke. "All 42 grievances," as Duke Research Fellow Erik Ludwig noted, "were turned down at the second or third steps; none even reached the highest stage."

The current grievance proceedings are thus not broken, they are functioning exactly as intended—to protect the reputation of the institution at the price of further disenfranchising our predominantly black and brown service staff. This is why we cannot accept President Brodhead's proposal to set up yet another internal task force to examine cases of workplace abuse, harassment and discrimination. Without a fair, impartial, external investigation by labor counsel approved by Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity, these cases, which have been amply documented for the past 50 years, will persist for another 50.

There are some who agree with these aspects of our demands but see no connection between impartial grievances and a living wage. Those who fail to grasp the deep connection between persistent discrimination and racialized income inequality need to wake up, take a AAAS class or crack open a book. Poverty wages are the expression of structural racism. As The Rev. William Barber II put it after one of multiple (failed) attempts to pray with the students inside the Allen Building, "It took us 400 years to get from zero—that's slavery—to $7.25. What do you want us to do, wait another 400?"

Nor do we have patience for those who claim that living wages will drive up tuition while remaining conspicuously silent about the university's $500 million construction boom and the bloated salaries of an ever-expanding administrative class. As the recent (and successful) Duke Teaching First campaign so compellingly highlighted, university administration has consistently prioritized bells and whistles—and their own paychecks—over core services such as teaching. We believe that housekeeping, groundskeeping, transportation and food preparation are core services and that living wages for all campus workers are both necessary and financially viable. If a small business like Monuts Donuts can pay a living wage, then Duke (with a $7 billion endowment and a $2.2 billion annual operating budget) can do so too.

The administration claims it has a current wage floor of $12 per hour and that it is working on requiring its contractors to pay the same. Duke has been "working on" this commitment for almost 10 years, since a 2007 agreement with Durham CAN, without any progress. Furthermore, we know from conversations with campus workers that many direct employees of the university—including part-time, temporary, seasonal and student workers—fail to receive Duke's stated minimum, despite the administration's repeated assertions to the contrary.

The current living wage for Durham county is $12.53 per hour, according to the Durham Living Wage Campaign. Due to ongoing gentrification (itself partially a product of the University's development strategy) this figure is only going to increase. In light of this, we believe our demand for a $12.53 hourly minimum for all workers (including contract workers) by December 2016 and a phased-in $15 wage by fiscal year 2019-20 is eminently reasonable.

Meanwhile, the disconnect between administration and DSWS was driven home by a conversation I had with Dean Sue Wasiolek on Friday evening in which she expressed her relief that, now that students have exited the Allen Building, the university needs to deal with the tents.

Our campaign has highlighted deep structural issues of racism, poverty wages and unlawful abuse and discrimination, and administration thinks the next step is dealing with the tents? This university has 99 problems, but the tents ain't one.

I told Dean Sue that the tents will remain until the university fulfills its commitment to good-faith negotiations with our movement. Gazing out over Abele Quad, where students and workers were at that moment singing, dancing and celebrating, Dean Sue asked, "But how do we negotiate with a movement?"

That is something this administration had better start to figure out.

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


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