Forming our graduate student union

Graduate student workers are at the heart of Duke's teaching and research mission. We wear many hats. We are researchers, instructors, teaching assistants, and mentors to undergraduate students. In these roles, we perform labor that is vital to the university, and we help ensure its top-notch reputation through our zeal, energy and talent.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board recognized graduate students as employees and voted to restore our collective bargaining rights. In doing so, they provided legal recognition of our daily experience—as workers at Duke. This ruling is a major victory, which affirms our right to form a union and to negotiate with the university, as equals, over the terms and conditions of our employment.

In many ways, our time at Duke is a richly rewarding experience. We excel in our own education and research, our work as lab assistants, and the mentorship we offer to undergraduates as instructors or teaching assistants. Yet, while diligently serving the university, so many of us are struggling.

For years, we have struggled with financial insecurity, lack of dental insurance, the burden of exorbitant continuation fees and sudden changes to our contracts and work conditions. We have watched our colleagues with families struggle as they try to cope with Duke's inadequate childcare and parental leave policies, and dependent healthcare coverage priced outside a Duke graduate student stipend. International students, who constitute approximately 30 percent of the graduate employee community, are even more financially vulnerable due to limited access to employment and loans. Some of us have experienced racial or sexual harassment in the workplace with little to no protection from the university. Many of us work ten- to twelve-hour days, every day, without recognition of the real dedication of time we give to the university.

Fundamentally, we believe that graduate student workers deserve respect, dignity and a voice in determining the conditions under which they teach, research and labor. It is with a sense of urgency that we are coming together with our fellow graduate student workers at Duke to form a union with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). At the same time, graduate students across the country are also making the choice to unionize with SEIU as part of their movement to help graduate students forward. Working together, we are convinced we can achieve fair wages and benefits, more transparent policies around work expectations, and better procedures for addressing workplace harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.

In addition to improving our experiences, unionization of graduate student workers will also benefit the wider community. Fundamentally, building a graduate student union is about returning the university to its core research and teaching mission. Over the past thirty years, colleges and universities have come to rely on poorly paid adjuncts and graduate students to fulfill basic yet critical services all while executive compensation, total administrative positions, and tuition have skyrocketed. This increasingly corporate model undermines the university's foundational purpose of advancing knowledge in the service of society.

As graduate student workers, we know that our job conditions directly determine the learning conditions of our students and the quality of our research. Healthy, stable, and financially secure graduate students are better able to teach and mentor undergraduates and to conduct research, vastly improving our educational environment. We are committed to coming together, not just to empower ourselves, but to build a better Duke for all.

Anastasia Kārkliņa (PhD Student, Literature), Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm (PhD Candidate, Biomedical Engineering), Danielle Purifoy (PhD Candidate, Environmental Policy), Friedolin Merhout (PhD Student, Sociology), Abhishek Chhetri (PhD Candidate, Biochemistry) are writing on behalf of assembled members of the Duke Graduate Students Union.


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