The independent news organization of Duke University

Letter to the editor

As a leader in higher education that proclaims to uphold values of free speech, democracy, and justice, Duke University ought to be leading the way in supporting workers’ right to organize. I am outraged that President Brodhead chose to contradict our university’s stated values by diverting funds to fight graduate student assistants who are coming together to form a union.

In an email, President Brodhead wrote that “the university will in no way intrude upon the right of any individual voter to consider this issue,” in reference to the Duke Graduate Students Union. At the same time, behind closed doors, Brodhead chose to hire Proskauer Rose, a prestigious—and expensive—law firm based in New York City, to challenge unionizing graduate students. Proskauer Rose is well-known for their union-busting, having accrued an infamous record using aggressive tactics against graduate student unions at Yale, Columbia and New York University.

As an undergraduate, I am disappointed and angry that President Brodhead is using our tuition money to fight the graduate student assistants who help make Duke such an outstanding place to live and learn. Proskauer Rose partners are paid between $725 and $1475 per hour—money that could be diverted to scholarships, service to the broader Durham community or research. By diverting university resources to union-busting lawyers, President Brodhead has made us all complicit in his actions. We can’t pretend that, as undergraduates, his decision doesn’t affect us. There’s no neutral stance to take.

As a student in the humanities, my teaching assistants lecture just as well—if not better—on Martin Heidegger and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as many of my tenured professors. In my philosophy class, graduate assistants provide specialized knowledge where the teacher may not be as well-versed; they’re a different perspective, an additional lens of analysis. Though many of them do not have an office, they’re ready to meet with us at our convenience, committed to helping us out with our papers and readings.

A union would mean that these graduate students—who spend time helping and instructing us every day—would be able to better bargain for increased wages and better healthcare; they would be able to fight workplace harassment and inadequate childcare. They would find a place at the bargaining table, somewhere to voice their concerns, a channel to enact change.

Brodhead, in his email, writes that, because “graduate students are not selected to join the university community on the basis of their aptitude [as teaching assistants, lab assistants, graders, instructors, and section leaders]” that “Duke’s relationship with its graduate students is quite different from that of employer to employee.” But, fundamentally, Duke makes money off its graduate students—their research and their help in undergraduate classes. Is this not what makes a worker? And why should a non-traditional employer to employee relationship preclude the right of graduate students to express their concerns through a union?

Besides, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that graduate students in private universities have the right to collectively bargain. Harvard University has already agreed to a fair process for its graduate student assistants to vote for a union. Duke is not unique.

For a more just campus and atmosphere, we need to support the graduate students in their fight for a union. When Duke uses our tuition money to combat a union campaign, we can’t stand idly by. We interact with these graduate students on a day-to-day basis, and we must speak up to defend their campaign for fairness and respect on campus.

- Caroline Waring, Trinity ‘20


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