Graduate students will be able to vote in a union election throughout the month of February.
In response to a push by the not yet legally recognized Duke Graduate Students Union to formally unionize, the University contested their ability to do so with the National Labor Relations Board. However, the NLRB ruled Wednesday that the students could in fact unionize, setting the stage for an election next month.
Scott Barish—a Ph.D. student in cell and molecular biology and member of DGSU—wrote in an email that the mail-in ballot election will start Jan. 31 with ballots being counted Feb. 21.
"We are very excited that the NLRB affirmed that graduate student workers at Duke should be considered employees as well as students, therefore allowing us to move ahead with our election," Barish wrote. "We are also pleased that the election will take place as a mail-in ballot as this will allow the largest number of graduate student workers to vote including those on field study who are away from campus."
DGSU formed last August in response to a nationwide NLRB decision that "student assistants" at private universities could unionize, overturning prior rulings to the contrary. The University has criticized this ruling, arguing that unionization would be detrimental to student interests.
"The NLRB decision doesn’t recognize the fact that students who engage in research and teaching as part of their programs of study are very different than employees," wrote Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations, at the time of the NLRB’s August decision. "They are vital members of the academic community with quite different relationships to their professors than an employee has to a supervisor."
Although he did not take a position on the union itself, Marcus Benning, president of the Graduate Student and Professional Council, said it is not surprising the unionization push is happening at this time. Benning argued that communication issues—both between administrators as well as between administrators and students—led to the movement.
"It's my opinion that this is the administration's own doing," he said. "The first reason is that administrators have neglected the graduate student experience for so long that they've left them with no other option than to seek a third-party advocate."
The University, however, has emphasized that providing opportunities to graduate students is a priority.
"Duke has made significant investments in stipends, insurance and other benefits to enhance their educational experience, not for the purpose of hiring or retaining them as employees," Schoenfeld wrote in August.
After the union election was officially filed, the University attempted to argue to the NLRB that DGSU should not be able to unionize, finally leading to Wednesday's ruling. In an email to the graduate student body, Paula McClain, dean of the Graduate School, noted that, although the University disagreed with the NLRB's ruling, every eligible voter should make an effort to participate.
The election's outcome will be determined by a majority of those who vote rather than a majority of those eligible to vote, she explained, adding that all current and future graduate students will be impacted by the decision.
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Last November, students gathered outside of the Allen Building to protest Duke's hiring of Proskauer Rose, LLP, which they claimed was University interference with the unionization process. In response, Schoenfeld insisted that there would be no interference with the ability to vote, but that the University was still entitled to express its viewpoint on the matter.
Opposition to the unionization drive from some graduate students has also emerged. The group Students Against Duke Unionization has argued that the "bargaining unit" encompasses too many disparate disciplines and that student unionization has not been fully studied. For example, several members have suggested Ph.D. students in humanities disciplines have different needs than those in grant-based or engineering labs.
"We had hoped for a different ruling and for the bargaining unit to change so that uninterested students would not be forced into this," wrote Kate Marusak, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering and member of SADU. "Since that is not the case we want to encourage every student to vote so that others are not speaking for us."
Marusak also wanted to note that SADU was not against unionization in general or even at Duke, just that more time was needed to establish a better union than the one proposed.
During the course of the NLRB hearing, the "bargaining unit"—or those actually eligible to vote in the election—changed. Although DGSU was initially planning to include master's students in the election, they dropped that demand in response to University concerns. Now, only doctoral students are eligible to vote and take part in the union, Barish noted.
"We do however support the right of master's students to organize if they wish to do so," he wrote.
Editor's note: This article was updated Thursday at 6:00 p.m. to include comments from Benning, and at 10:00 p.m. to include comments from Marusak.