Voting 'yes' in Duke University’s union struggle, a microcosm of our political age

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This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

A Decision, a Drive

In a “right to work” state and with a looming Trump administration, some students at Duke University are trying to move forward to form one of the most prominent graduate student unions in the country and build labor in a critical region. While this drive has raised hopes for better working conditions and administration accountability, administrative intervention and bitter feelings from union turf wars past have dogged the effort. The Duke administration has also resorted to dubious legal arguments in an attempt to ward off collective bargaining.

In May of this year, students who organized as Duke’s Graduate Student Union (DGSU), began an effort to collect authorization cards from at least 30 percent of eligible graduate student employees (mainly teaching and research assistants). The activists simultaneously waited on a case involving Columbia University graduate students winding itself through the levels of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The main question? Were graduate students at private universities really employees? The NLRB ruled on August 23 that students are employees and could unionize. The day of the ruling, the organizers publicly launched their drive under the banner “Graduate Workers Forward” and announced that they wished to organize with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Trump’s election has put the union on the defensive, but they have taken renewed interest in graduate student organizing (SEIU is also present in southern right to work states like my alma mater, the University of Texas. There, it serves in an advocacy capacity, as public employees, including graduate students, cannot bargain collectively). A recently self-issued DGSU report argues collective bargaining will help protect research funding for students, increase pay and benefits, and fix what they see as a broken university grievance process.

I sat down with Shahrazd Akiyah Shareef, a DGSU organizer to discuss how she joined the union campaign and the day-in-day-out experience of organizing. She said that her participation in the union effort has itself been a process of awakening. “I never knew graduate students could organize, I never saw myself as an employee until Faculty Forward [the SEIU campaign that unionized adjunct faculty last year].” She said learning about low wages and sexual harassment claims against the university undermined the view that Duke University acts as a place of privilege, a bubbled protection from the outside world. ”I was not aware about sexual harassment, even in my own department...women have been coming out to undermine this narrative of privilege.”

Students share her concerns over harassment. Even more than their wages, graduate student organizers question Duke’s sexual harassment and grievance policies. Harassment involving only students passes through the Office of Student Conduct, which appoints hearing boards and appellate panels to review complaints and issue decisions. Duke cases involving a non-student accused, pass through Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), which also handles broader discrimination allegations. Beyond students, faculty in 2015 also expressed concerns about OIE’s effectiveness and power in resolving complaints, especially given “ insufficiently clear [policy] concerning confidentiality.” SEIU and DGSU have promised to push hard for the university to provide aggrieved parties legal counsel and a mechanism for third-party mediation.

Duke has faced several state lawsuits and federal complaints, some involving accusations of high-level discriminatory obstruction by Duke administration officials. Duke assures students that grievance procedures do not preclude the option of filing with law enforcement officials separately. But law enforcement duties for campus crimes falls to Duke Police and the force, commissioned as police by the State of North Carolina, ultimately answers to Duke’s administrative Vice President, Kyle Cavanaugh, who answers to Executive Vice President Tallman Trask. Given an incident in which Trask hit a parking attendant and drew national attention last year, it’s not hard to see why some students and faculty may be skeptical.

Akiyah Shareef cited SEIU’s previous Duke union drive and her participation in organizing efforts to eliminate tuition fees for sixth-year PhD students (fees not waived for teaching and graduate assistants) for preparing her in organizing.

These struggles also opened up Durham’s activist community to SEIU. “These activist circles all have the same people...SEIU has really strong roots in this community now.” The loyalty generated by SEIU organizers’ presence at a series of rallies and occupations last year, as well as their previous success with Faculty Forward, precluded a lengthy internal debate about what type of union Duke students should join. In some ways, this quick decision allowed for early momentum. It would also leave students and university officials opposed to the drive an eventual opening to undermine the effort’s moral high ground.

The Administration Strikes Back

The drive attracted little attention at the beginning of the semester and the Duke administration until October did not even have a FAQ website on potential unionization.

However, Graduate School Dean Paula D. McClain started on Oct. 3 by emailing to the entire graduate school community urging student workers “to educate yourself fully before deciding whether or not to sign a union authorization card.” The Graduate School Dean invoked the “ partnership” the university had maintained throughout the years and posited that collectively bargaining through a union could “create unnecessary constraints that could potentially detract from and delay future collaboration.” The email, complete with a fact sheet warning of the rigidity of unions, was a soft, but clear, signal that the administration did not plan to let the drive continue unopposed.

As a student opposition to unionizing with SEIU appeared, the university grew more emboldened in its questioning of the appropriateness of graduate students seeking the explicit employer-employee relationship that unionization implies (similar student opposition formed as Harvard’s vote on student worker unions approached in November. Initial results from that election suggest a “no” victory, but a recount is underway).

“Understand that being a PhD student—and I emphasize the word “student” here—at Duke is a privilege and not a right.” wrote Kate Marusak, one of the organizers of Students Against Duke Unionization (SADU), in a letter to Duke’s student newspaper, Duke Chronicle. To Marusak, the administration, far from being an intransigent employer, has proven “very responsive”, far more responsive, she thinks, than a “propaganda” based “third-party” interfering in a work situation that already seems like “a deal.”

Some anti-union concerns are more technical than philosophical however. In a letter addressed to the NLRB on Dec. 8, SADU specifically expressed concern about the effect of a strike on tuition. They claimed research assistants, unlike teaching assistants, would lose not just their stipends, but tuition benefits, in the event of a strike, since federal grants require a grant paying tuition benefits to also pay for stipends. The letter also accuses SEIU supporters of “ harassment, bullying, and vandalism” which “oppos[e] to the academic ideals of intellectual inquiry and open discussion.”

“PhD students receive tuition, healthcare coverage, and stipends without regard to whether they teach or perform research. They do not receive compensation for these tasks.”-Duke University in legal filing

After failing to persuade 71 percent of students to oppose authorizing a union election, the administration turned from pleas for an “informed decision” toward outright opposition to unions, arguing that students at Duke are not workers in any capacity, but rather, apprentices. In an email to Duke graduate students on Nov. 15, four days after SEIU filed with the NLRB for an election, President Richard Brodhead clarified what role he thought teaching assistants and research assistant positions played in the university community:

In their roles across the university—as teaching assistants, lab assistants, graders, instructors, and section leaders—graduate students contribute in many ways to the university. However, graduate students are not selected to join the university community on the basis of their aptitude for these tasks, and their continued relationship with the university is not predicated on how well they fulfill these roles. Rather, these responsibilities serve the important purpose of training and providing practical experience for the future careers of our graduates.All this is to say that Duke’s relationship with its graduate students is quite different from that of employer to employee, and we do not believe that representation of students by a non-academic third party, focused on just one piece of a student’s experience, is in the best interest of students or the university.

Duke’s new line came after hiring a law firm which had previously represented sports leagues seeking to gain an upper hand in negotiations with their athletes. Duke’s strategy, in light of Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, seemed to be delaying until a new NLRB (with Trump filling two vacancies for a 3-2 Republican majority) could issue a ruling similar to that in 2004 that invalidated Brown's graduate student union. This strategy proved somewhat successful. In the process though, the university went ever further in distancing students from the services they provide as part of their “work assignments” in an attempt to undercut students’ arguments that they hold a dual role as workers. In an “Offer of Proof” for student-only status for graduate students the university put Brodhead’s earlier assertions into starker terms:

PhD students receive tuition, healthcare coverage, and stipends without regard to whether they teach or perform research. They do not receive compensation for these tasks [Page 2 of Attachment A, Emphasis mine].

Duke employers can establish maximum work hours and vacation time for researchers (guidelines often ignored). For graduate students receiving a W-2 for “services provided to Duke” every January, the offer of proof assertion seemed jarring, if not entirely surprising in the much vaunted “Post-Truth Era.” Duke has made it clear that they do not intend to accept the Columbia decision. In a filing asking for yet another hearing delay, Duke said that a Trump appointed NLRB board seemed likely to “revisit” the decision. They also implied Duke’s willingness to appeal the case should the NLRB reaffirm its August decision:

This issue has yet to be addressed by any Circuit Court and could be decided by the Supreme court at some not-so-distant point in time, perhaps in this case [emphasis mine].

While the NLRB decided to extend the deadline for filing post-testimony briefs until Dec. 21, they finally set the elections to start on Feb. 3. Despite a last minute Duke request on Jan. 31 to stay the election and impound the ballots, the NLRB mailed ballots on Feb. 3. Organizers feel confident citing strong faculty support and a high percentage of student union election authorization. They say the momentum is with them and that the SADU arguments have not gained long-term traction. They also point to a string of local political endorsements from city politicians, an influential North Carolina pastor, Reverend William Barber, and national advocates, including Senator Bernie Sanders himself.

Similarly, frustration over the lack of communication seemed to move previously uncommitted students toward a more sympathetic view of union campaign (if not outright support). Duke’s Graduate Professional and Student Council (GPSC) president Marcus Benning who in August of last year was “research[ing] the implications” of unionizing with SEIU said in January that administration indifference had “left [students] with no other option than to seek a third-party advocate.”

Strange Bedfellows: An alliance of anti-union and “democratic” union students

“I am from a proud union family and study labor history because I believe in that promise. SEIU is an organization that has perverted this promise [link in original],” wrote fifth-year history PhD student Brad Wood. He studies labor history, and has had a long time animosity toward the “Big Labor” mentality he says SEIU represents through its top-down management of some of its chapters (other progressive workers’ advocates and publications have historically expressed similar concern). Wood’s article also accused SEIU of stymieing efforts by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to appear on the ballot (a charge alluded to in SADUs Dec. 8 NLRB letter).

Wood accuses the SEIU, which endorsed Hillary Clinton in this year’s election primaries, of selling its members short and snuggling up to and “collaborating with” business elites instead of fighting for workers (SEIU President Mary Kay stood by the campaign endorsement in December citing Clinton’s record on healthcare). However, some SADU members have claimed that being anti-SEIU doesn’t necessarily mean opposing unions. A prominent anti-union organizer, Rachel Lea Ballantyne Draelos admitted in a campus unionization debate (at 38:21 in the video recording of the debate) that she could change her stance on unionization if students had an option on the ballot to form an independent union.

So I would be pro-unionization if a union meant that all grad students came together, put six-hundred dollars into some bank account and then collectively decided how to spend a million bucks a year.

Another student admitted that the university’s claim that graduate students can only be considered apprentices preparing for future careers seemed untenable, though he argued the university was correct in saying graduate students are not admitted to the university based on their work assignments.

To some extent we are student and to some extent we are workers, there’s no denying that...we do certain tasks like TA[ing] and RA[ing] in ways that are not...the basis for our acceptance [after my question at minute 43:18].

Moving from the details of the debate, how can we understand support and opposition to Duke’s unionization in the context of the complex political realities in the U.S. today?

A Rare Shot? The Current Valley of Progressive Politics

In many ways, the unionization effort serves as a microcosm for larger social trends, political battles, and glaring contradictions.

Workers in the American South, where employers influenced various aspects of worker life, have historically expressed suspicion toward the urbanized and formalized working values that unionization represents. I can understand why graduate students remain hesitant to embrace the “employee” status. After all, as my own adviser, a labor historian of Brazil, pointed out in an article for the American Historical Association, graduate students “learn the craft” in a “cohort of apprentices.”  In some sense, he argues (and I agree), we are not expected to know every trick of the profession walking in the door. Learning comes from intense feedback and a holistic view of the student inside and outside the classroom. Separate from teaching assistants, Duke “teaching apprentices” do in fact observe classes and receive pedagogical feedback for audit credit. Such positions are not obligatory department service requirements. While we do fulfill certain roles as apprentices of our disciplines, using the language of “apprenticeship” as a substitute to “employee” carries unique risks in the South. One only need read Reconstruction-Ear North Carolina “apprenticeship” contracts for poor (often recently-freed and black) agricultural workers to learn the cautionary tale of rhetoric promising “training and providing practical experience for the future careers” as if our teaching and research duties did not somehow fit into a career that has, in many ways, already started.

But unions also face their own systemic crisis of credibility. Pointing to six-figure union boss salaries, right-wing organizations and politicians successfully labeled unions as just businesses under a different name. They point to the worst examples in the last few years involving local union leaders using dues of all of their members to sustain extravagant lifestyles more akin to Wall Street executives than Rust Belt workers. Such comparisons have decreased sympathy for and participation in unions even as a series of Republican Rust Belt governors have put unions increasingly on the defensive. Union advocates point to federal and state laws limiting the use of dues for political purposes through requiring due-payers’ affirmative consent. They also say that union leadership salaries pale in comparison to executive salaries, even at universities (Richard Brodhead earned $1.13 million in 2014). Even with worse examples of luxury to which to point, in an anti-establishment milieu that highlights style over substance, allegations of union hypocrisy has proven deadly for organized labor.

“DGSU organizers argue that SEIU’s “turn” has arrived and that the union should be rewarded for the careful community groundwork students and organizers have laid.”

Duke’s unionization debate also echoes the struggles between a cautious liberal establishment and an impatient progressive base. SEIU and DGSU organizers argue that the contract situation cannot get worse than “no contract.” They sense grievances have reached the point where unionization becomes imperative. They argue that the long-term presence by SEIU and the relationships that presence has built, qualifies them as the unopposed voice for Duke students sympathetic to unions. DGSU organizers argue that SEIU’s “turn” has arrived and that the union should be rewarded for the careful community groundwork students and organizers have laid. SEIU supporters see criticisms and attacks against its union as part of a traditional conservative smear campaign. Naturally, such a view endorses circling the wagons, making emotional appeals, downplaying internal criticism fearing (perhaps correctly) that harsh criticisms will feed a vast-administration-conspiracy (a la Clinton’s vast right wing version). Such a view also sees centralization as the most reasonable option to strategically fight the social battles to come. That said, cautious liberal big labor risks over-promising and under-delivering.

From another angle, self-described union-friendly dissenters against SEIU argue that big labor merely perpetuate the status-quo, that they are the “frying pan” to Duke administration’s “oven.” They argue that a “no” vote beats a vote to bind students to what they see as a lukewarm, often checkered, “big labor” tradition. They see their opposition as building the future of the labor movement, not contributing to its ultimate destruction. They see the dire warnings of voting “no” as nothing more than scaremongering intended to impose upon students an unacceptable “lesser-of-two evils.” These SEIU critics echo those radical intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek who prefer the chaos of an ultra-conservative Trump administration to the predictable gridlock and malaise of an administration run by the Democratic business class. Others argue that SEIU’s model, while well-intentioned, assumes that those who show up should lead, even if, they argue, those who show up have weak ties to the community itself. They hope that just as Trump could revive grass-roots radicalism (by providing a clear foil) a “no” vote can clean the slate for an independent union attuned to local concerns, not grand strategy. Ultimately, as we have seen nationally, their approach carries long-term rewards if they are indeed the future. More likely, such a strategy leaves a university population with fewer protections as a promised better deal moves continually further on the horizon.

“The worst of the anti-union effort signs on to blatantly ‘post-truth’ arguments asserting, paperwork to the contrary, students do not contribute as employees to Duke.”

Despite alleged openness to union choice, anti-union advocates ultimately see attending Duke and performing their research tasks as a privilege, not a university service. Some union-skeptic non-permanent faculty and researchers make the argument that the university should not treat graduate students like workers because we do not perform as well as post-doctoral researchers charged with similar tasks. Others simply say that they like the way things are now and fear possible changes. These attitudes naturally lead unionization opponents to see unionization efforts as a slap in the face to an administration that they see as working on their behalf. Some anti-union advocates can at times seem defensive, and despite having the support of administration, and often having the best economic circumstances, are quick to accuse others of “silencing” anti-union dissent. The worst of the anti-union effort accept “alternative facts” asserting, paperwork to the contrary, that students do not contribute as employees to Duke. At best, administration and anti-unionization rhetoric waffles. Anti-union rhetoric both claims we are solely graduate students and workers who should put in a full day’s work like anyone else. Anti-union rhetoric can praise the singular “privilege” of attending Duke, and the “deal” they have received while stoking fears that other, less fortunate students, might get a bigger share of the pie in a “one size fits all” contract. They defend the establishment claiming to be the counter-culture of the university.

As an eligible graduate student, I have struggled on how to vote in this election. I have become increasingly frustrated by an educational institution that has, in this debate at least, shown little dedication to the basic fact that we are indeed employees. Legal sophistry, not a pursuit of the truth, seems to motivate anti-union sentiment. The Duke I see in the NLRB filings is a corporate power, not an institution dedicated speaking truth to power. That I encounter many dedicated administrators in my service as a student representative on university committees brings this contradiction between Duke’s courtroom arguments and what I learn in Duke’s classrooms into stark relief. If we cannot trust the administration to stick to basic facts, how can graduate students put full faith into the administration to train us as truth pursuers, prioritize maintaining a safe environment, and most importantly, participate in a process of mutual growth and self-correction? While I share many of the critiques of big labor described above, what I have already seen from the university in this debate concerns me more.

Voting for a union is not voting against Duke, nor does it signal a lack of gratitude for an opportunity to study. I also do not fear that Duke would sacrifice their current benefits and competitiveness with other programs to spite students for voting to form a union. I do believe that administration want us to succeed, if only because our success is, in part, theirs as well.

Voting for a union, however, promises to be a vote for accountability when fear of lawsuits or the next quarterly report would otherwise trump student welfare. Voting for a union presents an opportunity to show that flat misrepresentations and a lack of administrative accountability have consequences...even in this new age of “alternative facts.” If Duke students reject a union now, however, I fear we may have to wait a great deal longer before we get the chance to send that message again. For these reasons, I will vote yes.

Travis Knoll is a PhD candidate in the history department. Knoll presides as the 2016-2017 Chair for the Young Trustee Selection Committee (YTSC) and as an elected student member of the Board of Trustees Academic Affairs Committee. The views in this article are the author's own personal opinion as an eligible union election voter and do not, in any way, represent the the opinions of either university body or any of their members in their capacities as such. 


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