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Letter to the editor

Over the past several months, I have been hearing from my fellow graduate students about what we stand to gain or lose by forming a union. Today I am an enthusiastic supporter, but it took a lot of thought. I like the idea of unions, but did not think that my work at Duke would benefit from a union. When I thought about unions, I thought of workers in the auto industry, in fast food, and in construction. I was skeptical about forming a union, especially under the auspices of an organization I knew very little about.

After reflecting more on my experience at Duke, and learning more about what a union would mean for us here, I’m excited about the possibilities. SEIU is at the forefront of organizing for working people of all types. The organization began in 1921 when flat janitors united with the faith and immigrant rights communities to demand fair wages and working conditions. SEIU organizers remain committed to that mission today. As a key backer of the Fight for $15 movement, SEIU has fought to raise wages for millions of people across the country. Their national days of action, joined back in November by NC NAACP President Rev. William Barber here in Durham, have galvanized communities around the country. These are not empty actions: SEIU was instrumental in raising the minimum wage in Seattle, New York and California, and has pressured major corporations like Walmart to give their workers a raise.

I also learned what unions in higher education can accomplish. Duke faculty won their union back in March, leading to improvements in contract length and summer pay. Graduate student unions across the country have won dental and medical benefits, higher (and more reliable!) stipends, and academic freedom protections at universities in Florida, Connecticut and California. Faculty at unionized institutions note stronger relationships with their students, thanks to a defined administrative pathway for employment-related conflicts.

SEIU has been an important leader in the growing higher education organizing movement. Since 2013, more than 13,000 university faculty have joined SEIU from higher education institutions such as University of Chicago, the University of Southern California and Georgetown. These faculty are now united together with 120,000 SEIU members who work in higher education. Adjunct faculty from schools such as George Washington University, Washington University St. Louis and Tufts University negotiated contracts that have represented a major improvement in quality of life for their members. The Duke faculty experience, too, has demonstrated that SEIU members succeed at the bargaining table.

Millions of working people have benefited from improved working conditions thanks to the work of SEIU and to the decision to join with their colleagues to form a union. I want to be part of an organization like this one. As Rev. Barber said, “the only thing that has ever changed this nation has been people of conscience joining together—black, white, and brown—across dividing lines and refusing to back down in the face of injustice.” Voting to form a union at Duke is where we start. 

Michael Burrows

PhD Student, Sanford School of Public Policy

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