Black History Month is an opportune moment to reflect on the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) ruling recognizing teaching and research assistants at private colleges and universities as employees with the right to protection under the National Labor Relations Act and to consider the ongoing organizing campaign at Duke. Duke University's first labor union was formed in the crucible of labor, civil rights and student organizing in the late 1960s, and it was the demands of Duke’s low-wage African American workforce that galvanized that campaign. AFSCME Local 77 still represents some campus workers.
Critics of the NLRB's decision and opponents of the Duke Graduate Student Union argue that teaching and research assistants are students and not employees and that unionization will interfere with traditional academic relationships. But the reality is that they are both students and employees, and as employees they look like any other worker in the economy: they receive wages and benefits, answer to supervisors, have scheduled hours and job responsibilities and are hired and fired. As employees, teaching and research assistants want what every worker wants: some control over their working conditions and a say in the remuneration they receive for their labor.
Much blood has been spilt for the right of American workers to organize and form unions. That right, whether an employee exercises it or not, should be respected by employers everywhere. As an historian of labor in the United States and as the son of labor activists, I applaud efforts to extend the rights of workers whether in institutions of higher education or farms or factories.
- Robert Korstad, Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy
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