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To my fellow Duke PhD students

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The ballots for the graduate unionization election were mailed out Friday, and you will receive them today and tomorrow. For those who don’t know me, I'm located at the Marine Lab in Beaufort along with about two dozen of your other colleagues, and I have been observing things as they have developed in Durham. I know it has been a tense process at times. I've heard from students who found the SEIU workers and student supporters to be pushy or out of touch. Other students felt the emails from Dean McClain were misleading or divisive. Some of you expressed both of those things, and I imagine all of you have considered dental insurance more than you ever expected to. 

There are a lot of talking points, fact sheets and FAQs from the different camps you can refer to in an attempt to make a decision. I actually don't want to talk about any of that. I worry what may have been lost in the current tenor of the debate is a focus on what unionization means in our broader social and political context, and the responsibilities to your peers that come with both a "Yes" and a "No" vote.

To be transparent, after weighing all of the factors I have decided to vote "Yes." However, this email comes from me, not DGSU or SEIU or anyone else. It is not meant to tell you which way to vote, but to reframe this discussion around some important areas of emphasis. I know that many discussions have occurred in smaller groups, but I think we would be remiss as a community not to acknowledge the importance of the decision before us, and what it could mean more broadly.

Organized labor in North Carolina is very weak. North Carolina has the second-lowest union membership out of all states behind only South Carolina, at about 3 percent of employees. The top state, New York has upwards of 25 percent and the national average is 10.7 percent. One point of argument that has emerged in the ongoing debates is that SEIU uses a significant portion of the optional dues they collect for political efforts. I think it's important to reflect on what this means in a broader context. Should this union be certified it will be one of the largest in the state of North Carolina, likely behind only the Smithfield pork industry union in the eastern part of the state. The outcome of this election is thus extremely important to the strength of organized labor in the state and country overall (see Senator Bernie Sanders endorsement of the proposed union). Dues aren't used for political campaigns, but they are used to support union campaigns and labor initiatives in the United States. This money may be spent outside of North Carolina. Depending on your views, this spending may be a good or bad thing, but it is important to supporting organized labor in other industries and areas where the stakes are much higher. The outcome of our decision has ramifications for hospital workers, pork industry laborers and others. There is also a symbolic importance-at a time when the working class and highly educated are extremely divided, the choice by members of an elite university to opt into the organized labor system, with all of the efforts and commitments that entails, matters.

One of the reasons for low union enrollment in North Carolina is its status as a "right-to work" state. These policies exist in 27 states, and allow for union representation with optional dues. These policies are deeply controversial, and most prominent in Southern states, where they have a long history of association with anti-labor politics and racism (you can search for many articles and perspectives on this issue, this is just one). These laws create flexibility for workers, but also create a free-ridership problem, wherein working class people are inclined to opt out of paying dues to meet immediate financial needs, which erodes the power of labor organizations and limits long term success in achieving improved conditions. The result is a benevolent sounding legislative approach with significant implications for structural equity over the long term. When wielded in patterns that tend to disadvantage certain communities, this approach becomes especially problematic. Every union in a right to work state is politically significant and such a large union in North Carolina is especially important. As a result of this difficult environment, many unions do not operate or are hesitant to operate in North Carolina, leaving workers with limited choice. Whether you view unions positively or negatively, the outcome here should matter to you, especially in a national political climate that is generally unfavorable to progressive labor politics.

These broader contextual factors underlie my main concern, that we reflect on the purpose of unionization-to support others. Despite the way that the majority of communications by DGSU seem to be focused, I personally do not feel the most important matters at stake here relate to dental insurance, or other forms of benefits and compensation. To be clear, some schools and departments have significantly less financial and administrative support than is available at the Nicholas School, where I and my immediate colleagues work. I do not mean to minimize the problems faced by these individuals.

That being said, I view the major deficiency in the Duke community to be a persistent failure in creating a safe, inclusive and equitable working environment. Numerous incidents of hateful and violent speech or action by students and administrators have been met with insufficient sanction in the last two years. These incidents prompted significant backlash from members of our community, including student occupations of administrative buildings and the creation of a university-wide task force. While we should acknowledge that the members of this task force put in considerable effort, without fundamental policy change and real allocation of resources these problems will not change. Last year our department received an award from the Graduate School to promote diversity of $5,000. When Tallman Trask retains his position as Executive Vice President after last year's incident, and a university with an endowment of over $7 billion chooses to allocate resources in the current fashion, it is hard to see these awards and task forces as appropriate or sufficient action.

The situation surrounding sexual and gender related misconduct is also deeply problematic. As an example, when a student is found responsible for sexual misconduct this is how penalties are decided:

"Sanctions for a finding of responsibility include, but are not limited to, expulsion, suspension, disciplinary probation, recommended counseling, and/or other educational sanctions. The hearing body has complete discretion regarding sanctioning. In determining the appropriate sanction(s) for a violation of this policy, the hearing body will first consider whether expulsion (permanent removal) from the university is appropriate. While expulsion is the starting point for consideration, the hearing body has discretion to decide that (a) different sanction(s) is (are) appropriate. Factors pertinent to the determination of what sanction applies include, but are not limited to, the nature of the conduct at issue, prior disciplinary history of the respondent (shared with a panel only upon a finding of responsibility to the allegation), respondent’s willingness to accept responsibility for his/her actions, previous university response to similar conduct, and university interests."

I would urge you read that list of pertinent factors again. One can be found responsible for sexual misconduct by a university hearing body (even acts of physical violence) and remain a student here if it corresponds with "university interests." There are no concrete guidelines for sexual misconduct penalties or sanctions. Until three years ago it was not even required that expulsion be considered first.

There are many additional examples of problematic or insufficient policy in this area. There is currently a statute of limitations for harassment claims against employees of one year, making reporting claims against professors with power or influence over you difficult. At the same time, complaints can be filed against students as long as they are enrolled at the university. Some of you may be unaware, but as a TA you have a legal responsibility to report possible sexual misconduct that students tell you about. This includes other graduate students you may be instructing. Despite these legal liabilities, there is no university wide, standardized, required training for graduate assistants on this or other professional responsibilities.

I think it is clear we have work to do in ensuring policies and potential contracts address these very deep issues. I think the proposed union would help give us legal strength and cohesiveness to make meaningful change. You may feel it would not do so, or perhaps even introduce another impediment. This is a reasonable position; the key is together acknowledging these deeper issues and working to ensure that whatever institutions we have moving forward address them. I don't think our current institutions are sufficient; our responsibility is deciding how we will make change.

I understand there is hesitancy and uncertainty. The idea of a graduate worker's union is very new, and there are few test cases or data points to draw on. If the union is certified, there will almost certainly be periods of challenge and disagreement. I would only ask that you weigh this uncertainty against the broader significance of this decision for those within and outside the Duke community, in addition to the specifics of how it may impact you or your department. We may indeed be guinea pigs, but the temporary status of our appointments and the opportunities and privileges that many of us possess uniquely position us to forge a path for others.

You should make your vote according to your principles and assessment of the situation. However, regardless of what you choose, the best way to ensure our community is strong going forward is to focus on fulfilling your responsibility to others. Should the union be certified, those who vote "Yes" must commit to investing in the union process and acknowledge that their decision necessitates effort, commitment and leadership. By the same token, should the union not go forward, those who vote "No" must commit to lead efforts to identify and pursue alternatives to ensure our community grows in a way that serves all of its members. Your vote necessitates responsibility to the members of your community whose preferred option is not chosen. The only truly wrong decision would be to shirk that responsibility. 


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