Dear President Price,
When you began your tenure here this fall, you promised to "reaffirm Duke's commitment to its employees." As Graduate Students, we’re calling on you to honor that commitment, which you undercut in your statement to The Chronicle Editorial Board when you declared that unions are not an “effective vehicle” for advocacy. As individuals we have limited power, which is why it is so important for workers to speak and act collectively. Unions are in fact the only effective way that working people have improved our standard of living and held the wealthy and powerful accountable. As anti-worker legislation is being pushed by the Trump Administration and right wing politicians across the country, it is increasingly important for workers to organize, improve working conditions, demand fair pay, protect important benefits like health insurance, and fight against workplace harassment and discrimination. That’s why we decided to organize the Duke University Graduate Students Union, Local 27 of SEIU Southern Region.
Graduate workers perform valuable labor for Duke, teaching the undergraduates who come to Duke for a world-class education, performing research that keeps Duke at the cutting edge and brings in millions in grant money, along with grading, counseling students, organizing conferences and countless other tasks which keep the university running. We are workers and we deserve a collective say in our working conditions.
Through our collective voice we have made important gains. Duke has responded to our demands for better support and benefits. When gym access—which had been previously been available for five years—was cut to three, we successfully demanded that this cut be reversed. Through our work, Duke ended continuation fees—burdensome fees of around $3,700 per semester charged to upper-level doctoral students—for sixth-year students.The Graduate School also extended its accommodation period for PhD students. Parents now receive longer accommodations for childbirth and adoption: nine weeks for primary caregivers and two weeks for non-primary caregivers. The arbitrary caps on graduate worker stipend supplementation have been raised to a maximum of $3,00 per section and $5,000 in a calendar year. Working with our allies at Fight for $15 and a Union, we won a $15 minimum wage for campus workers by 2019. Despite these improvements, there is still work to do.
While we are excited that Duke is committing to a living wage for its employees, many of us are left out of that promise. Graduate workers as well as contract laborers, undergraduate student workers and some service workers are still not making a living wage. Despite these flatlining wages and a rising cost of living in Durham, graduate students are being charged with increased healthcare stipends and threatened with the removal of important benefits, including dependent care, from our health plan. Through semi-weekly bake sales we have also alleviated some of the financial burden of students in their seventh year and beyond paying continuation fees, which continue to be significantly steeper than any of our peer institutions. Our Harassment and Discrimination working group hosted a Know Your Rights workshop with experts in Title IX and university procedures to unpack the intimidating and labyrinthine procedures of reporting harassment. We have formed our own network of union representatives to help fellow graduate students navigate these procedures and the violence and discrimination that many of us have faced as students and workers at Duke.
As a union, we are working to make a better Duke. We call on you to recognize our union, and to negotiate with us over pay and benefits, harassment and discrimination policies, and the direction of our university. Graduate workers across the country are organizing, and our unions are increasingly successful in winning better working conditions for themselves. We are workers at this university. As workers and as a union we will continue to organize for fairness and respect until every worker at Duke has the right to a decent wage and dignity on the job. You can reach us at email@example.com.
Katya Gorecki and Jess Issacharoff are the co-chairs of DGSU Local 27, Southern Region Workers United SEIU.