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Duke workers need a compact that protects all of us, not just our employers

guest letter

Students, faculty, and workers will return to Duke’s campus this month for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the university’s closure in March. Over the past five months, the novel coronavirus has killed 170,000 people in the United States and infected more than five million, and tens of millions of workers have lost their jobs and their health insurance. Moreover, the pandemic has compounded the systemic oppression of Black Americans and people of color, who are disproportionately harmed by the inadequacies of American healthcare, housing, and labor.

With 42% of all U.S. coronavirus cases recorded in the last month alone, the virus shows little sign of stopping. North Carolina recorded its three deadliest days within the past couple weeks, and cases have flared up in hot spots in the South and West. Moreover, as the cases and deaths continue in this gruesome “new phase” of the pandemic, the virus’s economic reverberations will ruin lives and devastate communities across the country. We can expect, for example, that 30 million workers will lose their enhanced unemployment benefits and as many as 23 million renters will be evicted by September.

Governments, corporations and other large institutions could have mitigated this cascading series of economic and public health crises if they had been at all willing to prioritize the safety of all over the profits of a few. Many of the country’s top health officials have asserted that, even now, it is not too late to shut down again and start over. If our largest, wealthiest, and most powerful institutions would invest their resources to provide us with basic economic security while we quarantine at home, we might have a better chance at success.

However, as schools and businesses reopen, the chance of a serious, reasoned response to the COVID-19 pandemic within this country appears slimmer and slimmer. We have seen an astonishing abdication of responsibility from the very institutions which have the greatest power to curb the virus’s devastation. Instead, blame for the virus’s spread has instead fallen on the working people who have been prematurely pushed back to work in order to earn a living.

The Duke Compact, unveiled earlier this month, continues this trend by displacing the university’s responsibility as an institution onto the tens of thousands of individual students, faculty, and staff who live and work here. Of course, most of the responsibilities outlined there—handwashing, mask-wearing, social distancing—are familiar to us. We have, and will continue to, do everything we can to protect ourselves and those around us.

But the power of an individual pales in comparison to the power of an institution like Duke. Our best efforts at personal health and hygiene are limited by the foolhardy demands of our administrators and employers. We will gladly hold up our end of the deal, but Duke’s administration has given no indication of what it will do for us in return. In fact, many of my colleagues have been left to wonder if the Duke Compact does not absolve Duke University of their legal liability for what is to come. 

We know what is to come. In his recent open letter to President Price, Dr. Robert M. Krug warns that “Duke students, faculty, administrators and other personnel will not be safe from contracting COVID-19 disease, and Duke will accelerate the spread of the COVID-19 disease in Durham and other local communities.” It is perhaps because a large outbreak in schools and universities is imminent that Governor Cooper has extended Phase Two restrictions into September.

Duke has failed us by refusing to suspend in-person activity for the semester, the surest preventative measure. Will they fail us again when an outbreak inevitably occurs on campus and spreads through the Durham community? Twenty-five student-athletes have already contracted the virus and this outbreak sadly may not be the last or the worst. When more students and workers fall ill, will the administrators of Duke University take responsibility, admit wrongdoing, and revise their policy to protect their students, their workers, and their neighbors in Durham?

We can only guess, because the Duke Compact does not mention the university’s responsibility to its students and workers in the event of an outbreak, and nor does it mention the university’s responsibility to redress the grievances of the students and workers whom it has exploited and harmed in their disastrous handling of the pandemic. 

In short, The Duke Compact has much to say about the responsibility that individual members of the Duke community owe to each other but little about what Duke as an institution owes to each of us. It is past time for the administration to recognize its obligation to campus workers.

What would a more just Duke Compact look like—one that does not just provide cover for Duke’s reputation, but actually takes into account the safety, wellbeing, and livelihoods of the countless students, teachers, researchers, and workers who make this university such a reputable institution? 

This summer, workers from the Duke Graduate Students Union, the Duke Faculty Union, Duke Contract Workers United, AFSCME Local 77, and ATU Local 1328, came together as Duke Workers United to demand safety, pay, and a seat at the table. We issued these demands because we knew that, as workers, it would be our lives that were put in danger by a hasty and ill-considered reopening. In drafting our Duke Workers’ Compact, we renew these demands and ask Duke’s administration once again to acknowledge and accept their responsibility to us. 

We will hold up our end of the compact. Will the university’s leadership hold up theirs? As workers at Duke University, we submit the Duke Workers’ Compact. We ask that President Price and the administrators of Duke University agree to the standards outlined and we call upon our fellow workers and allies to add their names in support here.

Michael McGurk is a PhD candidate in English at Duke and a member of the Duke Graduate Students Union (DGSU).


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