Duke Workers United, a coalition of labor unions at Duke, shared their experiences working during the pandemic and goals for change at an April 23 event.
The event, which took place on Zoom and was posted on the Duke Graduate Students Union Facebook page, featured representatives from the Duke Graduate Student Union; Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1328; American Federation of State, Council, and Municipal Employees Local 77; Duke Faculty Union and the Duke University Press Workers Union. It was described as the first of many events to come from DWU, which formed in 2020.
“The last time something like this was attempted was about 25 years ago. What we’re doing is laying the foundation for a legacy and a historical footprint moving forward,” said Antonio Luster, a campus bus driver and member of ATU Local 1328. “You’re going to see a lot more from this organization.”
Luster’s remarks were pre-recorded, as he was working at the time of the event. He said he was proud to be part of a coalition with the other unions that make the University run and emphasized the need for workers to have a seat at the table.
Valacey Bey, a Dining employee who is a member of the Local 77 and has worked at the University for over 14 years, said that her experience during the pandemic has been “good and bad.”
“It’s always presented with ‘we care about everybody and want to keep people safe,’ but when you take those steps to stay safe, you may be penalized,” Bey said.
Over winter break, Bey tested positive for COVID-19, and she expressed that she felt harassed by management to participate in Zoom calls, despite a nurse’s suggestions to rest.
“I appreciate that we’re still working and that we’re still getting paid, but that’s something we can work on,” she said. To Bey, it seemed like workers were expected to keep quiet about their concerns and that the Local 77 hasn’t been behind its members.
On the other hand, Bey said the pandemic allowed workers to bond and work together in a way “that hasn’t happened in a while.” She said that Barbara Stokes, director of residential dining services, was excellent at notifying workers about policy, but workers wanted to be more directly involved in decision making.
“We work day to day with students, with faculty, with everyone. We all have a role on campus, and we have to combine those roles to find the best solutions,” Bey said.
In an email, Stokes wrote that Duke Dining has implemented policies and procedures to provide a safer environment for dining staff and the Duke community based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Duke Health, Durham County Public Health and the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office. Stokes wrote that dining staff were “encouraged” to participate in on-campus testing and were among the first employees to be offered the vaccine, including contract workers. There are also regular roundtables and group emails for dining staff.
“All staff are encouraged to attend roundtable meetings and have an opportunity to share their honest opinions and ask questions, but there is never any penalty when they don’t attend,” Stokes wrote. “Dining expects and understands that staff are sometimes ill and may not be able to attend.”
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There are make-up meetings when multiple staff indicate that they cannot attend a roundtable, Stokes added.
Bey also highlighted the work of the Duke Students and Workers Alliance, which petitioned the University to give hazard pay to campus staff. This request was denied, according to Bey.
When asked about worker pay, Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and governmental relations, referred The Chronicle to Local 77 leadership for comment.
“The University and Local 77 recently and successfully reached an agreement on a new contract,” Schoenfeld wrote. “As a reminder, all pay and benefits for employees in the bargaining unit are governed by the contract.”
Schoenfeld did not comment on the status of the petition. William McKnight, president of the Local 77, did not respond to a request for comment.
Chris Shreve, instructor of biology and president of the Duke Faculty Union, said that one of the coalition’s benefits was seeing how unions could best support each other.
“Being a union doesn’t mean we hate Duke. Being a union means we want to stick together to raise our voices, to amplify our voices to make Duke listen,” Shreve said.
Shreve said that faculty “had it pretty good” during the pandemic, as the University de-densified classes and allowed faculty to teach online, and departments “scrambled” to cover courses. DFU is currently bargaining with the University for its next contract, as the previous one lapsed in June 2020, and one of its goals is increased wages.
Shreve said that if the University is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, it must listen to workers’ voices.
Alejandra Mejia, an assistant editor at Duke University Press and DUPWU representative, asked the University to respect the right of press workers to organize and to not interfere with the upcoming union election of Duke University Press. DUPWU filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board May 3. The election will determine whether DUPWU gains legal certification with the NLRB.
DUPWU also claimed that University and DUP management have met regularly with Ogletree Deakins, a law firm that has represented several employers fighting unionization, since March. Schoenfeld did not comment on whether meetings were occurring, but the NLRB election filing shows that the firm is representing the University in an open case. The University has previously worked with Ogletree Deakins in other NLRB matters, according to public records.
“Duke University will observe all legal requirements of the union organizing process. The university supports the right of every employee to vote on their potential representation,” Schoenfeld wrote.
The final speaker was Michael McGurk, a Ph.D. candidate in English and a member of DGSU. McGurk highlighted the three demands workers made in summer 2020—safety, pay and a seat at the table—and said Duke’s failure to meet those demands made workers worse off.
McGurk pointed to a question President Vincent Price posed at the beginning of the pandemic before posing his own: “We need to ask—and answer—the question, what sort of institution do we wish to be?”
“Does Duke want to be the sort of institution that holds back hazard pay and back pay from the workers that risked their lives to keep this campus running during the pandemic?” McGurk asked. “Does Duke want to be the sort of institution that hires multinational law firms to keep its employees from exercising their rights as workers? Does Duke want to be the sort of institution that tells grad workers they’re not getting paid to catch up on the work they couldn’t complete during the pandemic?”
Editor’s Note: The author of this article (Nadia Bey) and Valacey Bey are not related.