Duke is on the wrong side of labor union history. Here’s its chance to get it right

Last week, as I walked across Abele Quad, I came across a table with petitions and pamphlets for Duke Graduate Student Union (DGSU). A cardboard sign read, “Duke can’t work without us.” 

The organizers told me a familiar story– one that has been around since the 1960s. A group of Duke workers, unsatisfied with their working conditions, unite to demand better treatment. Instead of listening to demands, the university does everything in its power to shut them down.

DGSU’s fight for a seat at the table presents the university with a crucial choice. It can play its usual role of the dismissive institution that would rather fund union-busting practices than listen to its workers' grievances. Or, it can fulfill a new role in the story. I urge the university to voluntarily recognize DGSU and thus signal a new age in labor relations. Duke has the power to symbolically depart from its part in the story of worker oppression– the beginning of which starts on the same plot of land that graduate students plant their tables today. 

In 1968, days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior, a Duke student group partnered with the Local 77 workers union to organize a silent vigil on Abele Quad. Over 2,000 students, staff, faculty and civilians joined to demand collective bargaining rights for the Local 77, which was majority African-American, as well as to protest racial discrimination on campus and in Durham. It was the biggest protest in Duke’s history. After 13 days, the university raised nonacademic workers’ minimum wage and introduced the Duke University Employees Advisory Committee. But they refused to recognize the union. It wasn’t until four years later, after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made an amendment that allowed workers to form unions in private universities, that the union became NLRB-affiliated. The university was then legally required to recognize it. 

A few years later, Duke Hospital Workers began organizing for increased rights for African Americans and women in the workplace. In response, administrators distributed union-busting leaflets and hired the anti-union consulting firm Modern Management Methods (“3M”). In a 1979 journal article titled “The Old South Triumphs at Duke” by Tony Dunbar, a publicly pro-union secretary was quoted saying, “During this union campaign people would not walk down the hall with me… You know, there’s a strange kind of fear here. I can’t understand it, because I don’t have it, but I think it’s a fear that Duke has put there.” These scare tactics worked– the hospital workers’ union was not recognized. Dunbar ends with an eerily foreshadowing remark: “In light of the fact that Duke University is one of the shrines of the New South, it is only natural to wonder how much hope for laboring people is contained in the dawning of this new age.”

In 1992, the NLRB ruled that the university illegally “refused to recognize or engage in collective bargaining” with a nationally-affiliated union of Duke bus drivers and transportation staff, ATU Local 1328. Less than a decade later, when Duke opposed a hospital nurse’s union, then-student Erica Mahag is quoted in the Chronicle saying, “Duke administrators have shown time and time again that they are not above spending massive amounts of money to subvert the efforts of conscientious students and employees. This was proven when Duke hired a high-priced, union-busting firm in an attempt to squelch the bus drivers' union campaign a few years ago."

In 2021, Duke hired the renowned union-cracking law firm Ogletree Deakins a day after the Duke University Press Workers announced their union. Workers again received pamphlets encouraging them not to vote for the union. This time, Duke’s best efforts failed. Workers voted to become NLRB certified, and when the university repeatedly tried to appeal the election, the NLRB denied the request.

In 2022, Thompson Writing Program fellows protested when their jobs were threatened by a switch in strategy to hire more non-unionized professors of the practice. One lecturer, choosing to remain anonymous, said, “I do feel like our jobs are being replaced with non-unionized faculty as a form of retaliation for the role that the TWP played in the 2017 negotiations, for centering our need for renewable appointments in the 2021 negotiations and for our ongoing attempts to use University channels to improve our work condition.” 

Today, Duke Graduate Student Union (DGSU) is facing a familiar monster. After a failed union drive in 2017, they are demanding a collective bargaining contract to negotiate a pay floor of $40,000, reduced parking costs, dental benefits, and increased attention to workplace inequities. According to organizers, administration continually refuses to communicate with them. A letter to the president’s office reads, “In early 2017… you hired Proskauer Rose, a notorious union-busting firm, to dismantle our union drive. Guided by this firm, you sent intimidating messages to students from an anonymous email address with subject lines such as ‘What You Don't Know Can Hurt You’ and ‘At What Cost?’” 

Former Chief Communications Officer Michael Schoenfeld defended the university’s decision to hire Proskauer Rose in 2017, saying, "The University continues to believe that a union is not in the best interests of the students or the university. We will use whatever resources that we deem appropriate to protect that position.” With the administration declining to accept demand letters or show up to meetings, it seems that Duke is still committed to that stance. 

At the start of DSGU’s campaign, Durham city councilwoman Jillian Johnson, Trinity ’03, said “Duke, unfortunately, has a really long history of union busting. They hire anti-union law firms; they pay millions of dollars to try to stop people from unionizing. We are in the position of having a citywide housing crisis. This is an amazing opportunity for everybody in this city to see what a union contract can do at [the city’s] largest employer.”

The university voluntarily recognizing DGSU would break the pattern of anti-working-class discrimination that it has pursued since 1968. By following the footsteps of schools like Georgetown and NYU, who voluntarily recognize their workers' unions, Duke could send the message that it values the people who keep it running more than the dollars that line its pockets (and pay millions to law firms). Duke graduate students deserve fair compensation that reflects Durham’s skyrocketing cost of living, adequate healthcare access, and workplace protections. They are our TAs, our researchers, and an invaluable part of our community. 

As Durham’s largest employer, agreeing to a bargaining contract with DGSU would not just be a win for graduate students—it would be a win for the people of Durham and for union efforts across the country. Duke has the chance to honor its history of activism and solidarity dating back to the Silent Vigil and to make amends for continuous instances of worker oppression. “We must not let the new Duke University created by the Vigil die,” reads a 1968 Chronicle editorial. “For in it lies our destiny.”

Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior. Her column typically runs on alternating Tuesdays.

Pilar Kelly

Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior and an opinion columnist for The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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