More than 100 students, staff and supporters gathered in front of the Duke Chapel Monday as the Duke Graduate Student Union called for increased stipends.
DGSU’s latest demand is for a $40,000 stipend pay floor for all graduate students. Currently, the stipend floor is around $32,000, according to Matt Thomas, DGSU co-chair and third-year Ph.D. candidate in the English department. Duke recommends 12-month stipend rates of $33,660 for the 2022-23 school year.
Classes were still in session during the rally, as Duke does not recognize Labor Day. Anita Simha, a DGSU co-chair and a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in the biology department, said the rally was deliberately held on the holiday.
"We decided to raise some consciousness about the fact that this is a union campus," Simha told The Chronicle. "Adjunct faculty, bus drivers, housekeepers, grad students, university press—all of these groups are unionized. And we are specifically here, demanding a real raise."
José Sanchez, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in the history department, moved to North Carolina from Brooklyn two weeks ago. He had to overdraw his bank account to cover moving costs and still has not received funds from the University, he said.
“We are employees of the University and we make this university run. Without this, the University would crumble and fall apart. We need a $40,000 floor to live. Prices are getting more and more expensive,” Sanchez said.
Erica Skerett, a graduate student in the Pratt School of Engineering, read remarks from Antonio Luster, a Duke bus driver, chair of Durham Workers Rights Commission and representative from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1328.
Luster was unable to attend the event in-person because he was working, driving one of the C1 buses that periodically stopped in front of the Chapel. Bus drivers also did not have Labor Day off.
“The solidarity, camaraderie, unity and cohesive vision that you build as union brothers and sisters is priceless. My time in the union has clearly shown me what is possible with like-minded individuals standing together for a common purpose to benefit all,” Luster wrote.
After a few more speakers voiced their support for the new demand, event organizers led attendees in a number of chants. One went, “Hey Duke, enough is enough, you can’t shut us up with 500 bucks,” referencing DGSU’s recent petition for a $500 stipend to be delivered earlier to graduate students.
A Graduate School spokesperson previously told The Chronicle that they “definitely would have preferred sooner,” but the timeline is constrained by payroll logistics, financial compliance requirements, and a finalized list of active students.
Following demands, students will receive that money in late October and won’t have to pay a $20/night weekends and nights parking pass fee. They will still have to pay the $501 annual campus parking pass, though they can spread out payment monthly.
After the rally, Simha expressed frustration with the Graduate School’s responses to union demands.
“We’ve been getting this carrot dangled above us. The Graduate School has probably sent us four emails saying: ‘Sit tight, we’re going to figure out a plan’, and we’re saying there’s urgency behind this. We don’t need you to figure out how to give us a raise later. We need a raise now,” Simha said.
DGSU is not recognized by Duke or certified by the National Labor Relations Board. However, it still operates as a body of united workers who are able to collectively organize around demands, such as a stipend floor.
“As a direct-action, direct-join union, we're only as strong as our memberships,” Simha said. “When we fight for real change, we win it and that it's going to be easier to fight and win if there are more of us doing it.”
Simha also pointed to the rising cost of living in Durham as further reason for a higher stipend.
Thomas sees an ongoing trend of graduate student union victories at other institutions of higher education.
“It’s a big moment in general for university labor,” Thomas told The Chronicle. “All those grad unions have either gotten serious wins in the past two years, or are on the cusp of getting a serious win. We coordinate with a lot of them.”
Thomas expressed optimism about DGSU’s future, given the nationwide victories and the group’s base on campus.
“We have a broad reach across the sciences in the humanities and social sciences. This is a really diverse group of people from not just one department,” he said.
DGSU’s next steps involve a union meeting, where members will vote and discuss how to escalate the demand.
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Vishal Jammulapati is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.