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Duke administrative staff declined to accept demand letter from graduate students union, per organizer

Following the Duke Graduate Students Union’s Thursday rally, students attempted to deliver a letter to President Vincent Price asking Duke to voluntarily recognize the union and were told by administrative staff they could not accept it, according to an organizer.  

The letter, which was distributed to all union members and to those at the rally, began with a reference to the inconclusive 2017 unionization drive conducted by DGSU, which ended in March of that year. 

“In early 2017, you oversaw an anti-union campaign,” read the letter, directed to Price. “You hired Proskauer Rose, a notorious union-busting law 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?’” the letter read. 

At the time, however, Richard Brodhead was still president of the University. Price did not assume office at Duke until July 1, 2017, a few months after graduate students withdrew their petition to unionize in March

The Chronicle reached out to Matthew Thomas, DGSU co-chair and a third-year doctoral candidate in the English department, who signed the letter on behalf of DGSU. 

“In our haste to get everything out on Thursday we missed that typo, the letter meant to refer to ‘your office,’” Thomas wrote in a message to The Chronicle, adding that the union meant to refer to former President Brodhead. 

The Chronicle could not independently verify if Brodhead's office sent anonymous emails with these subject lines. The Chronicle reached out to Brodhead for comment regarding the union’s claims over email Friday evening and did not receive a response. 

Chris Simmons, Duke’s interim associate vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined to comment on the contents of the letter. He also declined to comment on why administrative staff did not accept the letter and if Price had been made aware of the letter. 

At the conclusion of the rally, a group of DGSU supporters, led by Thomas, marched from Duke Chapel to the Allen Building, where Duke’s administrative offices are located on the second floor. 

“I read the letter to everyone who was gathered in the Allen Building outside [the administrative offices],” Thomas said. “Then, I walked into the [administrative] office and said, ‘I'd like to give this letter on behalf of … the new graduate students union.’”

According to Thomas, there were three staffers in the lobby, who “just shook their heads.” 

“They sort of said, ‘We're not going to accept that,’” Thomas recalled. He said he was not given an explanation on why they could not accept it. 

He then returned to the outside of the office, where he informed the rest of the demonstrators that the office would not accept the letter. 

“I went back in the office, and I just said, ‘I'm leaving this here. This is on behalf of the Duke Graduate Students Union,’” he recalled. 

Duke stands in contrast to peer institutions that have voluntarily recognized their unions, such as New York University and Georgetown University, according to the letter. 

“We are asking you, from the outset of our union drive, to be more like your peers at these institutions and less like the executives of corporations such as Amazon and Starbucks,” the letter read. “This is an opportunity to make good on Duke’s promise to be a progressive voice in Durham and the South.”

The letter concluded with a summary of actions the union urges Price to take: “1) refraining from intimidating student workers, especially international students, as a means of dissuading them from supporting our union, 2) putting resources toward the immediate needs of graduate students rather than toward attorneys who bill over $1500/hour, and 3) voluntarily recognizing our union once a majority of our coworkers sign cards.”

The DGSU is currently a direct-join union, meaning that it does not have the right to collectively bargain in the same way a NLRB-recognized union would. If the DGSU’s unionization effort is successful, the University would be required to bargain with the union. 


Milla Surjadi | Editor-in-Chief

Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


Audrey Wang | University News Editor

Audrey Wang is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


Vishal Jammulapati | Associate News Editor

Vishal Jammulapati is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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