Duke Graduate Students Union launches campaign for formal recognition on new dean’s first day

The Duke Graduate Students Union set out chairs representing administrators who were invited to their Fair Contract Sept. 15, 2022 rally and did not attend.
The Duke Graduate Students Union set out chairs representing administrators who were invited to their Fair Contract Sept. 15, 2022 rally and did not attend.

The Duke Graduate Students Union officially launched a campaign to obtain recognition and bargaining power with the University.

The union held their Fair Contract Rally Thursday at the Chapel steps to advocate for National Labor Relations Board recognition, coinciding with new Dean of the Graduate School Suzanne Barbour’s first day. 

Why now? 

The DGSU organizing committee sent a message to all doctoral students Thursday morning, calling upon colleagues to digitally sign union authorization cards—the first step towards official NLRB recognition.

This latest effort is the renewal of an inconclusive unionization effort in 2017, in which 502 union election ballots were challenged over eligibility concerns. Following the campaign, the DGSU organized as a direct-join union and operated without official NLRB recognition. 

Matthew Thomas, ​​DGSU co-chair and a third-year doctoral candidate in the English department, wrote that choosing a direct-join pathway was a “strategic” decision in response to what he sees as the University’s well-funded opposition, along with a Trump-appointed NLRB.

According to Daniel Bowling III, a senior lecturing fellow at the Duke Law School specializing in labor and employer law, the union’s current status makes it so that the University is not required by law to “at least listen to [the union’s] demands and respond in good faith” as it would for a recognized union.

As a result, DGSU has largely relied on agitation efforts, such as rallies, petitions and working groups, in lieu of collective bargaining.

“Without a contract, we can always ask for urgent changes, but Duke can always say no,” DGSU’s Thursday message read.

Echoing sentiments from the union’s Labor Day rally, DGSU wrote that the urgency of their demands and unionization efforts were linked to the rising cost of living in Durham. 

“Without a seat at the decision-making table, we graduate student workers find ourselves without recourse to ensure that our needs are met when the university sets its budgets and makes its strategic plans,” the message read. 

Empty chairs

The union’s unofficial status has resulted in the union being denied chances to speak with University administrators, according to DGSU leaders. 

This lack of direct recognition is paired with a pattern of indirect recognition through Graduate School responses to DGSU demands, union leaders say. 

On Aug. 5, DGSU pushed for paid parking passes and the $500 payment promised by Graduate School by the first day of classes. On Aug. 10, the Graduate School announced a new parking payment plan and that the $500 would be sent by October.

The union’s Sept. 15 message sent to doctoral students acknowledged the Graduate School’s Sept. 14 announcement on measures to combat rising living costs, which included increased stipends, standardized and reduced parking rates and one-time payments of $1,000 by October. This message came a little over a week after the union’s Labor Day rally, in which protestors demanded a $40,000 stipend pay floor. 

“I'm very questionable about our legal standpoint, about the fact that Duke—out of the blue—granted [doctoral students] a raise yesterday, when they knew this rally was happening,” Bowling said. “That under the law might very well be seen as an effort to bribe them into not organizing—to influence and weaken their organization.”

“Whether the raise is an unfair labor practice depends on whether it had been planned in advance of knowledge of the activity. In a legal proceeding, that is how the labor board analyzes it,” Bowling clarified in an email to The Chronicle. "If there is no evidence [the raise] was planned before [knowledge of the drive], that is how the law will look at it. If it was [planned without knowledge], it is legal and not an unfair labor practice."

Thomas pointed to a group of empty chairs labeled with Duke administration members’ names, including President Vincent Price and Barbour, none of whom attended the event. 

“We're all here to talk about a raise, to talk about the union. But you know who's not here? Look at these chairs,” Thomas said. “We invited them here to hear about the needs of graduate students, and they didn’t show up. It’s apparent for all of us that this is untenable.”

The Chronicle reached out to John Zhu, senior director of communications for the Graduate School, requesting comment on DGSU’s campaign for recognition and Barbour’s lack of attendance, as well as claims made by union organizers and Jillian Johnson at the rally. Zhu directed The Chronicle to Chris Simmons, Duke’s interim associate vice president for public affairs and government relations, who provided The Chronicle with a statement.

“Duke believes in shared governance. Work on the announced actions began this summer in close collaboration with our campus partners and the GPSG, the official elected representatives for graduate students. Their partnership was instrumental in delivering these resources,” the statement read. “We are grateful to them and to university leaders for their continuing commitment to supporting PhD students.” 


The absence of University administrators was contrasted with the presence of Workers United and Raise Up the South, two movements affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

Camden Mitchell, Workers United Southern Region representative, expressed support for DGSU’s union drive.

“I think the most impressive part of this [graduate] student union…is the fact that this has been an entirely [graduate] student-led organizing drive,” he said. “It's incredibly inspiring to see this happening here along with dozens and dozens of other grad networks across the country.”

Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson, Trinity ’03, joined the DGSU rally on Thursday, sharing her support for the union’s drive and criticizing Duke’s history of opposition to worker unions.

“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,” she said. 

“We are in the position of having a citywide housing crisis,” Johnson continued. “This is an amazing opportunity for everybody in this city to see what a union contract can do at [the city’s] largest employer.”

jillian johnson dgsu rally
Durham City Council Member Jillian Johnson speaks at the Duke Graduate Students Union rally on Sept. 15, 2022.

Next steps

If more than 50% of doctoral students sign union cards in favor of the union, the University may voluntarily recognize the union, following the steps of its peer institutions such as New York University and Georgetown University.

If the University does not grant voluntary card check recognition, DGSU can move for an official NLRB election with 30% in favor. If a majority is reached in an NLRB election, the union will receive legal certification. Duke will then be legally obligated to bargain with workers over their terms of employment.

If the DGSU succeeds in its unionization drive, it will join several other NLRB-recognized unions on campus, such as the Local 77 Chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Duke University Press Workers Union, Duke Faculty Union and Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 1328 Chapter. 

Editor's Note: This story was updated on Sunday, Sep. 18 to include a clarification about whether a raise could be considered as an unfair labor practice. 

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Audrey Wang | Data Editor

Audrey Wang is a Trinity senior and data editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 119.

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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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