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Duke Graduate Students Union reaches union card threshold, demands voluntary recognition from University

The Duke Graduate Students Union held a rally demanding voluntary recognition from Duke administration Friday afternoon. 

According to Anita Simha, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the biology department and a DGSU co-chair, the union has “around 1,300” cards signed by the current 2,471 students — this number is over 50% of all doctoral students and above the required 30% threshold to go forth with a National Labor Relations Board election. Since a majority of doctoral students indicated that they were in favor of a union, the University may also voluntarily recognize the union, thereby negating the need for a formal election.

In an open letter addressed to President Vincent Price, the union is asking the University to “choose the path of collaboration” by March 3. If the University rejects the proposal, the union will file for an NLRB-recognized election.

The drive for recognition

The union crossed the halfway mark at least by Feb. 10, according to Simha. Although the 30% benchmark is not a requirement, Simha stated that the union aimed for a 50% benchmark to “give Duke the opportunity to voluntarily recognize [them].”

This is not the first time the DGSU has pushed for NLRB recognition. In 2017, doctoral students held an election to be NLRB-certified, but ultimately withdrew their petition to be formally recognized after 502 ballots were challenged. The DGSU has since functioned as a direct-join union without official NLRB recognition.

Without official recognition, the University is not legally required to bargain with or recognize the union. Union leaders have previously pointed to a lack of direct recognition paired with a pattern of indirect recognition through Graduate School responses to DGSU demands. 

In August, the DGSU demanded paid parking passes and the distribution of a $500 payment promised by The Graduate School. Five days after the DGSU released demands, the Graduate School announced a new parking payment plan and the $500 distribution by October. 

A little over a week after the union’s Labor Day rally for $40,000 stipends, the Graduate School announced that it would combat rising living costs by increasing stipends, changing parking rates and providing another one-time stipend of $1,000. 

Administrators’ responses

The DGSU sent their formal letter to Price after the rally, which reads that “a growing majority of [doctoral students]” have signed cards in favor of a union and requests a voluntary recognition of the union as “allies rather than adversaries.”

“Duke works because we do,” the DGSU wrote. “Despite this, we face poverty wages, incomplete healthcare, racial and gender-based inequities, and housing and food insecurities. Many of us are routinely overworked and international students especially have minimal support in navigating these issues.”

Erin Kramer, associate vice president for university communications, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the University received a request from a group of doctoral students asking for Duke to voluntarily recognize the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as the representative for all Ph.D. students.

“We value our graduate students as part of the Duke community and have a long history of working collaboratively with them to reach their academic goals during their time at Duke … We are in the process of assessing the request and will respond to the group as appropriate,” Kramer wrote.

The union previously delivered a letter to Price announcing their campaign in September. It called upon the University to voluntarily recognize the group once a majority of doctoral candidates signed union cards. Administrative staff ultimately declined the letter.

The 'path of collaboration'

If the University voluntarily recognizes the union, both parties will move directly to bargaining — and the slew of issues facing doctoral students in the process. 

At the forefront of doctoral students’ minds are cost-of-living-adjusted (COLA) stipends. On Sept. 14, the Graduate School announced an 11.4% increase in stipends from $34,660 to $38,600. However, doctoral students are still demanding a COLA stipend due to the rising cost of living in Durham. 

Zhang Jingxuan, a third-year doctoral candidate in the music department who attended the rally, noted that while the University increased their stipends in September, “that sweetener has no accountability to it.” 

“It can stay that way for 100 years, or five years, or however long they want. They have no obligation to change it,” he said. “When [COLA stipends] are in the contract, then we can feel protected through law, that when [costs] go up such an absurd level, that our pay will be somewhat commensurate, so we don't have to be prey to the forces that are outside of our control.” 

For Felix Borthwick, a second-year doctoral candidate in the cultural anthropology department who spoke at the rally, healthcare and stipends are especially important. As a doctoral candidate, he spent months putting off doctor’s appointments because of additional costs — a situation where “those hungry nights and those little things” make “you feel like you have no control over your situation.”

At the same time, this is why he’s “proud as hell” to be part of the union.

“When I get that letter in the mail, like I did last year from my landlord, saying that we're going to bump your rent up by $200 — that's done, but it stung a bit less because I know that I'm organizing and fighting alongside [the union] for a real living wage that's protected by a contract,” he said. 

Meanwhile, international doctoral candidates face additional burdens. International students, who comprise 39.5% of all doctoral students, are subject to multiple required fees and visa difficulties. International students are required to take a $1,660 summer “paper course” to take off-campus summer internships, an English placement exam and two or three semesters of remedial English classes.

Miao Hu, a first-year doctoral candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment and an international student from China who spoke at the rally, pointed out how most doctoral candidates have one-year visas. If students wish to re-enter the United States, they must undergo a “very tedious and very expensive process” to return to their home country to renew their visas — with flights that she notes may cost up to $3,000 and take four to eight weeks to process. 

Zhang, who acts as a liaison between the DGSU and Chinese doctoral students, believes that the Duke visa office could send letters of support sooner to support international students facing extended wait times and provide financial support for students’ relocation fees.

“They can't influence international relations, that's not their responsibility. But in terms of this timeline, and how many people, even people who manage to come, they have to wait, almost at the cusp, almost the middle of August, before they can get their visa,” he said.

Amber Manning, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the gender, sexuality and feminist studies department and a parent, pointed to a lack of support for doctoral candidates raising children. As a unionized high school teacher in Oregon, Manning was given 4 months of paid leave and supported by a union “leave bank” where teachers could share sick leave across the union. At Duke, the parental accommodation period is nine weeks for the primary caregiver and two weeks for the secondary caregiver — when “most [nine-week-old] babies have a hard time still holding up their heads,” he said.  

'Solidarity starts with a conversation'

At Friday’s rally, Reverend William Barber II, the leader of the “Moral Mondays” movement and the “Poor People’s Campaign,” spoke to the crowd. Barber noted that the South has “an old ugly history when it comes to labor rights” — and that “no university, especially Duke University, should want to be on its side.” 

Barber pointed to the school’s motto — “Eruditio et Religio,” or Knowledge and Religion — and how he believes rejecting the union violated both principles. 

“If you have knowledge … you would know that labor fights, if you really look at it, never lose. They may go through battles that may go through setbacks, but ultimately the people will win,” he said. 

Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe distinguished professor of history and public policy, also spoke at the rally about Duke’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and its two human rights centers — and how a union would be the practice of these principles as a “beacon in the South.”

MaryBe McMillan, the president of the North Carolina State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, pointed to how “organizing is contagious.” She pointed to unionization efforts across the state — “baristas at the Starbucks in Boone and Wilmington, reporters at the Charlotte Observer and WFAE public radio, doctors at eight health clinics in Central North Carolina.” 

Sophomore Huiyin Zhou spoke about how she resonated with doctoral student struggles. She pointed to her experiences advocating for spaces for cultural groups and emphasized the importance of solidarity between undergraduate and doctoral students “beyond societal and cultural constraints.” 

“[Solidarity] starts with collectively thinking about the concrete ways in our everyday lives, where we share space together — like we are now — and are accountable for each other. Solidarity starts with a conversation,” she said.

Kelsea Smith, a member of the Duke University Press Workers’ Union, pointed to the “tremendous threat” the DGSU posed to the University’s “unilateral power.” Smith stated that she would not be surprised if the University was currently using the funds that it could use to fulfill the DGSU’s demands to hire “trained and highly paid professional union busters whose job is to divide, confuse, mislead and scare you.”

For Smith, DUP Workers’ Union, which won official recognition after a legal battle that took over a year, “couldn't have done any of it alone.”

“We beat them. So can you. We will be with you every step of the way. And we look forward to your victory,” she said.

'Who here thinks that Duke is going to recognize us this afternoon?'

Matthew Thomas, a third-year doctoral candidate in the English department and DGSU co-chair, and Aeran Coughlin, a second-year doctoral candidate in the biology department and a member of the DGSU organizing committee, anticipate active opposition from the University based on its responses to their 2017 drive. In 2017, students received emails from groups such as the Duke Independent Thinkers Collective and Students Against Duke Unionization and several messages from anonymous senders stating that the union would “come between [international students] and [their visas],” as well as between students and their research, according to Thomas.

Coughlin noted that lab walkthroughs and one-on-one conversations with colleagues about the 2017 campaign were instrumental in educating doctoral candidates about Duke’s potential anti-union tactics. The DGSU also distributed a “bingo sheet” of anti-union strategies employed against doctoral students, which was adapted from the card created by Boston University Graduate Workers United.

“‘Make sure you consider both sides’ *[sends mostly anti-union information]” read the bottom-right square of the card. “‘Many grads oppose the union’ *[puts out material [ghostwritten] by anti-union law firm]” said another. 

When Thomas asked the crowd at Friday's rally about the chances that Duke would voluntarily recognize the union, he was met with a few scattered “No’s” and a few chuckles. 

Thomas stated that they’re “prepared for the worst.” 

“So next week, when they don't recognize us. What are we going to do?” he asked. “When they start saying that union is gonna come between you and your research, or you and your visa, are we gonna give up? No, we're not gonna stop until we get a union on this campus — not gonna stop until we get a contract on this campus.”

“We’ve given Duke the chance to do the right thing,” Thomas said. “And we’ll see what happens.”

Audrey Wang profile
Audrey Wang | Editor-in-Chief

Audrey Wang is a Trinity junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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