Duke administrators sent an email Monday to doctoral students and faculty acknowledging the intent of the Duke Graduate Students Union’s to hold an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
“The University has received notice that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has filed a petition to form a labor union of Ph.D. students who are teaching and research assistants at Duke,” wrote interim Provost Jennifer Francis in the email. “There is much at stake, and I encourage the entire Duke community to become well-informed on the issue, and I hope that all eligible Ph.D. students will vote.”
DGSU moved forward with its plans to file for an election with the NLRB on March 3 after the University chose to not respond to the union’s request for voluntary recognition. If a majority of doctoral students vote in favor of a union following an NLRB-certified election in March, the University would be legally required to recognize the union as the exclusive bargaining body for its doctoral students. DGSU would also be the first employer-recognized graduate student union at a private university in the South, per the release.
Francis referenced a previous election held by doctoral students at Duke in 2017 to become an NLRB-certified union in the email. This election was unsuccessful after over 500 ballots were challenged, and since then, DGSU has functioned as a direct-join union.
“In 2017, following extensive consideration and debate, Duke’s graduate students voted to reject SEIU unionization by an almost two-to-one margin. I believe they were correct in doing so,” Francis wrote.
Francis also wrote that Duke has “strong working relationships” with several unions representing Duke employees. NLRB-certified unions that Duke currently bargains with include the Duke Faculty Union and the Duke University Press Workers Union, alongside unions that represent food service workers and transportation staff.
However, according to Francis, while graduate students work at the University, their relationship with Duke is not the same as employees who are not also degree-seeking students.
“The University’s institutional position remains that Duke’s relationship with our students is centered on education, training, and mentorship, fundamentally different from that of employer to employee,” she wrote.
The DGSU considers doctoral students to primarily serve as employees in research and teaching capacities. The Duke administration, however, sees these roles as not just a traditional job, but a part of experiential learning in a graduate education, and as a result does not support the NLRB election.
“Ph.D. students are not admitted to do a job; they are selected because of their potential to be exceptional scholars,” Francis wrote. “The experience of teaching and conducting research is designed to prepare them for a multitude of careers in classrooms, laboratories, industry, and non-profits — a model that has served generations of graduate students well.”
Francis wrote that “students have their own voice and agency and multiple avenues for advocacy” outside of unionization, and claimed these "channels for shared governance would change ... if a non-academic third party were to serve as their representative."
“[Doctoral students] work directly with their faculty advisors to adjust schedules and expectations and advocate for policy changes by reaching out directly to deans and school leadership,” Francis wrote.
Francis wrote that while the University “has a clear and consistent institutional position on this matter,” it will support the right of doctoral students to debate unionization publicly.
In response to Monday's email, DGSU tweeted a photo of the Duke Reclamation Pond with the caption, "Is this the Office of the Provost? Because Duke grads just got an email that was written by a couple of silly gooses."
“We are disappointed and yet unsurprised that the administration failed to stand with its workers,” said Lauren Jenkins, a doctoral student in the Nicholas School of the Environment, in a previous release after Duke did not voluntary recognize the union. “While Duke has a notorious history of union busting, they once again have the option of standing with their workers by recognizing our bargaining unit and moving ahead with a timely election. While we continue to hope Duke will learn from their mistakes, we will win no matter what they do.”
MaryBe McMillan, the president of the North Carolina State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, released a statement Wednesday in support of the union.
"Grad student workers are just that — workers. They have a boss, they receive a paycheck and they deserve a collective say in their working conditions. We call on Duke University to stop the union-busting and live up to the ideals espoused in its mission statement including its 'commitment to learning, freedom and truth.' It's time that university administrators stop spreading misinformation and respect the freedom of grad student workers to organize a union and have a collective voice on the job."
Editor's Note: This story was updated Wednesday 12:46 p.m. to include a statement from MaryBe McMillan.
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Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity junior and former news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.