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After admin email against Graduate Students Union, Duke grad student government calls on University to remain ‘neutral’

Duke, however, said it "will not be neutral in its position."

<p>The Duke Graduate Students Union drapes a banner on the Chapel steps during a rally on Sept. 5, 2022. &nbsp;</p>

The Duke Graduate Students Union drapes a banner on the Chapel steps during a rally on Sept. 5, 2022.  

Just days after the Duke Graduate Students Union filed for legal certification, Duke administrators came out against the union in a Monday email. Now multiple groups, including the Duke Graduate and Professional Students Government, are responding with calls for Duke to remain “neutral” during the union authorization campaign. 

Duke, however, says it has no plans to do so. 

“The University will not be neutral in its position because we do not believe that representation of Ph.D. students by an outside third-party focused on one aspect of a student’s experience is in the best interest of our students or the University,” wrote Chris Simmons, interim vice president for public affairs and government relations, in an email to The Chronicle. 

DGSU filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board on March 3 after the University chose to not respond to the union’s request for voluntary recognition. DGSU and SEIU have proposed the union election be held at the end of March. 

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. Improvements the union hopes for include inflation-responsive living wage, affordable childcare and increased support for international students. 

Administration versus GPSG beliefs

Interim Provost Jennifer Francis sent an email Monday to doctoral students and faculty acknowledging the union’s intent to seek NLRB certification. According to Francis, while graduate students work at the University, their relationship with Duke is “fundamentally different from that of employer to employee.”

DGSU considers doctoral students to primarily serve as employees in research and teaching capacities. Francis, however, wrote that “Ph.D. students are not admitted to do a job; they are selected because of their potential to be exceptional scholars.” 

“Many if not most of us receive W2 tax forms for the work we do, yet Duke wants to suggest that we’re not employees?” wrote Julian Liber, GPSG secretariat representative for the natural sciences in Trinity College and GPSG doctoral student affairs committee chair, in an email to The Chronicle.

“We provide substantial and critical labor for the University, but are only ‘students’ when it is convenient for the administration,” he wrote.

In response to Francis' email, GPSG passed a statement Tuesday calling on Duke administrators to remove “misleading information” from their website about unionization, to “bargain in good faith” if graduate students win their election, and “to be neutral and to not interfere with the upcoming union election.”

The statement largely believes two pieces of Duke's information is "misleading" — that the unionization is being advocated for by an outside organization and that GPSG is able to serve as a substitute for a union. 

Francis' email read 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."

GPSG's statement pushed back against Francis' claim, writing, "the unit seeking representation is made up of our colleagues, not outsiders." 

“It is suggested that 'the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 27 is seeking to represent graduate students on Duke’s Campus,' despite a majority of graduate student workers at Duke petitioning for an election to be held to authorize a union,” the GPSG statement read, referring to the DGSU FAQ page.

Tuesday’s GPSG statement also clarified that they believe a student government and a union serve “distinct and complementary roles.” Graduate students are represented by GPSG in an advocacy capacity only with no legal binding to its actions.

“There is room for GPSG’s advocacy on climate, DEI, academic affairs, events, external advocacy, affordable housing, and other aspects of university governance, which will not be excluded by a union,” the statement read. 

In an email to The Chronicle Thursday, Simmons maintained that the information on the University's website is “accurate and an appropriate resource.” 

Francis’ email also referenced the 2017 election, writing that “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.”

GPSG’s statement says this claim “violates the neutrality requested” by a prior October 2022 GPSG resolution, which called on Duke to “[refrain] from efforts to dissuade students, and particularly international students, from signing union authorization cards.” 

“We ask that the administration refrain from making future statements concerning the correctness of graduate student workers’ choices to vote for or against unionization,” read GPSG’s statement.

Duke is not obligated to comply with a resolution and is not required to accept or deny it, but “expects and supports such activity,” Simmons wrote. 

‘Outpouring of support’

In a Thursday release, the DGSU noted it has seen an increase in support after Francis’ email, which circulated on Twitter. The union listed a “teach-in event and statement of ‘unequivocal support’ by students at Duke Law School, a statement from the North Carolina AFL-CIO, and statements of support at the ‘Workers Strike Back’ rally held in Durham on Saturday,” as well as statements from alumni. 

The statement from Duke Law students, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, called on Duke to respect the rights of students to "unionize without harassment or interference" and encouraged "Duke, the institution from which we learn the law, to respect the boundaries imposed upon it by the [National Labor Relations Act]."

"Duke Law students value every person whose labor allows the university to function, including graduate student workers. Duke graduate students produce scholarly research, teach classes, and mentor undergraduates. But Duke graduate students have no say in how they are paid or treated," the statement read.

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." 

“In light of the outpouring of support this week, we are more confident than ever that we will join the ranks of peer institutions that earned formal recognition with overwhelming majorities of graduate student workers – nearly 45,000 nationwide – saying union yes in the face of anti-union rhetoric,” the DGSU release read.

Milla Surjadi profile
Milla Surjadi | Editor-in-Chief

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

Katie Tan profile
Katie Tan | Managing Editor

Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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