Graduate students voted to unionize. Here’s what a contract might include

<p>One supporter raises a "40K Now" sign at the Duke Graduate Student Union's rally on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. The sign refers to DGSU's calls for a $40,000 stipend pay floor.</p>

One supporter raises a "40K Now" sign at the Duke Graduate Student Union's rally on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. The sign refers to DGSU's calls for a $40,000 stipend pay floor.

After voting in favor of an NLRB-recognized union, the Duke Graduate Students Union will now begin work toward a collective bargaining agreement with the University. Here is a rundown of the union’s top issues that might be included in a contract.

Bargaining for a contract

During the bargaining process, a group of union members will be elected to a bargaining committee to negotiate with university representatives. Duke’s website notes that “labor relations professionals, administrators and faculty members would likely participate” on the University’s side.

The timeline for negotiations is unclear, and the DGSU says the process can “take weeks, months, or years.” Columbia’s graduate student union took four years to bargain for a first contract, while Harvard’s took nearly two years. It takes 465 days on average for unions to negotiate their first contracts.

Durham’s rising cost of living

The union’s top demand is a cost-of-living-adjusted stipend. 

In September 2022, Duke increased full-year stipends from $33,000 to $34,660 for the 2022-23 school year and announced that it would increase the stipend to $38,600 for the 2023-24 school year. The University also dedicated $800,000 from its reserve funds for “support through hardship assistance, additional academic-year dissertation travel awards and professional development resources.”

However, the union seeks to institutionalize and guarantee annual increases. During a Labor Day rally, the union demanded a $40,000 stipend, and it has been agitating for increased stipends throughout its campaign. 

“It can stay that way for 100 years, or five years, or however long they want. They have no obligation to change it,” said Zhang Jingxuan, a fourth-year doctoral student in the music department, at a February rally. “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.” 

International student issues

The union also focuses on concerns from international students, who made up 39.5% of all doctoral students in the 2022-23 school year. Two demands in this category are the removal of a $1,660 fee for a summer “paper course,” which is necessary to maintain visa status, and the reformation of the English proficiency system, which currently includes an English placement exam and two or three semesters of remedial classes.

Members of the union have also pointed to how most doctoral students have one-year visas, which students must return to their home countries to renew. The process can take weeks to process, while travel can cost thousands of dollars. Some union members believe that the Duke visa office could send letters of support sooner for students facing extended wait times and provide financial support for students’ relocation fees.

Duke’s website about graduate student unionization does not mention international student issues specifically. The website does explain that “unions have a right to bargain over only wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.”

Other issues mentioned on the DGSU’s website include reformations to the University’s discrimination policy, antiracism demands, lowered parking fees and improved healthcare and dental care. Members have also previously mentioned improved childcare benefits at rallies. 

Senou Kounouho profile
Senou Kounouho | University News Editor

Senou Kounouho is a Pratt sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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