- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
Graduate student workers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, may soon join a wave of private university grad worker organizing, after high-profile union wins at Yale, Northwestern, and Johns Hopkins just this year. The Duke Graduate Student Union (DGSU) has been organizing without university recognition since 2016; last September, it launched a card drive to build toward a union certification election. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler sat down with DGSU organizers to discuss the history of the union and the issues that workers hope the union will help solve, including lack of dental care and precarity for international student workers.
When did the organizing around unionization begin?
Duke had a campaign in 2016 and 2017, with an inconclusive result. So the DGSU decided to pursue a direct-join model for a union [i.e., the union has a formal structure and collects dues but is not officially recognized by the employer or the law]. We’ve been collecting dues from a small membership base since then. But this current drive started by us getting together in May of this past year and having conversations about filing and having an election again. We started building through weekly meetings all through the summer, and then we launched this card drive on September 15.
We’ve had a ton of success as a direct-join union. We moved from nine-month stipends to twelve-month stipends with a minimum of $31,000. In 2019, we did this joint action called “Pay-Ville” that was modeled after K-Ville, which is where Duke undergrads will live in tents for weeks to get tickets to this really intense Duke basketball game, Duke versus UNC [University of North Carolina], in Cameron Indoor Stadium. So we had tents set up. Even just the threat of that happening on Admitted Students Day in spring 2019 meant that Duke caved before Pay-Ville even happened. And it turned into this massive victory rally.
We’ve also won free dental care. So we’ve been having these consistent victories, even as a direct-join union. But we wanted to bring the unionization wave in higher ed to the South. We’ve been hearing all these stories from our coworkers and decided it was time, instead of just having these intermittent wins, to have a contract.
One win that we had as a direct-join union was the twelve-month funding. Previously, we’d been on nine-month schedules, and you could apply for a summer research fellowship and get twelve months out of that — so a nine-month schedule, plus whatever fellowship you can come up with in the summer. Oftentimes, grad students are without any funding in the summer and have to take on extra jobs. And you don’t get any work done, because you’re scrambling for that. So a big win was getting twelve-month guaranteed funding.
Over the past year, Duke made an announcement about guaranteeing this. This upcoming summer was supposed to be the first summer of having guaranteed twelve-month funding, but in practice, it is a series of internships that you can apply for that Duke then funds. Right now we’re seeing grads who are trying to get these internships, but the parameters and rules around these things are completely unclear. You have to go, in some cases, through maybe three rounds of applying for internships, and then the grad school will say that if it doesn’t pan out, then it’ll figure out some way to fund you. It doesn’t look like twelve-month funding at all; they just kind of changed what that word means. So we need a contract; we need to actually have a recognized union to get these wins but also enforce them and have them in writing. To have guarantees.
What motivated you to fight for a union?
I’m in STEM, so I can get underprivileged students involved in STEM until the cows come home — but at the end of the day, if grad school isn’t accessible to people, then academia will continue to be a place that I do not want to end up. That’s a big part of why this feels so important for me.
Even more tangibly, I had to move last year because rent increased like crazy for me. I am now living with like four other people, which is a lot of people to live with, and I love them — but the cost of living here is going up dramatically. And if I’d known that that was going to happen, I probably would have gone somewhere else.
I was speaking with a coworker in biology who had a meeting with an administrator to talk about these rent increase issues and people’s concerns with their funding status. This administrator asked, “If you’re dealing with these rent issues, why don’t you just move home over the summer?” So I think there’s this real perception, at least among administrators at Duke, that grad researchers are like an extension of undergrads. But in fact, we’re often in our late twenties and thirties or even forties; we’re often parents and whole adults living lives. Dignity in the workplace is a real issue that is motivating a lot of people who are involved with our union right now.
I was born and raised in North Carolina; I’ve lived most of my life within a thirty-minute radius of Durham. Duke is the biggest workplace in Durham, so I feel really motivated to have the university be a model of what a good employer can be like. If we can bring some more democracy and a real voice in the workplace to this institution, I think that would only have positive ripple effects throughout the community.
I’ve heard so many stories about folks with families trying to get their dependents on the health care plan. . . . There’s a presumed idea of what a grad student is at Duke. And it’s not someone with a family — it’s someone with family wealth, it’s someone who can go back and live at home when times are tough. That’s a huge presumption that is not real in practice. It also prohibits certain people from entering the PhD program here. That’s a big motivating factor for me, because I know multiple people who fit that description and are suffering because of it, and they are very motivated and fired up about winning a union drive.
I was a member of the NewsGuild for a couple of years at Law360. We won our first contract in 2018, and it was a transformative experience for me. I got a $10,000 raise and a year of back pay. At one point, I was saddled with a $5,000 medical bill because of an insurance problem that HR missed, and it’s like, I’m not gonna go into debt to pay for something while I’m working in this job to have health insurance. And the union was there for me, and the steward got involved, and they got this medical bill taken care of. So I came into grad school, having experienced that feeling, like . . . grad students need to stand up for each other. I know a union is the way that it’s gonna happen. It’s not through a departmental town hall.
How did the organizing happen?
We’ve been pretty straightforward and traditional in our organizing. We’ve seen that organizing conversations and one-on-one conversations with our coworkers really works. Everyone we’ve talked to has a story to share, whether it’s feeling disempowered when speaking with their advisor or needing better child care or health insurance. . . . Everyone has a story.
We launched our campaign publicly on September 15. We did a bunch of tabling. We ran department town hall events. What has been most successful for us is canvassing offices and labs. Doing that person-to-person canvassing has taken us past a majority of card signers at this point.
Trying a lot of things and throwing a lot of things at the wall and seeing what sticks, like tabling, is great. But we realized that going out and finding grads in the labs, in their offices, and having conversations with them — they’re usually receptive to that. People will really appreciate the one-on-one contact, your looking out for them and trying to get their input.
I just got here from a canvass, or a walkthrough as we call it, in the School of Business, talking to some business PhDs. I got, I think, seven cards signed; I was there a couple weeks ago and got some more people signed up. One of the most exciting things is, you might think certain departments are more ideologically aligned with the union, but grad students across the university are feeling rent burden; they’re feeling no voice, no sense of democracy in the workplace. And School of Business PhDs are signing cards, and it’s great.
What challenges, if any, have you faced when organizing, whether they be from the university or just from trying to organize your coworkers?
Duke has been eerily silent thus far. But we expect, once we make direct moves to file, for them to ramp up their anti-union campaign, which is exactly what happened in 2016–17, from speaking with organizers from that era. A big challenge is just not knowing what to expect from Duke and trying to make sure that we’re developing relationships with graduate students across departments, because, obviously, Duke has the ability and the money to communicate as much as it wants, directly with every graduate student. The only advantage that we have is people power.
In 2016, Duke was doing all sorts of underhanded things. An administrator ghostwrote an email from an alum who was president of the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association and sent that out to all international grad students. It was making these false claims, saying that the union was threatening international students’ visa statuses; it was sending all of these messages from this anonymous or unsigned email account, with subject lines like “What you don’t know can hurt you.”
So what we’re trying to do really well is inoculation: giving PhD students a tiny taste of what they can expect from Duke, so when that messaging comes, they know exactly what’s going on. Because at the end of the day, Duke’s interest is that it doesn’t want us to have more of a voice at work, because that makes their job harder. They’re going to say whatever they’re going to say to make that not be the case, through this veneer of neutrality.
In terms of speaking with graduate students, I think what we’re seeing is that people are ready for a union; people are ready for a voice at work. People are seeing this happen across the country at these other private institutions like Yale, University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins, and are ready for this at Duke. But our challenge is that we’re so dispersed, and especially in the last few years as folks have gotten more used to working from home. So if we can’t find people, and we don’t know someone who has their phone number . . . there’s a segment of our unit that’s just hard to reach.
In my experience, in a workplace that had an open office plan with two hundred editorial staff all on one floor — there were certain advantages to that. In a university with all these different departments with a big campus that’s also suburban, it’s hard to find people, especially after this shift to working from home.
There’s the difficulty, too, of the prevailing atmosphere of where we are organizing. North Carolina has the lowest rate of unionization, second only to South Carolina: it’s below 3 percent of the workforce, compared to 20 percent plus in New York.
In addition, Duke has been dangling the carrot a little bit. The day that we announced that we were going to be doing a card campaign, they were like, “Oh, no, no way. An 11 percent raise — how’s that?” I think we’ve been doing a great job of inoculating people, and most people see right through it, but we don’t know what the other people think who we haven’t been able to talk to yet because they work from home or whatever. Or Duke cuts parking costs, and most people are like, “Hell yeah, the union won us that.” But there’s always a chance that there’s gonna be a stagnant population that’s like, “Well, they’re addressing our concerns. See, they love us; they do want to work with us.” I think trying to find those people and talk to them and make sure that they see that tactic is important.
We’re a student-led organizing team. We’re all balancing our full-time jobs and responsibilities and duties and lives. We don’t have an army of organizers who are trained staff, so we’re building an infrastructure, building an organization, and training and learning ourselves while also doing whatever it is we have to do at this university to get paid.
What made you decide to affiliate with SEIU [Service Employees International Union]?
We’ve been with SEIU since 2017. When we decided not to pursue legal challenges to the election outcome, we remained a direct-join union with SEIU. But we have other union comrades on campus who are also with SEIU — Duke Faculty Union is an SEIU local, and I think it feels aligned with our values to be part of an international that’s majority black and brown service workers.
You’ve already spoken about this a little, but I wanted to ask, what all have you won so far through organizing? Could you give a complete list of victories?
In the last year alone, we have had an unbelievable number of victories. Like Kerry said, on September 15, when we launched this union drive, we got news that we were getting an 11 percent raise, an additional $500 bonus. We’d lobbied for that $500 bonus to double to $1,000, which happened.
Duke also attempted to add a new night parking fee. We ran this email blitz where we sent seventy or so emails to Parking and Transportation over the span of an hour, and they rolled that back. Parking — paying to work in the form of parking fees — and pay have been our two top-line issues for the year. In addition to that, the 11 percent pay raise, we also got them to roll back parking costs to the rate of undergrads. So we’re all getting a $180 rebate this year.
To share a personal anecdote, over the last academic year, I have been in the process of getting a gender-affirming surgery scheduled. Our $500 victory literally paid for my consultation in 2022. I’m maxing out my out-of-pocket contributions in 2023, which is entirely going to be paid for by the raise that we won. So there’s a real material interest for me to be putting time into this union; it’s allowing me to live my life in a much healthier way.
And you all won dental coverage?
That was one of the wins prior to the campaign, with the twelve-month funding, when the initial stipend raised to $31,000, and dental. That’s something that we’ve claimed as a win, because it was something we had rallies for; we have a chant that “Teeth are not luxury bones.” This is something that people got up in front of the chaplain and demonstrated about a couple of years ago.
But one thing that is a motivating factor for many grad students this year and in our card drive is that that win, in practice, doesn’t really look like what we want, which is real dental coverage, not a MinuteClinic-style thing that is just a clinic on campus where you can come get a cleaning, and you can’t use any other dental practice like with real dental insurance.
And they’re constantly trying to sell you on Invisalign.
I have friends who have had dental surgery, racking up thousands of dollars in costs. You can’t call this dental insurance — that’s not what it is. So, many people are like, “I want a union because I have to get a root canal, and I don’t have money. I don’t make enough money to have $2,000 in the bank for this fucking surgery.”
I’ve heard so many horror stories about working with Campus Smiles while we’ve been canvassing. There are people who’ve gone in, and they’ve been told that they have ten cavities, and then they go to a real dentist where they have to pay out of pocket. And that dentist is like, “What? No, you have one cavity, what are you talking about?” Some people are thinking that [the campus dentists] get paid per cavity by the university, which is ridiculous. So they’re incentivized to tell you that you have all these fillings you need to get when you really don’t.
One of the other people who’s really involved in the organizing campaign had a deformity in her mouth because she couldn’t afford to get cleanings for all the years until Campus Smiles came around. Then once she went there to get a cleaning, they were like, “You have to get that surgically removed.” But because they couldn’t do it there — because they only do cleanings and sell you on Invisalign — she had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to get this malformation removed surgically, which they told her was entirely preventable if she had been able to have cleanings the whole time. So there’s been a lot of nonsense with the Campus Smiles dental coverage. It’s better than nothing, because at least people can get cleanings. But it’s not dental.
I was wondering if you’re in touch with any other grad unions. Johns Hopkins just won their vote, Northwestern just won, Yale won, and University of Chicago is waiting for the vote results.
I just had a conversation with some PhDs about this. We just go through the list. It starts with Boston University (BU), 98 percent yes; then Yale’s victory, also in the 90s; and then Hopkins, 97 percent. Chicago, they’ll get the results soon. We’ve talked to them, and we started coordinating with them over the summer. We’ve had meetings with Yale; we’ve had meetings with BU, another SEIU affiliated union, SEIU Local 509. We coordinate — we’ve had events where they’ve come and spoke, over Zoom, sort of a “disorientation” event.
One of the amazing things is that we have this network of grad organizing that we can tap into. Emory is also one that we keep in close contact with because they are also SEIU Southern Region, Workers United. And with Emory, we’re both in the South. We’re both in right-to-work states, we’re at two universities that are competitors, two private institutions. They’re in a current campaign as well.
We have a call later with BU organizers. We’re exchanging strategies and hearing from their successes as we go.
What step are you at right now, and what’s next?
Now that a majority of grad students have expressed support, I think a logical next step for us is to ask Duke to respect democracy at work and to voluntarily recognize our union. Duke is a well-resourced school that is not friendly to unions, and I think it’s extremely unlikely that we would get voluntarily recognized. So we’re planning a big rally on February 24.
Right now, we’re a really bread-and-butter organizing campaign: we’re just doing all of the basic things. We’re phone banking and we’re doing events with pizza.
How do you envision a union changing graduate students’ experiences on campus?
Pretty dramatically. We’ve been asking people when we’ve been canvassing, “How’s your program going? How are you liking it so far? Is there anything you want to talk about?” Some people are like, “No, I’m pretty happy,” and then you say, “Okay, what would you do with an extra $5,000 dollars?” People are like, “That would be crazy, I could actually have savings, I could pay off my student loans and get a pet or something like that.” I feel like there’s a lot that can change with these pay increases. Some unions have won dental coverage for their dependents, not just themselves, and that would be fantastic for grad workers with families here.
It would be transformative, and it would mean grad students don’t have to go to a food bank to eat. I have a friend who was going to a local food pantry because they couldn’t afford groceries. A $5,000 increase, real dental — this will be transformative change. It’s a raising of expectations across the board.
If we were working in industry, we’d have all these benefits. There’s something strange in grad school, where we think we’re doing a special vocational thing where we have to write off things that are important to our health and future as sunk costs. We should have a sense that “No, we do so much work for this university. This university runs because of us, and we should be compensated fairly and treated with a sense of respect.”
I think a sense of empowerment and equity would come with unionization. I’m thinking about my department, the Biology Department. At least five people have been orphaned out of their labs, meaning their advisers no longer want to work with them — they need to find new advisers — and all five of them have been women of color. So there’s a real race and gender equity lens to this union drive, and a nationality one too. International grad students feel so precarious in their position that they’re totally at the whim of their advisers, and if we have Weingarten Rights, for example, where you can’t be called into a disciplinary meeting without a union steward present, I think advisers and admins would maybe feel a little less comfortable saying the things they’ve said to my coworkers.
I wanted to highlight our platform points: a living wage, comprehensive health care, workplace equity, international student protections, and a seat at the table. I want to point out specifically that international students have been the focus of this wedge that Duke has been trying to drive among the grad student body in the past, which is really underhanded, because they’re just targeting some of the most vulnerable grad students to scare them off from unionizing. Something we’ve been trying to do this time around is organize everywhere we can and with a message of unity.