Duke University Is Trying to Turn Back Time on Graduate Worker Unions

Last week, Duke University’s graduate-student workers filed for a National Labor Relations Board election. The administration isn’t just fighting the union — it plans to challenge the legal status of all grad workers across the country as workers.

In challenging the employee status of graduate students at private universities by trying to revert to a George W. Bush–era National Labor Relations Board ruling that denied them such status, Duke is threatening workers well beyond its Durham, North Carolina, campus. (Duke University)

Duke University’s administration is returning to an old union-busting strategy.

When the university declined to voluntarily recognize the Duke Graduate Student Union (DGSU) after a majority of the school’s 2,500 PhD students signed cards in favor of unionizing with Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Southern Region Local 27, DGSU filed for a National Labor Relations Board election on March 3. Shortly after, the administration announced that it would challenge the union’s standing.

As Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations Chris Simmons wrote,

In 2016 the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] decided that graduate assistants at Columbia University — based on the specific facts at Columbia University — were employees and therefore had a right to unionize. However, a court of law did not review this decision. Duke provides significant financial and programmatic support for PhD students to help them reach their academic goals. That support is very different from an employment relationship. Duke will seek to present evidence demonstrating that its graduate students in their academic programs are not employees, and that the NLRB’s 2016 reasoning was incorrect.

The main impact of such a challenge would be to delay the union election — itself a significant anti-union move, given that support for unionization tends to atrophy in the lead-up to a vote as employers stoke fear about unionization among the workforce and intimidate pro-union activists. But in challenging the employee status of graduate students at private universities by trying to revert to a George W. Bush–era NLRB ruling that denied them such status, Duke is threatening workers well beyond its Durham, North Carolina, campus: if successful, the university’s challenge could impact graduate workers throughout the country.

“The administration’s claims stress the importance of context in this union debate, which I find peculiar,” said political science PhD student and DGSU member Kristina Mensik:

They claim that a unique context at Duke obfuscates any need workers at Duke might have for bargaining power and that the theoretically-unique context of graduate workers at Columbia University in 2016 does not apply to those at Duke. At the same time, they are literally taking the right to unionize at any private institution (regardless of context) into their own hands.

The challenge comes in the context of a surge of unionization among graduate students at private universities. Tens of thousands of them have unionized in the past two years. Yale University graduate students won their union by a vote of 1,860 to 179 in January. Just weeks later, 93 percent of voting graduate students at the University of Southern California supported unionization. Northeastern University’s graduate students filed for an NLRB election in February; that same month, longtime elite holdout Princeton University fell, too, with its graduate union announcing it had reached majority support for unionization.

Duke’s strategy would threaten the status of all those unions. The administration knows that the NLRB is likely to throw out the challenge — as the regional board did the last time the university fought graduate unionization — and schedule an election. But the path does not end there. If DGSU wins that election, the administration can appeal all the way up to the board in Washington, DC, and from there, to a federal appeals court. Should those institutions by that time be staffed by, say, Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis appointees, all bets are off.

“We’re shocked that the Duke administration is willing to take this public position, not only coming out against our baseline right to organize our union here in Durham but coming out against the graduate union movement nationwide,” said Matthew Thomas, a PhD student in English and cochair of DGSU. “When push comes to shove, this elite university that proudly touts its diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments is willing to side with a Bush-era NLRB decision.”

The administration has retained notorious union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose to lead the fight, a move workers find insulting. Said Thomas: “We explicitly stated that we want to work together, that we’re ready to sit down at the bargaining table, and we’re ready to have a productive exchange. They could recognize our majority tomorrow or waste millions fighting us.”

The administration’s actions are an outlier among recent higher-ed organizing campaigns. As of late, no private universities have gone so far as to threaten grad workers’ right to unionize, with a few institutions even agreeing to stay neutral in union elections rather than openly fight them. In bucking that trend, Duke is proving itself a proud representative of its right-to-work state, where unionization currently sits at a measly 2.8 percent, the second-lowest in the nation. Should DGSU succeed, it would be the first recognized graduate union at a private university in the right-to-work South.

DGSU members point out that while Duke touts its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) measures, resisting unionization suggests the university’s stated progressive values are disingenuous.

“The dearth of unions and anti-union climate is itself a direct product of Jim Crow,” said Mensik:

Given that unions can reduce racial resentment, it’s not a stretch to claim that the absence of unions contributes to racism in our community and in our state. Beyond statements in support of DEI, recognizing a graduate union would be a decisive step toward racial equity.

Mensik says her studies at Duke inform not only her support for the union, but her dismay at her employer’s actions. She studies racial politics and US democracy, and in a state where a Republican-dominated legislature has engaged in aggressive gerrymandering, the question of whether Duke can stop what would be one of the largest new unions in North Carolina in years is relevant to that research.

“I’m concerned that thwarting a graduate union election only feeds into a tolerance for restriction access to ballots across the state, for consolidating elite political power, and for further depressing civic engagement writ large,” said Mensik. “This is a moment that Duke could go beyond statements in support of DEI and protecting democracy, and take substantive action, and I really hope they do.”