Duke University graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants filed a petition Thursday to hold a union election.
The action, a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, follows a similar action by non-tenure track faculty at Duke. Earlier this year, the contingent faculty voted to join a union and are now bargaining with the university.
In August, the NLRB ruled that graduate students employed as teaching and research assistants at Columbia University were covered by the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore entitled to collective bargaining. That opened the door for graduate students to unionize at private universities across the United States.
The Duke student employees’ petition seeks a vote to form a union with the Service Employees International Union, and it’s among the first such pushes in the nation. Other graduate student unionization efforts under way include those at American University, University of Southern California, Loyola University Chicago, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Washington University of St. Louis.
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In the past two years, some 10,000 faculty around the United States have joined SEIU, which has 120,000 higher education members nationwide, the union said Thursday.
Duke students say they want the opportunity for higher pay, better health and dental benefits, and protection from sexual harassment in the workplace.
Scott Barish, 26, a doctoral student in biology, works as a teaching assistant at Duke, where he handles two courses a year and has summer pay from a fellowship. He makes about $27,000 a year and some months struggles to get by, he said. In August, Barish had a $1,900 car repair but his monthly pay was $1,700. He said he makes less money now than when he first started at Duke.
Duke believes that graduate students who engage in research and teaching as part of their programs of study are students, not employees, and that a union will harm, not help, their educational experience.
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke
“What we’re seeking to accomplish is really about being able to sit down with the administration at Duke and have a really productive conversation about how we can make everyone’s experience at Duke better, from graduate students to the students I teach,” Barish said, “because my working conditions are their learning conditions.”
Barish said he expects 2,500 students could be eligible to vote in such an election, which would be held in the next couple of months, if the NLRB approves. The students planned a rally Thursday outside of Duke’s main administration.
Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the university has a long and successful record of working with a council that represents Duke’s graduate and professional students.
“Duke believes that graduate students who engage in research and teaching as part of their programs of study are students, not employees, and that a union will harm, not help, their educational experience,” Schoenfeld’s statement said. “As members of an academic community, graduate students have a unique relationship with faculty and each other that is based on education, not employment. Furthermore, Duke has made significant investments in recent years to increase stipends, strengthen health insurance and create new benefits for graduate students to enhance their opportunity to learn, do research, and prepare for a career.”
A wave of adjunct faculty unionization has occurred the past couple of years, mostly in the northeast and at Ivy League colleges. The movement at Duke has been notable for this region.
We really are blazing a new trail, both in higher education and as a broader part of the labor movement in the South.
Scott Barish, a doctoral student in biology at Duke
“This is really, really new territory, Barish said. “Unions are not very strong historically in the South so we really are blazing a new trail, both in higher education and as a broader part of the labor movement in the South.”
But the future of labor in higher education is less clear with the election of Donald Trump this week. Over time, NLRB vacancies will be filled by the new president. The August ruling affecting graduate students overturned a 2004 law made by the board during George W. Bush’s presidency.
At Duke, nearly 100 faculty members have signed a letter of support for the graduate students to organize. In a full page ad in The Chronicle student paper, they wrote that the student employees “are colleagues in every sense of the word.”
The letter said stipends had not kept pace with the rising cost of living in Durham, and student employees do not have adequate benefits and access to some university grievance procedures.
“It is time to offer our colleagues fair working conditions – they need and they have earned this much,” the letter said. “Duke has the resources necessary to raise standards and improve working conditions.”