The Durham City Council delayed a vote at its last meeting on a resolution supporting Duke University contingent faculty’s right to unionize.
Councilwoman Jillian Johnson brought a revised resolution to the group, but Mayor Bill Bell said he had more edits for the council to consider.
A group of non-tenure track Duke faculty members filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board this month to hold an election on whether to unionize.
Councilman Steve Schewel is a non-tenure track faculty member at Duke, but his department, the Sanford School of Public Policy, is not part of the block.
Each of the council members at the Feb. 18 meeting voiced their support of the faculty’s right to organize, although they disagreed on the exact terms of the resolution.
Bell said he wanted claims in the resolution, such as “many non-tenure track faculty at Duke University have worked for years without a meaningful raise,” to include sources.
“To make that statement in general without having a source does not serve the council well,” he said. “If it’s the council’s position I think we should be on more solid ground.”
“It does not imply any real meaning in my view for the council to say, ‘well, Duke Faculty Forward believes the following,’” Johnson argued. “Rather, I am asking the council to say that we believe that these statements are true.”
“I suspect if we went back and looked at other resolutions, we would find similar statements not attributed to a source,” Councilman Charlie Reece said. He was prepared to vote on the resolution at the work session.
But Councilman Don Moffitt cautioned, “This is a little bit different.”
“The progress that we’ve made to date is probably as related to Duke’s decisions as it is to ours,” he said, “which makes it incumbent on us to make sure we are knowledgeable and accurate about it.”
Bell expressed concern that the resolution lacked a clear purpose. “It’s not clear to me to whom this resolution is being directed or what happens if the resolution is adopted,” he said.
He encouraged a revised version to consider the resolution’s audience but added, “if people are content with documents they can lay on a table I’m fine with that, too.
“The language that’s most important to me is in the very last paragraph,” said Schewel. He noted the mayor had not edited that paragraph at all.
“The last paragraph is the actual meat of it,” Councilman Eddie Davis echoed.
The paragraph states: “Be it resolved that we, the Mayor and members of the City Council, strongly endorse the right of non-tenure track faculty at Duke University to form a union to improve their working conditions and to have a collective voice on campus.”
Three contingent faculty members attended the meeting Thursday, encouraging the council to pass the resolution.
Matteo Gilebbi, a lecturing fellow, said he had taught at Duke since 2009. “However, due to the short one- and two-year contracts and no possibility of knowing they would be renewed, I never really felt like I could invest in the Durham community.”
Gilebbi also hoped to “follow the example of other faculty unions who have worked on faculty diversity.” He said 4.2 percent of Duke faculty are black, and 2.6 percent are Latino.
Christopher Shreve has spent 16 years at Duke, first as a student and now as an instructor in the biology department. He says nearly 40 percent of his monthly income goes to rent.
“I would love to become a homeowner,” he said. “I imagine it’s not often you get people asking to pay property taxes. I am one of them.
“We’d all like to think the largest employer in the region is taking good care of its employees,” he said, “but we would be wrong.”
MJ Sharp, a lecturer teaching photography, said adjunct and non-tenure track professors used to be the exception. “That type of person now exists as a permanent underclass at a majority of universities around the country,” she said.
“It’s a particularly vulnerable underclass because people who are that disposable and that isolated are afraid to make waves,” she said.
The council will discuss and vote on the resolution at its next meeting, March 10.
Johnson agreed to revise the resolution but said: “My only concern with the changes proposed by Mayor Bell is watering down the statement to the point that it has no meaning. I am asking the council to take a position in support of the right to unionize, and either we support that or we don’t.”