Duke graduate students won’t unionize

Duke University graduate students won’t be forming a union, at least for now.

Attorneys for the Service Employees International Union on Tuesday withdrew their petition to unionize graduate students who are employed at Duke as teaching or research assistants.

According to an order signed by an official with the National Labor Relations Board, petitions from SEIU involving the same group of Duke workers won’t be considered for six months.

The unionization campaign had been under way for months, and voting was done in late February. On Feb. 24, an SEIU representative said Duke had challenged the eligibility of hundreds of students to vote.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the vote was 691 against the union and 398 in favor of it, with 502 ballots either impounded by the NLRB over questions of eligibility, or challenged by Duke or the SEIU.

The Duke Graduate Students Union Organizing Committee sent an email to students explaining the withdrawal.

“We will continue to oppose Duke’s silencing tactics, but after careful consideration we have realized we can not effectively reform Duke from within a courtroom,” the email said. “Legal challenges to the University’s union busting would take months if not years to resolve. Simply put, right now we cannot meaningfully challenge the Duke administration within a legal structure that plays to the interests of money, power, and influence. This is not a decision to quit fighting – rather, it is a recognition that the source of our strength is not lawyers or litigation, but our collective knowledge, power and experience as graduate student workers.”

The committee said graduate students had learned to speak openly about their grievances and how to address them. The “energy and momentum” of the movement will continue, the email said.

On Tuesday, Paula McClain, dean of Duke’s Graduate School, sent an email to graduate students, urging collaboration with the university.

“While this campaign has been challenging on all sides, I want to express my appreciation for the attention you have given this issue and for participating in the democratic process,” McClain wrote.

“We take pride in the efforts we have put forth in providing strong, competitive support for our Ph.D. students,” she said. “At the same time, the debate over unionization brought to our attention certain concerns among our students. We look forward to continuing to work with you as collaborative partners to enhance all aspects of your educational experience.”

The effort by graduate students was the second big unionization drive at Duke in the recent past. Last March, non-tenured faculty at Duke voted to unionize in hopes of better pay, benefits and job security.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill