On February 26, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that has been widely proclaimed as a potential death knell of public sector unions. The case threatens to limit the power of public sector unions by forcing members to subsidize freeriders who enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without paying their fair share. This would only exacerbate the large disparity in political power and resources between workers and their bosses, which is exactly what the powerful interests behind the lawsuit want
As a member of a graduate student union in the right-to-work South, I am familiar with the obstacles that face workers who unite for respect and dignity despite anti-union laws and hostile employers. Graduate workers, who perform labor crucial to the mission of the university through our teaching, research and other forms of service, won that right just last year; and yet it could be taken away any day by Trump appointees on the National Labor Relations Board.
This is why my union, the Duke Graduate Students Union, decided against fighting our university in the courts for years to gain recognition from the NLRB. Instead we look to alternative models of union organizing in our home state of North Carolina, like the Fight For Fifteen, a movement of thousands of low-wage workers, primarily led by women of color, fighting for a living wage and a union under the banner of the Service Employees International Union. Like our partners in the fast food industry, we’ve made major improvements at work through bold demands, creative direct action, and strength in numbers.
The attacks on graduate workers and public-sector workers are part of a broad attack on labor rights that include a further expansion of state “right to work” laws, which seek to make it harder for workers to unite for power in our workplaces and in our communities. But these laws are not new; parts of the country have been laboring under right-to-work legislation for years. Rather than lamenting judicial decisions, it is time to ask what comes next. The expansion of anti-worker legislation means that it is time to look to workers and unions who have been operating, and winning, under these conditions for years. Namely, it is time to look to the South.
Here in Durham, the Fight for Fifteen, the Duke Graduate Students Union, the Duke Faculty Union and campus worker members of AFSCME Local 77 together won a guaranteed minimum of $15/hr for all full-time campus workers at Duke University. And working together in solidarity we can pressure Duke and Durham to further support its workers, especially those contingent faculty, graduate students, and part-time, or sub-contracted workers who make up an increasingly large part of our workforce at the university and in the US more broadly. In this new workforce and with the expansion of punitive anti-worker legislation, labor needs to be creative and work collectively, both within and between unions.
Living in Durham, as a DGSU member and part of a community of workers, organizers and activists, I have seen an inspiring commitment to solidarity and signs of a brighter future forged through worker power. Through years of work by incredible organizations like Durham for All and unions like SEIU and United Electrical Workers Local 150, we have elected one of the most progressive City Councils in the nation, and workers from across the city are demanding a worker’s bill of rights and a Durham Workers’ Commission. We have an effective voice because we organized to elect a city council whose members come to Workers Assemblies and a mayor we see on strike lines and at rallies every week.
In North Carolina, throughout the South, and across the nation, graduate worker unions and our allies have been fighting with the tools we have – direct action and worker power. So again, when you ask how labor can continue to fight under increasingly adverse conditions, look to the South.
Jess Issacharoff is a Ph.D. candidate in the Literature Program at Duke University and a member of the Duke Graduate Students Union (SEIU-DGSU).