Dispatch from Abroad – Under the Sea and Other Tales of Adventure – The SEIU Southern Region Conference Day 3

Today was the day when Your Intrepid Reporter just about slept with the fishes. Instead, because of an 18-inch thick pane of acrylic, Your Intrepid Reporter was simply able to walk through the Georgia Aquarium and enjoy the sea turtles, otters, Beluga whales, sea lions and whale sharks.

The final day of the SEIU Southern Region Conference began with a review of the Southern Region’s financial report. Your Intrepid Reporter’s report on the financial report is this: it was reported. The session ended with the distribution of various awards given to locals for reaching membership and membership growth goals and for locals that were able to hit targets for participation in PAC contributions. DGSU members accepted a pair of awards that were earned by the Duke Faculty Union for raising money for PAC contributions from over 30% of its members.

At the conclusion of the session, Your Intrepid Reporter travelled to Downtown Atlanta to visit the Georgia Aquarium, and it was there – dear reader, it was! – where Your Intrepid Reporter saw so many wondrous sea creatures and marine wildlife et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And what a wondrous sight it was!

 Wow!

Wow!

Chris Huebner
Dispatch From Abroad – Here I Am and in the Presence of a Warm Sun – The SEIU Southern Region Conference Day 2

Dear reader, Your Intrepid Reporter was just about bowled right over by the day that Your Intrepid Reporter just experienced.

The day began as if beneath a dark storm cloud, when – after the Invocation was delivered – SEIU’s Southern Region Director Harris Raynor invoked the looming threat to labor that is represented by the presidential administration currently ruling this fine nation.

But, fret not, for the day brightened immediately, dear reader. Fret not!

With a series of exultations of their many victories, SEIU members from Locals across the Southern Region beat away (in splendid fashion) the storm clouds which hover so menacingly on the horizon. Your Intrepid Reporters heard about workers who were able to negotiate for raises, increased bereavement periods for extended family, better health and dental insurance and so many great benefits for themselves and their coworkers. Your Intrepid Reporter also heard a number of stories from members of locals who were successful in recruiting new members, organizing and fighting against illegal decertification orchestrated by the companies they work for.

 Southern Region Director Harris Raynor and Kyle Bragg, Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU Local 32BJ take a selfie

Southern Region Director Harris Raynor and Kyle Bragg, Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU Local 32BJ take a selfie

 Stacey Abrams addresses the SEIU Southern Region Conference

Stacey Abrams addresses the SEIU Southern Region Conference

The middle of Your Intrepid Reporter’s day was occupied by a pair of workshops that focused on strategies for organizing new members and engaging them with political actions. During these workshops, Your Intrepid Reporter learned about the importance of holding orientations for new coworkers in order to teach others about the benefits of union membership. For graduate students at Duke, this stresses the importance of the Disorientation week that takes place during the early weeks of each fall semester.

In the afternoon, Your Intrepid Reporter attended the America Needs Unions Town Hall Meeting, which featured Georgia State Senator Nan Orrock and Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is currently running for governor of Georgia. During the town hall, Senator Orrock and Leader Abrams fielded questions from members from locals around the Southern Region. Questions ranged from topics like how Leader Abrams and Senator Orrock plan to improve Georgia’s healthcare system to what they both would do for the state’s homeless population. Repeatedly, both Leader Abrams and Senator Orrock continued to pledge their support for the labor movement. In response to a question asked by Emory Unite member Jonathan Basile, both Leader Abrams and Senator Orrock spoke in support of efforts by graduate researchers and educators to organize and unionize on public and private college campuses.

 Your Intrepid Reporter, Your Intrepid Reporter and Your Intrepid Reporter (L-R) relax after a busy day at the SEIU Southern Region Conference

Your Intrepid Reporter, Your Intrepid Reporter and Your Intrepid Reporter (L-R) relax after a busy day at the SEIU Southern Region Conference

After the invigorating day, Your Intrepid Reporter took a quick break before traveling to Atlanta’s R. Thomas Deluxe Grill to visit with tropical birds and enjoy a great meal with friends from DGSU and Emory Unite. Then Your Intrepid Reporter returned to the SEIU Southern Region Conference and danced until the weary heart within Your Intrepid Reporter’s chest just about exploded.

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Chris Huebner
Dispatch from Abroad – On the Road After All – The SEIU Southern Region Conference Day 1

Dear reader, it was a battle of wills, this drive down to Atlanta for the SEIU Southern Region Conference. A battle of the elements that pitted Your Intrepid Reporter against all of Nature’s furious wrath at once and altogether. A storm was brewing, blowing debris – chunks of wood, bits of leaves and grass – and the howl of the wind could be heard even through the closed windows of Your Intrepid Reporter's very own car!

Yes, dear reader, it was a trying situation, a terrifying scene indeed. But, dear reader, fret not! For just at the moment when the storm hit – just as the heavens opened up and gallon upon gallon of water lashed the windshield of Your Intrepid Reporter's very own car – dear reader, do you know what happened?

But only guess!

Could you only guess what song came playing next upon the shuffled Spotify playlist constructed by Your Intrepid Reporter, but Cher’s 1998 groundbreaking hit, the earliest example of a song using autotuned vocals to reach the highest heights of Billboard’s charts and be announced by the late and great Casey Kasem as the Number One of America’s Top 40? Dear reader, do you know? Do you know, dear reader?

Yes!

“Believe” was the song that came upon the speakers of Your Intrepid Reporter’s very own car, while the wind howled and the rain lashed against the windshield and the tumultuous storm of fury and fiendish passion occluded all existence of the outside world, making it seem as if not even the world around Your Intrepid Reporter ever existed, as if all and everything were washed away by a menacing cloud of spray and wind and fog.

Believe! Dear reader! From the Grammy-winning album of the very same name!

And so, dear reader, Your Intrepid Reporter did believe and sang along with Cher and slowed the car down and got off the highway and stopped at an eerily abandoned Dunkin Donuts (a sugary waystation well known to wary westward travelers). Once the storm passed, Your Intrepid Reporter bravely returned to the highway and completed their journey to Atlanta to attend the SEIU Southern Region Conference.

Stay tuned for further dispatches from Your Intrepid Reporter about just what is happening at the SEIU Southern Region Conference in Atlanta!

DGSU State of the Union
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Dear fellow graduate workers,

This past year, the Duke Graduate Students Union formed as a direct join-direct action union, with voluntary membership and an immediate say over what issues matter to us most. We are proud to have joined together as Local 27 of SEIU’s Southern Region Workers United!

As the school year comes to a close, you might be wondering: what has DGSU been up to? This past fall semester, our members took arrest in the effort to shut down the federal tax bill provisions that threatened to tax our tuition waivers as income and make graduate education inaccessible for all but the independently wealthy. Soon after, when the Duke administration considered dropping dependent care and adding a deductible to the student health insurance plan, DGSU showed up in force at a public forum to oppose such changes and continued to pressure the administration by meeting with the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee. Through our sustained efforts, we protected our current insurance benefits — including dependent coverage — and ensured that the Graduate School would cover premium increases for graduate students in years 1-6. After uniting with Durham Fight for $15 to make Duke a $15/hour campus, we’ve spent spring semester pressuring Duke to make good on that promise for all workers, including graduate students, whose annual income is often well below a living wage. DGSU has also joined with graduate workers across the country to fight harassment and discrimination on campus by providing resources and assistance to our peers. Between these and other efforts, DGSU has been busy fighting and winning for all Duke graduate workers. To learn more or to get involved, check out what our Pay Regularity, Continuation Fees, Healthcare and Harassment and Discrimination working groups are up to!

To strengthen DGSU’s efforts now and in the future, we ratified a constitution and elected union officers, formalizing our internal leadership and membership accountability. In the coming year, our first cohort of Departmental Stewards will communicate the needs of graduate students across university disciplines to DGSU to ensure that the union is serving all of our members. These structures will enable membership to grow, making our union stronger and more representative of all Duke graduate students workers.

This year has been one of transition, institution-building and many wins on behalf of Duke graduate workers. We’ve established relationships with other unions in Durham and across the country as part of a national movement organizing higher education. As a direct join-direct action union, we are both part of a long history of labor organizing outside the strictures of the National Labor Relations Act and at the forefront of the contemporary labor movement in this country. Specifically, we act in solidarity with other unions in the right-to-work South who have been fighting and winning without the guarantee of collective bargaining. As part of the Service Employees International Union, we are united with two million workers taking a stand for fair treatment and better conditions. In the words of SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, DGSU is “a glimpse into the future of the labor movement.”

DGSU is only as strong as its membership. Join us in fighting for a better Duke and become a member today.

In solidarity,
Laura Bellows, Public Policy
Chase Gregory, Literature
Chris Huebner, English
Danica Schaffer-Smith, Environment

On behalf of the Duke Graduate Students Union

Report: Duke Committee Makes Recommendations for Future of Student Health Insurance
 DGSU members attended a recent SHIAC meeting to voice concerns about changes to Duke's health insurance plan.

DGSU members attended a recent SHIAC meeting to voice concerns about changes to Duke's health insurance plan.

Members of DGSU attended a meeting of the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee (SHIAC) last Friday to ensure that important health insurance benefits for graduate students would not be cut. SHIAC discussed three proposed changes to the Duke Student Health Insurance plan.

The first change to come under consideration was the addition of a deductible—of either $250, $500 or $750—to the health insurance plan. A deductible would increase the amount of health care costs paid directly by individuals on the plan, in addition to co-pays for medical visits and co-insurance payments for medical treatments.

Several members of the committee noted that including a deductible would add an additional obstacle for students in need of healthcare and would especially affect student access to mental healthcare. One committee member, who was associated with Duke CAPS, noted that increasing the costs that students would have to pay out of their own pocket might encourage students to view certain healthcare, especially for mental health, as optional.

The committee also considered making changes to the benefits of the current health insurance plan. Most of the conversation focused on the possibility of removing dependent care from the plan, which would lead to significant savings in the plan’s cost liability. A GPSC student representative to SHIAC voiced graduate student opposition to removing dependent care, saying that doing so would be appalling. Another member of the committee also spoke against removing dependent care, noting that Duke’s peer institutions are making decisions to increase support for dependent coverage through their health insurance plans.

Much of the meeting focused on how much plan premiums would need to increase in order to account for the rising costs of healthcare as well as an increase in claims made through the plan. DGSU members and GPSC representatives in attendance spoke about the massive burden these costs would pose to graduate and professional students and argued that Duke University should commit more funds to graduate education in order to make these costs more manageable.

After further discussion, SHIAC came to a consensus. The Committee’s recommendation was to increase premiums to $3,500 per year (a 20% increase from current premiums), to keep the plan without a deductible, and to maintain the plan’s current benefits, including dependent care and out-of-network coverage. The SHIAC recommendation also includes a request that the university increase funding for graduate and professional students in order to cover these rising costs.

The recommendation will be passed on to Larry Moneta, Duke’s Vice President of Student Affairs, who is expected to make a final decision on the proposal in the next few weeks. DGSU will work to ensure that SHIAC’s recommendation is followed and that important health insurance benefits are protected. Also, DGSU is currently circulating a petition that calls on the University to raise pay and increase funding for Graduate Student Workers. Please click this link to sign the petition!

Report: Town Hall on Proposed Changes to Student Health Insurance
 DGSU members attending the recent Town Hall

DGSU members attending the recent Town Hall

DGSU made a strong showing at a recent town hall to voice our concerns about proposed changes to Duke’s student health insurance coverage. The town hall, organized by the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee (SHIAC), was also attended by Kevin Welch, the Associate Director of Business & Finance at Duke Student Health, and Susan Wasiolek, the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students.

DGSU learned that premium costs for the current health insurance plan are expected to rise by ten to twenty percent, based on estimates that Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) provided Duke University. In order to reduce these costs, BCBS provided Duke and SHIAC representatives with a list of suggested changes to the current insurance plan, including removing dependent care, eliminating coverage for underused services, getting rid of affordable access to out-of-network care, or adding a more expensive deductible to the plan.

Based on conversations with graduate students over the past two years, DGSU developed an agenda for a better Duke that makes reliable and affordable healthcare access a top priority. In our conversations with colleagues across the university, we heard loud and clear that graduate students need pro-family policies as well as full coverage and access to university health and wellness resources. In order to elevate the voices of the thousands of graduate students who couldn't attend the forum in person, DGSU members spoke out strongly against the possible removal of dependent care in particular, a cut that would predominantly affect women, single parents, and older students. Members also noted that the option to add dependent care should be made more affordable, instead of being removed altogether. Both the administrators present agreed that cutting dependent care would be morally reprehensible; however, neither were willing or able to publicly commit to not removing dependent care from future Duke student health insurance plans.

DGSU maintains that shifting higher premium costs onto students while removing important coverage is unacceptable for a university as wealthy as Duke. The university has a responsibility to provide decent and affordable healthcare for graduate workers who put countless hours of labor into the university and often bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars of external grant and fellowship money. The amount of money in question to cover these rising costs, quoted to total about $2 million, is a negligible amount to Duke but increasing premiums and deductibles by hundreds of dollars represent an enormous financial burden to individual graduate students making $22,000 or less in a year.

We are deeply concerned about the prospect of Duke asking graduate students to absorb nearly $2 million in rising healthcare costs when many of us are already struggling to make ends meet. With healthcare costs rising nationwide and cost of living in Durham increasing, the university must make a plan to provide for its graduate workers, or graduate work at Duke will become all but financially impossible for anyone but the independently wealthy. We will continue to reach out to graduate students across campus to hear their perspective on Duke's proposed cuts and campaign for better and more affordable health insurance coverage for all Duke graduate students.