In early 2016, a group of Duke graduate student workers decided to start organizing to shift the balance of power on campus. Across the country, university administrators have increased their own salaries and poured money into luxury buildings while cutting funding for actual education. Students face rising tuition payments that saddle them with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Universities have become more and more reliant on underpaid and overworked adjunct faculty and graduate workers to perform essential education labor. In Durham, Duke students face these issues, which have only become a graver problem in light of skyrocketing cost-of-living expenses and stagnant stipends. In the midst of this ongoing crisis in higher education, these student workers decided to form a union with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
SEIU has been at the forefront of organizing labor movements throughout the Southern U.S., where most states have so-called “Right-to-Work” laws that make it harder for workers to collectively bargain. SEIU has supported fast food workers organizing the Fight for $15 and a Union, an effort to bring the minimum wage for all workers up to $15 per hour. Previously, adjunct faculty at Duke formed their union with SEIU. Workers know what workers need, and those working in university classrooms and research labs know what changes need to be made to make higher education affordable and sustainable.
In the aftermath of an NLRB ruling in the summer of 2016, which recognized the legality of graduate students forming collective bargaining unions, the Duke Graduate Students campaigned to form a majority union. The University administration spent millions to fight the union effort. They hired lawyers with thousand-dollar hourly fees and impounded over four hundred legitimate ballots during the election.
After the election’s indeterminate outcome, Duke Graduate Students decided that direct, collective action would be more effective than fighting the University administration’s obstructionist tactics through the legal system. The Duke Graduate Students Union was formed in the spring of 2017 as a direct-action, direct-join union, borrowing the model for labor organizing in the “Right-to-Work” South that had been pioneered by SEIU members, fast food workers in the Fight for $15, and public sector unions in North Carolina.
With growing participation from across campus, DGSU efforts were able to win a number of victories for all graduate students at Duke. After holding rallies, staging public demonstrations and having conversations with administrators, DGSU has won:
A commitment by the Duke Administration to pay a 12-month, 5-year stipend to all PhD students beginning in 2022
The elimination of continuation fees for PhD students in their 5th year
A longer accommodation period for PhD students for childbirth or adoption. The accommodation period was increased to 9 weeks for primary caregivers and 2 weeks for non-primary caregivers.
Higher allowances for graduate students to earn supplemental income. PhD students are now able to earn up to $5,000 per year for supplemental TA and RA assignments and up to $5,000 per calendar year for other supplemental work from home departments.
Restored free access to University gyms for students in Years 3 through 5 of a PhD program
Additionally, the DGSU Pay Campaign has organized alongside Fight for $15 to win a $15 minimum wage for full-time Duke employees, and DGSU continues to demand that this promise by Duke be applied to all campus workers.
DGSU advocates for better healthcare and health insurance for all Duke graduate students. Along with members of GPSC, union members have lobbied the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee to prevent vital benefits, like out-of-network coverage and dependent care, from being cut from Duke’s health insurance plan.
Additionally, DGSU is committed to fight all forms of harassment and discrimination. DGSU has organized workshops to educate graduate students about rights and resources they can access for support in case they experience harassment or discrimination in the academic workplace.
DSGU is also campaigning against Duke’s exorbitant continuation fees. DGSU actively raises money has already distributed thousands of dollars to help students who struggle to pay these fees.
Interested in working to make Duke University a better place? Click here to join DGSU!