Graduates students unionize at Duke University, pushing for improved working conditions, and joining an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.
Duke University graduate students’ years-long effort to unionize is a microcosm of a growing national trend that is splintering opinion about the form and future of a traditional academic province.
Supporters of the disruptive movement believe unionization is long past due; will improve teaching and research by enhancing work conditions, wages, and benefits; and strikes a blow for free-market principles of financial self-determination. Critics contend it distorts the traditional role of the academy and the teacher-student relationship, creates division through bullying and political activism, and threatens to further undermine the educational mission of schools by allowing external forces into even more campus corners.
Labor law experts on both sides of this divide caution that successfully forming a union is just the beginning of “a long road.” It is a process that can be fraught with pushback and payback by universities, including loss of benefits and jobs. It’s risky business, considering there is no guarantee that a contract will ever be reached.
Yet despite this uncertainty, Duke graduate students voted over recent weeks to support a union on the main campus in Durham and the Marine Lab in Beaufort by a 1,000 to 131 margin. It was the second attempt at creating a collective-bargaining unit. The first vote failed in 2017.
Lisa Henderson, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Region 10 director in Atlanta, cleared the way for the Duke secret-ballot vote in her decision on July 10. Despite opposition from Duke that graduate students merely perform a service as graders and teaching and research assistants, Henderson wrote, “Ph.D. students who provide instructional services in undergraduate or graduate-level courses or labs and who are compensated by and subject to the direction and control of Duke University are employees” (emphasis added). They are thus eligible to pursue collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act.
Duke did not make an administrator available for an interview leading up to the vote, instead forwarding the Martin Center a statement from Frank Tramble, vice president for communications, marketing, and public affairs. It read:
Duke supports the right of doctoral students to debate unionization and encourages them to vote in the election. The administration believes Duke’s relationship with our students is centered on education, training and mentorship, making it fundamentally different from that between employer and employee.
Given this view, it is perhaps unsurprising that the university posted a resource page for Duke graduate students providing unflattering facts about unionization. Among the bullet points were reminders that graduate students voted almost 2-1 against unionizing in 2017, that Duke provides better medical and dental premiums than unionized universities, that Duke’s child-care benefits exceed subsidies at some unionized universities, and that union contracts lock in future stipend increases, preventing the university from increasing them more generously. It further notes that Duke’s Ph.D. stipends increased by 5 percent in 2022-23 and 11.4 percent in 2023-24, while unionized universities provided multi-year stipend raises of as little as 2 percent.
“We’re unionizing because we know it’s a smart move to improve working conditions for graduate students and we know that it will give us a seat at the table,” said Matthew Reale-Hatem, a Ph.D. environmental-policy graduate student. Reale-Hatem is treasurer of the Duke Graduate Student Union, which organized under the umbrella of Southern Region Workers United, affiliated with Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Reale-Hatem acknowledged that graduate students have made gains since 2017. But he believes that stipend increases and dental benefits were mere university counterpunching to deflate widespread enthusiasm for unionization among graduate students, as well as support from the Graduate Professional Student Government, the Durham City Council, and Durham state-legislative leaders. Also lending support was the Duke Faculty Union, representing 200 non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty under the umbrella of SEIU.
According to Jeff Hirsch, Geneva Yeargan Rand Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC, “There are a couple of avenues for Duke to challenge the election results, during which time they don’t have to be bargaining. Then, even if bargaining does finally commence, that can take a very, very long time.”
Though great attention is placed on a union election, that’s just one step in achieving gains. Probably fewer than half of new graduate-student unions win a contract through a bargaining agreement within the first year, and many never get a contract, Hirsch said.
Duke and other universities contend that the employer-employee relationship created by unionization is a troubling departure from the university-student standard. Hirsch believes, however, that student unions can coexist with university administration, and he does not contemplate their changing university culture or operations to any great degree.
“The idea that somehow unionized grad students are incompatible with higher education just as a factual matter isn’t true. For decades schools have had grad-student and faculty unions and are still standing strong,” Hirsch said. Indeed, a union can’t force a university to bargain over everything. They can bargain over terms and conditions of work for grad students, but they can’t require the university to bargain over curricular requirements, for example. “There are real limits to what the bargaining can look like if it comes about.”
Rachel Greszler, who has expertise in jobs and labor research, views unionization in a far different light. She is a senior research fellow at the Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget at the Heritage Foundation.
According to Greszler, there can be a conflict of interest when one party goes to the bargaining table as both student and employee and negotiates for items such as teaching schedules, days off, compensation, physical space, what each side can and can’t do, and what work students may be assigned to.
“[Unions] really get into the minutiae, like kind of micromanaging the way things operate, and so I think that’s something that needs to be considered,” Greszler said. Furthermore:
They don’t, to my knowledge, have any expertise in teaching, in educating. They’re generally representing service workers in hotels, restaurants, [and] those industries … so I question whether or not they’re going to have the expertise to know, “Are the things that we’re trying to bargain for here going to be disruptive to the educational environment.”
Even more worrisome is the potential for outside activism from politicized unions to complicate core functions.
“I would not doubt that they’re going to get to issues of what should be taught, the curriculums, and that’s really not something that should be driven by teaching assistants,” Greszler told the Martin Center. “When you look at the spending of most of these big unions, SEIU included, a lot of it’s going to politics and not to the actual negotiations and representation.”
Unions break the customary level of communication between students and professors, Greszler said, and are often accompanied by bullying and the creation of adversarial relationships. No longer can students discuss compensation, safety, workplace environment, or other working conditions directly with a supervisor. Instead, such requests must pass through union channels with union officials.
Hirsch and Greszler both agree that universities can suffer reputational and recruitment damage by opposing unions.
“A lot of the things that unions, SEIU included, are advocating for politically are things that a lot of the universities would say they are in favor of. The problem is when the rubber hits the road” and unions attempt to wield their influence to control the ebb and flow of the campus ecosystem, Greszler said.
Likewise, Hirsch and Greszler agree that student-led strikes, as have occurred on several campuses, topple longstanding norms.
The intent of work stoppages “is to inflict pain on the other side, but invariably [they are] costly to the party calling the work stoppage, too,” Hirsch said. Many universities live in harmony with graduate-student unions. But tempers can flare, and “all-out war” can erupt when that balance is unattainable and union demands cross a red line, he said.
Universities have big cards to play during a strike, Hirsch declared. They could end health-care coverage because the students aren’t working. In untenable situations, Greszler echoed, they could go so far as to end teaching and research-assistant positions and go to a scholarship-only format, thus depriving graduate students of valuable experience.
“Grad students are similar to college athletes,” Hirsch concluded. “They’re not purely employees, [and] they’re not purely students.”
Former North Carolina Supreme Court associate justice Bob Orr, who has been closely tracking how universities treat their athletes, agrees.
“The key difference legally is that graduate students have been recognized as employees,” Orr said. Although college athletes, especially in the “Power Five” conferences, can earn millions of dollars for their schools and put in long, demanding hours of practice and camps, “the universities have been hellbent since the 1950s that the athletes are not employees.”
Will college athletes be the next university constituency to win collective-bargaining rights? Time will tell. But, clearly, interest already exists in potentially unionizing undergraduate students, and universities understand that dining workers, maintenance employees, and housekeeping staffs could consider organizing, too. Whether this could be a tectonic shift in higher education or much ado about nothing is an important debate that is increasingly moving to center stage in administrative buildings nationwide.
As for the recent vote at Duke, the university’s provost had this to say: “Duke has always cared deeply about our graduate students, and we look forward to working with representatives of the Southern Region Workers United on the shared goal of making the graduate experience at Duke the very best it can be.”
Duke employees, alumni, and students should hope the university is successful.
Dan E. Way is a senior communications manager in the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer. He was previously a writer for Carolina Journal and the editor of the Chapel Hill Herald.
Originally published by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Republished with permission.