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Duke University graduate students can hold an election to unionize

An image of Duke Campus
Duke University
Submitted Image, File

Graduate students at Duke University who hold positions teaching and conducting research for the university will soon be able to vote on whether to form a union with collective bargaining rights.

When graduate students petitioned for a union election earlier this year, Duke challenged it — even though the National Labor Relations Board had ruled in favor of students in related past cases, including a similar challenge Duke made in 2017 to the same regional board.

Both times, the university argued that graduate students do not meet the definition of employees.

Graduate student organizers and some analysts saw this new challenge as a stall tactic by the university.

Yesterday the National Labor Relations Board rejected Duke's challenge and ruled that graduate students may hold an election.

“The facts of this case have not changed significantly enough to warrant a different finding than this Region made in 2017,” the NLRB’s region 10 director Lisa Henderson wrote in her decision.

The Duke Graduate Student Union has been leading the efforts for a union drive. The organization is currently not recognized by the university. If students vote to unionize the university will be required to formally recognize the union and negotiate with its representatives.

Doctoral students who work for the university will be mailed ballots on July 24 and they'll be counted four weeks later on Aug. 22.

“We’re thrilled to have an election date and that the labor board decided in our favor: unequivocally, our research and teaching work make this university run,” said DGSU co-chair Anita Simha.

Student organizers say union representation will help them push for cost-of-living increases to stipends and assist in disputes between workers and managers.

Duke graduate students also held a union election in 2017 that failed, but organizers say they believe they have more support for a union this time based on the proportion of student workers who have signed union cards.

Simha said it’s an obstacle that the vote will be taking place over the summer since many graduate students are traveling for work or have moved since the spring.

“We knew this was part of Duke’s union-busting tactics all along — we could’ve had an election in the spring but it was pushed back when Duke decided to challenge our right to unionize,” Simha said. “Regardless, we’re confident in our strength and we’re prepared to win.”

Duke University did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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