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It's official: Duke graduate students have a recognized labor union

Duke PhD students at a rally u support of the Duke Graduate Student Union.
Courtesy of Duke Graduate Student Union
Duke PhD students Danting Jiang, left, and Devang Thakkar, right, at a rally in support of the Duke Graduate Student Union.

One week after graduate students at Duke University won a union election with 88% of the vote, the results are official. Today, the National Labor Relations Board certified the election.

Duke University did not challenge the outcome of the election during a one-week waiting period in which they could do so.

About 2,500 PhD students who work as teaching assistants and researchers at Duke University will now officially have a union that can collectively bargain a contract. The Duke Graduate Student Union plans to have a victory rally on the Tuesday, Sept. 5.

The union has seen an outpouring of support since the election, with many new students showing up at union meetings, said PhD candidate Matt Thomas, a former co-chair of the union. Thomas helped organize the election drive.

"Everyone is still kind of riding high from last week," Thomas said. "With all this energy and enthusiasm, I think we have a ton of momentum that will lend itself well to a really productive semester and getting towards our contract, which is the big goal."

The union's platform includes negotiating annual cost-of-living adjustments to work stipends and gaining union representation for labor disputes between students and their advisers. It also wants to fight for better support and protections for international students and students supporting families.

Union supporters are proud to have won in a state with historically low union participation, Thomas said. North Carolina had one of the lowest union participation rates in the country in 2022, second only to South Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"We're definitely one of the biggest union victories the state has seen in a long time," Thomas said. "As far as we know, we are the first graduate student union at a private university in the South. We're one of few graduate student unions in the South by any standard."

Labor expert William Herbert confirmed that, but as for the assertion that Duke's union is the first student union at a private, Southern university, he qualified, "Well, it depends how you define the South."

Other graduate student unions exist at American University and Georgetown University— private institutions in Washington, D.C.—at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and at four public universities in Florida.

Herbert is a labor professor at Hunter College at the City University of New York and Executive Director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. He's been tracking a wave of student union election wins across the country in recent years.

"Since January 2022, there have been 30 new collective bargaining units involving student workers, the vast majority of them have a graduate assistant bargaining units," Herbert said.

And, he says, many of them have won their elections with around 90 percent of the vote.

"So the results at Duke are fully consistent with that, which shows really a post-pandemic labor Renaissance really, in terms of support with unions," Herbert said.

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