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Duke University graduate students win union election in a landslide

Members of the Duke Graduate Student Union Aeran Coughlin (left) and Jimmy Kieu (right) blow party horns at a watch party for the Duke University graduate student union election on Aug. 22, 2023.
Liz Schlemmer
Members of the Duke Graduate Student Union Aeran Coughlin (left) and Jimmy Kieu (right) celebrate as the vote tally surpassed the number needed to formally unionize, during a watch party for the Duke University Graduate Student Union election.

In a landslide vote, graduate students at Duke University have won their election to unionize, a major milestone in their pursuit to form a formally recognized labor union. If the results are certified, PhD students who work at Duke as teaching assistants and researchers will form the largest graduate student union at a private university in the South.

The final vote count on Tuesday was 1,000 votes for the union to 131 against. Supporters of the union needed to win a simple majority of returned ballots to succeed; they received 88%.

“This is a historic victory not just for our university and our ability as graduate workers to improve our working conditions here, but also for the labor movement in North Carolina and for the graduate student labor movement,” said Kerry Eller, a co-secretary of the Duke Graduate Student Union.

Duke University has always cared deeply about its graduate students, provost Alec Gallimore wrote, in response to the election results.

"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," Gallimore said.

The university has seven days to challenge the results of the election, otherwise the outcome will be certified.

Several leaders of the informal Duke Graduate Student Union watched representatives of the National Labor Relations Board count the pink paper ballots in its sub-regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C. alongside university administrators.

"," a vote counter read.

At a watch party in Durham, N.C., members and supporters of the union booed each occasional "No" vote.

Supporters of the Duke Graduate Student Union live-streamed the vote count on a large screen TV in an empty classroom. The students recorded their own tallies on two opposing whiteboards.

Based on the number of ballots cast, they needed about 600 affirmative votes to win the election. When they hit that threshold, the students erupted in cheers.

This marked the second union election attempt by Duke University graduate students. In 2017, a majority of eligible students voted not to unionize in an election that was characterized by divisions between academic departments. Seven years later, virtually all of those students have graduated.

In this election, about 2,500 PhD students from Duke University who serve as research or graduate assistants and are compensated for their work were allowed to vote by mail.

Members of the Duke Graduate Student Union said they are excited about receiving certification of the results so they can begin contract negotiations with Duke University.

“Our main platform points are having a seat at the table, so being able to represent ourselves in what we need as workers, and equitable pay,” Eller said.

The union's other priorities include stipend increases that align with the cost of living standards, comprehensive vision and dental benefits, improved benefits for workers with children and increased support for international students dealing with the visa process.

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