5 Reasons we are forming a union with SEIU

Here’s the top 5 reasons why we think uniting with nearly 2 million SEIU members, including 120,000 who work in higher ed, will help improve our work at Duke and build a better future for all.

  1. SEIU is a powerful, growing union.

Grad students are the glue that binds our university together, but too often we are overlooked. A union is a way to be heard. With nearly 2 million members and faculty and graduate worker union campaigns on dozens of campuses from coast to coast — forming a union with SEIU is the best way to win the respect we deserve and build collective power for change in higher education.

  1. Uniting with the faculty union movement will supercharge our strength.

More than 15,000 university faculty have joined SEIU since 2013, including the non-tenure track faculty at Duke. The momentum on our campus and across the nation is fueled by the work of faculty and grad students who are united in SEIU. Grad students stood with faculty—and now faculty are standing with us as we form our union..

Our colleges and universities are breaking their promise to America by becoming a luxury for the wealthy instead of a pathway to the American Dream. Students spend their entire lives trying to pay off debt, yet too many professors are paid so little that they qualify for food stamps–all while top administrators pay themselves millions and politicians starve public colleges of funding. Graduate students should stand alongside faculty and other SEIU members to restore the promise of higher education’s commitment to quality, accessible higher education that graduates students without debt, pays educators a living wage, and generates more opportunities for all of our communities.

  1. SEIU is a member driven, results oriented union.

Graduate students who form unions report that they often have more security and control over the terms of their work, teaching and research. SEIU members and faculty at Duke have told us that they have been impressed with the focus and energy brought toward their union campaign. Faculty have won well over 90 percent of their union elections with SEIU Faculty Forward — an amazing accomplishment. We know that in SEIU, this will be our union. Graduate workers at Duke will elect officers, but all members can help shape a union through bargaining surveys, serving on committees, and electing officers. During the process of achieving a contract with the administration, graduate student workers will decide when the proposed contract is good enough to be ratified by a majority vote.

  1. We want to build a wider movement for, environmental, racial and economic justice with the Fight for $15.

We understand the connection between raising standards in higher ed and the need to build a wider movement for environmental, racial and economic justice. Graduate students at Duke are proud to join with the national movement to right the American dream alongside the Fight For $15. Millions of people have seen a raise in pay because people from all walks of life are united to demand fair pay and a union and together we can make sure the economy works for everyone, not just the few at the top.

  1. SEIU members are winning dramatic improvements in their first contracts.

SEIU Faculty Forward members have accomplished an amazing amount in a short time and we are excited about coming together in a union. SEIU faculty have won eye-popping improvements in wages, access to benefits and professional development in their first contracts. For example, part-time faculty organized with SEIU and won significant pay raises ranging from 15 to 30 percent.

As the fall semester comes to a close, Duke graduate student workers are forming a campaign to build support for a union, just like several other major universities like Vanderbilt, Saint Louis University, American University and Loyola University Chicago.

We need a strong, united voice in order to win and we believe the best way to improve our working conditions is by coming together with tens of thousands of faculty and millions of other workers to fix higher education and the entire economy.

Please join us. Fill out this confidential form to show your support.

Election update: December 9, 2016

Over the last week and a half, we have been in attendance at the National Labor Relations Board hearing with Proskauer Rose, a NYC-based law firm hired by the Duke administration to block our union election.

After testifying for hours about the work that we do for the university — and whether the administration actually sees it as work — the hearing is finally over.

Now, we’re waiting for the Regional Director of the NLRB to make a decision about when our election is, and how our election will be administered.

We are looking forward to getting the dates for our union election and voting YES! We will update you with next steps as soon as we know more.

Union support in the classroom

justin-mitchellAfter I graduated from college, I started working as a public school teacher in New York. I’ll never forget my first day walking into the classroom — I was full of joy and excitement as I welcomed my sixth graders to their first day of school, ready to inspire them to become critical thinkers and active participants in our democracy.

Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last long. Due to the No Child Left Behind Act, I had to shift my focus from teaching critical thinking and creativity toward preparation for high-stakes testing. The administration even tried to peg my pay to student performance on those tests. I felt devastated — like when a dream turns into a nightmare just after it begins.

But my colleagues and I weren’t alone; we were joined together in our union. As I talked to my colleagues, I realized none of us thought the “teach-to-the-test” model was in the best interest of our students. And it wasn’t just our school — we were united with public school teachers across the city and the country who felt the same. Slowly, the tide shifted — and No Child Left Behind wasn’t the driving force behind all the decisions. At a time of great uncertainty, we stood up for ourselves in our unions — protecting our ability to teach critical thinking in the classroom and fair pay for professional work that isn’t tied to a monolithic metric like student test scores. In the face of daunting obstacles, we were stronger together.

Now, I am confident that forming a union as graduate students with SEIU is the right thing to do because of my own experience as a union member. Even when conditions are good, we are more secure when we are united. If we wait, it may be too late. Who knows when the next No Child Left Behind might threaten our nation’s education system? What would that look like in higher education? While we can’t predict the future, we can choose to stand together, and join the growing national movement of graduate students and faculty forming unions with SEIU. I hope my colleagues will join me when I vote yes!

Justin Mitchell

Election update: December 1, 2016

Over the last three days, we have been in attendance at the National Labor Relations Board hearing with Proskauer Rose, a union-busting law firm hired by the Duke administration. Proskauer Rose LPP is a New York-based multinational company that was also hired by Columbia University and Yale University to oppose graduate student unionization efforts there. Graduate workers are coming together to organize across the country, and each time we witness the administration respond in a nearly identical manner.

The administration has consistently stated that all graduate students should take part in the union election. We agree, which is why we believe that the administration should drop its challenge and let us vote.

Seeking to contest the NLRB ruling that grad students are employees, the Duke administration is arguing that doctoral students should not be considered employees because all services performed by us (including research, teaching, and grading) are solely part of our academic training and not work for the university. Further, the University has maintained that lab assignments and assistantships we hold in exchange for our monthly compensatory pay are not purposed to support departmental research and teaching activities, but rather they constitute “service” and are entirely for our own benefit.

While we are disappointed that Duke University has chosen to deny the value and importance of our work in supporting its standing as a leading research institution, the Duke Graduate Students Union is confident that the NLRB will affirm our right to organize and collectively bargain as graduate workers. In the months ahead, we look forward to working together as equals to make Duke an even better place to work, study, and conduct research.

The Union Difference for Grad Students

As we wait to learn the date of our upcoming union election, it’s important to consider the gains won by our peers across the country. Below are examples of the benefits secured by grad students nationwide, as well as select contracts won by SEIU-affiliated adjunct faculty.

  • At the University of Connecticut, graduate student worker stipend rates increased by 3 percent each year of the contract, a 9.3 percent compound increase over the life of the agreement, in addition to promotional increases based on academic standing.
  • Tufts University part-time faculty, which formed a union with SEIU, will now make at least $7,300 a course after negotiation of their latest contract, 22 percent increase. In addition to other benefits, union members have a contractual right to be paid for work outside of normal classroom duties (e.g., advising, mentoring and independent studies).
  • At Oregon State University, grad assistants won contractually guaranteed protections against discrimination and sexual harassment, protections against over work, workers compensation and medical leave, and provision of the necessary workspace and equipment to perform their duties.
  • At SEIU-affiliated California Faculty Association, union members earned 10.5 percent raise over three academic years. At Boston University, part-time faculty received pay raises between 29 percent and 68 percent over the three-year life of their first contract.
  • In a contract at Washington University in St. Louis, faculty organizing with SEIU will receive a 26 percent raise over the next four academic years. Individual faculty members will also receive $750 for classes that are suddenly canceled.
  • At the University of Florida, grad assistants won transparent and consistent performance evaluations, dental and medical benefits, academic freedom protections, and protections against being overworked, and protections against sexual harassment.
  • After forming a union with SEIU, part-time faculty at the George Washington University, union members’ pay increased as much as 32% in one department when they ratified their first contract.

Update on our union election


Since filing our petition for an election on Nov. 10, the Duke administration has signaled its opposition to our union. While we hoped that the administration would allow us a free and fair process to form our union, we are not surprised that the administration has chosen to oppose us. On every campus where graduate students have come together to organize, their administrators have pushed back.

The administration has even retained Proskaeur Rose LLP, the same multinational law firm based in NYC that Columbia and Yale hired to oppose their graduate students’ unions. The firm has helped the administration appeal to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a delay in their response to our petition for a union election.

The administration and their lawyers are arguing that none of us are actually employees — ignoring a clear NLRB ruling made in August affirming our right to organize and form a union. Despite these delay tactics, we are undeterred and ready to stand up for our rights. Together, we will win our union and raise standards at Duke and beyond.

Keep checking back for updates as we find out more about our upcoming union election!