Since our campaign began, Duke has opted to battle us in the courtroom rather than listen to our voices. Despite a National Labor Relations Board ruling that we are workers and deserve rights, Dean McClain argued from the outset that we are not employees of the university. Duke’s lawyers went on to pick any legal fight they could in order to help run out the clock before President Trump fills the NLRB with anti-labor Republicans. The administration’s petty legal strategy culminated just hours before the election, when they successfully petitioned for hundreds of ballots to be impounded, depriving many graduate students of a vote.
We will continue to oppose Duke’s silencing tactics, but after careful consideration we have realized we can not effectively reform Duke from within a courtroom. Legal challenges to the University’s union busting would take months if not years to resolve. Simply put, right now we cannot meaningfully challenge the Duke administration within a legal structure that plays to the interests of money, power, and influence. This is not a decision to quit fighting – rather, it is a recognition that the source of our strength is not lawyers or litigation, but our collective knowledge, power and experience as graduate student workers.
Fundamentally, a union is a group of workers joining together to improve their work experience. Over the past months, graduate students from across departments and disciplines have done exactly that. Hundreds of us – many of whom knew little about unions to begin with – discovered how our graduate experiences could be improved through collective action. We learned to speak openly about our grievances and to think constructively about how to address them. The energy and momentum that we unleashed has already transformed our campus, and it will continue.
There are many examples of unions having an enormous impact even where they are not formally recognized. The North Carolina Association of Educators has for years fought for the interests of public schoolteachers, even as state law forbids them from collective bargaining. Likewise, the graduate student union at the University of Chicago has won major victories without NLRB recognition. We aspire to that model, and wholeheartedly believe we can succeed in effecting change – and indeed can pioneer a path for innovative labor organizing in the right-to-work South.
During the election we asked you to fill out a bargaining survey and we still hope to gather as many responses as possible so we know what to prioritize as we move forward. And if you are interested in deepening your involvement, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Duke Graduate Students Union Organizing Committee