Below you will find extended responses to the question posed in the EGSC/GPSC panel discussion
- What would be the pros and cons of having a union (such as SEIU) involved with contract negotiations and of having a collective bargaining unit?
To be clear, a union is group of workers coming together to make improvements at work. In our situation, we — as graduate student employees at Duke — are the union. Having a union gives us the legal right to bargain with our employer, Duke University, to negotiate the terms and conditions of our employment (NLRA). In our present status as non-unionized employees, we do not engage in contract negotiations. As members of the union, we can participate in negotiations in many ways, for example, we might serve on the bargaining committee, identify priorities for bargaining, and vote on the final contract (NLRA). We would also gain access to an expert negotiator provided by the union to work with us to achieve our desired changes.
Like any democratic process, participation in contract negotiations would require the involvement of individuals (in this case, us, Duke graduate student workers), and the need to invest time and to communicate with our colleagues could be seen as a drawback, since we are all pressed for time. However, investing time in decision making allows better decisions to be made, and communicating with our colleagues fosters community.
- What is the range and types of fees that can be involved with a student union, how will this be impacted if students opt-out of paying fees, and can this impact taxes?
Typically the only monetary contribution that members of the union are asked to contribute are dues, their fair share for sustaining a strong organization. Dues tend to be in the range of 1 to 2% of negotiated base pay before taxes. Dues can only be increased by a vote of the members. Dues are also taken into account in bargaining which would attempt to offset dues by increasing pay by the equivalent amount or more. In North Carolina, nobody has to join the union and pay dues, even though all workers benefit from the collective bargaining agreement and the union is still obligated to represent them all. Dues are also tax deductible, but would otherwise have no impact on our taxes (https://www.irs.gov/publications/p17/ch28.html).
- Who oversees our current benefit and stipend negotiations, who would oversee negotiations for the first and subsequent union contracts, and how would the negotiating party be selected specifically?
Currently, decisions about working conditions are determined by the Duke administration (grad school FAQ). By forming a union, we would be able to have a voice through collective bargaining with upper level administrators to negotiate the terms of our working conditions (NLRA). We will select our own bargaining committee through a democratic process. The unionized contingent faculty currently have an open bargaining process where any member of the unit can participate.
- Is it possible for students to get a pay cut or pay raise negotiated now, without a union?
Would that change with a union?
Currently administration unilaterally determines all aspects of our working conditions, including salary. Our “contracts” can be changed by the employer at any point. It is always possible to ask for a pay raise as an individual or group but the employer is not legally required to respond. When we form our union, we will be a legally recognized unit that can collectively bargain, meaning Duke must bargain in “good faith” according to federal law, by, for example, meeting regularly, in some cases, supplying documentation, and responding to demands.
Through collective bargaining, we can win a legally-binding contract providing stable, secure wages, benefits and work conditions. Bargained contracts typically establish minimum compensation standards, removing the risk of sudden pay cuts or other unexpected changes imposed by the employer. Those of us involved in the union effort are committed to bargaining a contract which establishes wage floors, not ceilings.
- What means do graduate students currently have to change a policy or submit grievances
and what are the strengths/weaknesses to this approach? How could this change with
Currently, there are no formal processes available that guarantee graduate students concerns will be weighed or considered. To change policies, graduate students either have to raise the issue themselves, or work through advocacy channels such as GPSC and talk with the administration (grad school FAQ). There have been multiple efforts that have gone through these channels including advocating for dental care, reduction of continuation fees, and restoration of gym membership. However, because the GPSC lacks the right to bargain for improvements in the terms and conditions of our employment, GPSC is limited to making recommendations or asking the administration to make changes as they have in numerous resolutions (https://gpsc.duke.edu/passed-resolutions/).
By forming a union, we would change this dynamic. Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers are required to bargain over mandatory bargaining topics. Employers can’t make unilateral changes to the terms and conditions of employment once a contract is in place.
(http://apps.americanbar.org/labor/annualconference/2007/materials/data/papers/v2/023.pdf). In this way, by gaining a seat at the table, we will be able to bargain on equal terms for improvements to our working conditions.
Currently, student-workers with a grievance have several different ways to report their concerns and it can be confusing and difficult to know how to report or to have concerns addressed. Student employees with complaints about treatment by their advisor or other university staff that are not harassment or discrimination typically submit these complaints directly to the director of graduate studies. In some departments, informal or student-run channels exist for students to submit complaints about issues with mentors. It can be uncomfortable for students to submit complaints within their departments and frequently concerns are not addressed or resolved (Hate and Bias Task Force Report).
Student-workers with a complaint against another student would submit their complaint through the Office of Student Conduct within Student Affairs who would investigate the complaint and determine steps to be taken to address the complaint (Office of Student Conduct).
A complaining student-worker can chose informal resolution if they choose (except for cases of sexual misconduct). If this is not desired or effective a complaint must be filed. After that the case can be handled two ways. 1) Informal process: OIE or the department will conduct an investigation and make findings, if the findings are that there has been a violation of the policy then a recommendation will be made by a “responsible official”. Currently there is no opportunity for graduate students to appeal. 2) Formal process: findings are made through a hearing panel, if findings are of a policy violation recommended action is given to a “responsible official”. In the formal process graduate and professional students have the right to appeal, but the structure of that is determined by the school the student belongs to and they vary widely.
If the respondent is a student (undergraduate, graduate, or professional) and the accusation is sexual misconduct then the complaint is handled through the Office of Student Conduct Sexual Misconduct Policy. All other cases of harassment (of any nature) are reported to the Office of Institutional Equity for investigation of if the harassment policy was violated.
Both the Report of the Task Force on Bias and Hate and the Report of the Faculty Task Force on Diversity determined that the Office of Institutional Equity and/or Student Affairs are not effective in addressing complaints of harassment and discrimination. Both reports also recommended a formal review of the Office of Institutional Equity and/or Student Affairs by an external agency be conducted and that in order to appropriately address concerns of hate, bias, discrimination and harassment that a new university office answering to the Provost was required. Based on the findings of these two reports conducted in 2015 and 2016 we conclude that current university procedures for addressing grievances are insufficient and ineffective.
Union contracts can be written to clearly define inappropriate treatment of student-workers that will not be permitted and which, student-workers, if subjected to such conduct, can file grievances to correct (NYU contract). Typically, with a union, student-workers with a complaint or concern that their rights have been violated would be able to first bring their concern to the attention of the union by contacting a steward, a colleague who is charged with helping others with grievances and ensuring that workers contractually promised rights are honored (steward manual). Next, the steward and the student-worker could file a formal written grievance, and ask for appropriate resolution. Finally, if the university does not provide a satisfactory resolution in the eyes of the student-worker, the union could require that the university enter into binding arbitration of the grievance before a neutral arbitrator who can order what he or she believes is the appropriate remedy. Student employees are also free to raise any concerns that they have directly with administrators if they wish.
Task force on hate and bias report: https://spotlight.duke.edu/taskforce/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/05/Final-Report-from-Task-Force-on-Hate-and-Bias-Issues.pdf
Faculty Task Force on Diversity Report: https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/sites/default/files/u6/AC-pdfs/14-15/may-7/DTF%20Final%20Report.pdf
Office of Student Conduct:
- How would a union impact our work-life flexibility and status as student researchers?
(e.g. weekly work hours, vacation policy, tax status, student loans, summer internships)
Graduate student unions have and are currently advocating for the abolishment of work hour caps (U Chicago article). Universities have used caps to restrict benefits for students (U Alabama article). Weekly hour caps would increase time to graduation for students and therefore would not likely be agreed upon by a majority of graduate students.
Currently, some graduate student workers are only guaranteed 10 working days of vacation per year (Grad School FAQ) just like all other employees of the university. Some departments or PIs strictly enforce these rules while others do not. With a union we could advocate to increase the minimum number of vacation days we are guaranteed as well as allow accrual of vacation days between years, thereby increasing benefits for all. Just as now, if individual PIs or departments wanted to allow more time off than the minimum they would still be able to do this just as they can for Postdocs and other employees currently only guaranteed 10 vacation days.
Whether students get summer internships is department and PI dependent. It is possible that we could negotiate a more formal process by which graduate students could take part in summer internships. Union contracts would not restrict students from taking advantage of these additional opportunities beyond their minimum benefits.
With its recent ruling, the NLRB decided that we are both students and workers on a federal level (NLRB decision). The NLRB decision does not impact other areas of law, and only impacts the status of student workers as employees under the National Labor Relations Act. Thus our status under other laws is unaffected by the decision. As such, we are still eligible for deferment of student loans and for exemption from taxation, such as FICA taxes, as we previously were. It is possible that agencies such as the IRS would determine to change these rules, but these changes would be independent of our unionization status.
We could additionally use our power as unionized graduate students to address these issues if federal policies were changed in negative ways or if issues were identified. For example, SEIU and students at Duke were recently involved in lsupporting a bill sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren advocating to allow tax deductible retirement savings by graduate students and postdoctoral trainees (http://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/grad_student_savings_act_SEIU.pdf) . For example, the Columbia graduate student union held an information session regarding the OPT STEM extension that congress nearly didn’t renew (http://www.columbiagradunion.org/internationalworkers/opt-stem-extension/) or graduate student unions asking congress for more research funding led by the Columbia and Harvard graduate student unions (http://stemfunding.org/), but unionizing would not affect our status under non-labor laws.
- Please describe the pros and cons of Duke students partnering with SEIU specifically.
What are union fees used for?
Faculty and graduate workers in North Carolina have been organizing with SEIU for two years. On our own campus, contingent faculty voted 6-to-1 to form their union with SEIU last year — which is why we asked for their support in building our own union. We know that we’re stronger uniting with faculty and other unionized employees on campus. We have additionally been impressed by the investment of resources and commitment we have received from SEIU from day one of our campaign.
There are more than 120,000 higher education members in SEIU, which makes it the fastest growing higher education union in the country. We are excited to unite with graduate student workers across the country — from the University of Southern California to Vanderbilt to Loyola University of Chicago — who are also organizing to form unions with SEIU. Particularly, we believe SEIU is the strongest union in the Southern United States and the best equipped to help us build a successful union in the comparably difficult political climate of the South.
Union members choose to pay dues to pool our resources and build a strong organization. Our dues pay for the cost of negotiating and enforcing our contract, legal representation, staffing, rent, equipment, and supplies. As members of SEIU, we will also be joining a progressive organization that enables us to advocate for our interests as higher education workers in the statehouse and in Washington. In recent years, the two million members of SEIU helped to elect our country’s first African American president and to pass the Affordable Care Act. SEIU locals also allocate at least 20% of their budgets to helping workers in unorganized workplaces to organize new unions.
- Can a union enforce a strike, and if so, how is it instated? Would all members have to participate and are there penalties if they don’t? What are the implications of striking?
First, strikes are only used as a “last resort”. They rarely occur, particularly in higher education unions. Moreover, before a strike could take place, all the members of the union would have the opportunity to vote about this issue. In short, there will not be a strike unless the members of the union want to strike.
While the law allows unions to sanction members for anti-union activity, and this has been done in rare occasions, this has never been an effective way to organize strike support. We would do all we could to convince our fellow graduate students that it is in their best interests to honor the line until a fair settlement is reached.
- Will the union impact our status as “students” and, if so, what are the pros and cons associated with this (e.g. impact on student loans, industry internships, type of visa
needed for international students)?
No. Our status as students has already been decided by the NLRB, who considers us to be both students and employees that are covered under the NLRA (NLRB ruling). Rules regarding student loan payments, taxes, visas, etc are determined by other rules, and do not depend on whether we unionize or not.
Students at unionized universities also do not pay FICA taxes, as they have used the IRS FICA tax exemption policy that exempts students from having to pay those taxes. In cases where the university has incorrectly deducted FICA taxes, the collective action of union affiliated students has been working to return those improperly deducted taxes. (http://www.makingabetternyu.org/gsocuaw/2016/05/02/nyu-is-messing-up-workers-taxes-again/ , https://f2.washington.edu/fm/tax/student/fica, https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/student-exception-to-fica-tax)
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/24/nlrb-says-graduate-students-private-universities-may-unionize (pdf of NLRB ruling is available in article)
- Can certain programs/departments/individuals opt out of the bargaining unit or opt out of paying dues? If so, please describe the implications.
The proposed bargaining unit was defined as a result of the strong and broad interest of graduate students in every department and program prior to our filing for a union election on November 10th. As students from all programs and departments are passionate about their desire to form a union, excluding any department or program from the bargaining unit would be unfair to these students who hope to benefit from the power that collective bargaining can provide. The NLRB will ultimately decide the contours of the bargaining unit and make a determination about who should be included in the unit on the basis of similarity of job descriptions and work conditions across the unit.
Because North Carolina is a right-to-work state, individuals are not required to pay any dues or fees to the union. Nonetheless, the union has the obligation to represent all employees in the bargaining unit regardless of their dues payment. We hope that everyone will choose to pay their fair share so that we will have a strong organization on campus.