Duke Graduate Students Union: Frequently Asked Questions

Who is eligible to vote in the upcoming election?
PhD students who provide instructional or research services for Duke University during the Spring 2016, Fall 2016 or Spring 2017 semester. Titles include but aren’t limited to: Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants, Instructors and Graders.

How do I vote? When is the voting period?
Our election will be conducted by mail-in ballot. The ballots will be mailed to your home on Friday, February 3. We recommend returning it as quickly as possible, as all ballots must arrive in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office in Winston-Salem by Thursday, February 23 or they will not be counted. The counting of the votes will occur on Friday, February 24.

I’ve moved recently, how can I be sure to get a ballot?
If you have questions or if you believe you are eligible to vote and didn’t receive a ballot in the mail contact the NLRB Assistant Regional Director, Terry Combs at terry.combs@nlrb.gov or by phone at (470) 343‐7477.

What are my options if I’m not covered in the current proposed bargaining unit?
You can still be a part of a growing movement to fix higher education and we want to stay in touch. Graduate student workers, faculty, and other campus workers are uniting for change and to raise standards in higher education. Please contact us at dukegradunion@gmail.com to get or stay involved.

Who is forming a union? Who is SEIU?
We are graduate student workers who teach and conduct research at Duke University. The Graduate School describes thriving graduate students as “creative, venturesome, and unwilling to accept worn-out answers” and we are just that. We believe that coming together and forming a union with SEIU is the best way for graduate student workers here at Duke to improve our work conditions and strengthen the Duke community.

SEIU is the Service Employees International Union, home to approximately 2 million members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. SEIU represents more than 130,000 members in public and private higher education in the United States, including nearly 300 faculty at Duke University.

Are graduate students really workers?
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently affirmed our status as workers and decided that we have the right to organize and collectively bargain as employees under federal labor law. Generally, regardless of whether your paycheck comes directly from the University, from an external funding source, or through a faculty member’s grant, the NLRB decision means that we can all come together to form a union at Duke.

How are the terms of graduate students’ working conditions currently determined and accounted for?
Currently, decisions over our work conditions are decided by the Duke University administration. Duke has the power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements without being required to consult with the people who are directly affected by these changes: graduate student workers. By coming together, we will have the power to negotiate for improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.

How does a union work? What have other student workers achieved?
Having a union empowers people to make positive changes in the workplace. Through the power of collective bargaining, graduate workers across the country have won a seat at the table and the right to negotiate with their college and university administrations. Decisions about what to prioritize in collective bargaining are determined democratically and vary between institutions. Common themes include raising minimum stipends, expanding healthcare coverage and family benefits, and defining workload protections.

For example, graduate student workers at NYU recently negotiated a new contract in which they won significant pay increases, free basic dental insurance, enhanced protections against harassment and discrimination, and new funds for childcare and family healthcare. Graduate student workers in the University of California system recently ratified a contract including pay increases, expansion of paid parental leave, access to lactation stations and gender-neutral bathrooms, and equal rights, opportunities and protections for undocumented graduate students.

How will the administration respond?
While it’s typical for a university administration to launch a campaign that tries to convince us to change our minds about forming a union, feeling they are best equipped to address our concerns, most graduate students realize that standing together to build a union is the best choice for all of us. We invite the Duke administration to take a neutral stance on the union and let us make this important decision for ourselves.

Whatever the administration’s response, our union activity is protected by the law and the strength of our numbers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) Section 8(a) prohibits an employer from threatening us for voting “yes,” interrogating us about union activity, promising any benefit for voting “no” or surveilling any union activity (meetings, events, etc.).

Will forming a union change my relationship with my advisor?
By forming our union, we will earn a seat at the table to negotiate directly with the Duke administration. We will continue to have individual relationships with our advisors. In fact, at campuses across the country, graduate student unions have strengthened graduate students’ relationships with their advisors. According to a study comparing union to non-union campuses, graduate students in unions report that their advisors are more likely to “accept them as competent professionals, serve as a role model to them, be someone they want to become like, and be effective in his or her role”. In another study, researchers surveyed 1000 faculty, and found that “collective bargaining does not inhibit their ability to advise, instruct or mentor their graduate students.”

How will our union differ from the Graduate and Professional Student Council?
The Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) provides an important forum for graduate and professional students to discuss issues on campus. It also coordinates graduate social events, awards grants for student group, provides funding for travel, and organizes graduate student committees that interact with Duke administrators.

While the GPSC can communicate concerns to the administration, it lacks the power to bargain for improvements in our working conditions. By forming a union, we will earn a seat at the table to negotiate as equals with the administration. On campuses across the country, graduate student governments and unions have mutually reinforced each other. We anticipate a synergistic relationship at Duke too.

How much will dues be?
We expect the vast majority of our colleagues to pay dues, which allow us to pool our resources and make a bigger difference on campus. No one pays dues until we have: 1) formed our union; 2) negotiated our first contract, and 3) voted as a group to approve our contract. In other words, we’ll know what gains we’ve achieved through collective bargaining before we pay dues.

Can international students become involved in the union?
Definitely! Graduate student workers at private universities have the right to organize and collectively bargain regardless of their immigration status. International graduate student workers have played a central role in organizing graduate student unions across the country. If you want to connect with another international graduate student involved with the campaign, you can send an email to dukegradunion@gmail.com.

What can I do to help?
First, sign our VOTE YES petition that shows you are making a commitment to standing with your fellow graduate student workers at Duke.  Once we win that election, we will have a union and we’ll begin bargaining for the improvements we want to see at Duke. You can also contact members of the Organizing Committee by sending an email to dukegradunion@gmail.com.