Duke University will legally challenge its graduate student workers’ latest effort to unionize.
“In 2016 the National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate assistants at Columbia University—based on the specific facts at Columbia University—were employees and therefore had a right to unionize,” wrote Chris Simmons, a Duke official, in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
“However, a court of law did not review this decision,” he wrote. “Duke provides significant financial and programmatic support for Ph.D. students to help them reach their academic goals. That support is very different from an employment relationship. Duke will seek to present evidence demonstrating that its graduate students in their academic programs are not employees, and that the NLRB’s 2016 reasoning was incorrect.”
The Service Employees International Union–affiliated Duke Graduate Students Union is currently trying to earn recognition after a failed attempt in 2016–17.
Matthew Thomas, a Duke teaching assistant who co-chairs that union, told Inside Higher Ed that “Duke is declaring war on the grad union movement.”
“Undergrads, postdocs, non-tenure-track faculty and academic researchers are forming unions,” Thomas said of the national picture. “Looking at this landscape and then saying that all this should be rolled back and erased is, in a sense, hitting the nuclear button … It’s an attack on grad workers across the country.”
He said the university is effectively “crossing its fingers” and hoping for a future NLRB appointed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a leading Republican presidential contender.
A Duke position statement says, “We hope that faculty can continue to interact with students flexibly and creatively, with an eye to what makes the best sense for each individual with regard to teaching, learning, mentoring, research and career development—a freedom that could be lost when these matters are ruled by binding collective agreements.”