On Friday, Duke University doctoral students filed to form a federally recognized union, one with the power to negotiate wages and benefits on their behalf. Three days later, the school administration announced its position on the union — and it wasn’t favorable.

In a Dec. 6 letter addressed to Duke Ph.D. students and faculty, interim Provost Jennifer Francis wrote, “Ph.D. students are not admitted to do a job; they are selected because of their potential to be exceptional scholars.”

Doctoral students pursue their own research and don’t pay tuition but they also serve as teaching and research assistants, with duties including instructing classes, grading papers and working in labs. This academic year, Duke Ph.D. students earned a stipend of $34,660, which will rise next year to $38,600.

“Duke works because we do,” the organizing group, Duke Graduate Students Union (DGSU), wrote to Duke University President Vincent Price in late February. At the time, DGSU said a “growing majority” of the school’s 2,500 doctoral students supported unionization and was asking the administration to voluntarily recognize the union. It did not, and on March 3, DGSU and the Service Employees International Union petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union.

The union question seems poised to come down to an election overseen by the NLRB. A date has not yet been set. How hard the university will campaign against the union is also not yet known, though Monday’s letter makes its position clear.

“Labor unions have contributed significantly to giving employees voice and agency in our nation and around the world, and Duke has strong working relationships with several unions representing our employees,” Francis acknowledged. “However, the educational context matters greatly. The university’s institutional position remains that Duke’s relationship with our students is centered on education, training, and mentorship, fundamentally different from that of employer to employee.”

Francis pointed out that Duke Ph.D. students voted down a union in a 2017 election.

‘The win rate is astronomical’

But pro-union advocates are confident this time would be different.

In the past six years, graduate students have successfully unionized at other elite private universities, including Brown, MIT and Harvard. In the past three months, grad students have, by wide margins, approved unions at the University of Southern California, Boston University and Yale.

“The thing that has struck me more than even just the number of organizing drives is the win rate is astronomical,” said Jeff Hirsch, a labor law professor at the UNC School of Law.

Hirsch said graduate students “are not the easiest group to organize typically,” given their temporary status and the power dynamics inherent to academia.

“Your ability to get an academic job is highly dependent on recommendations from your current professors, and not to generalize, but a lot of them absolutely do not like the idea of grad students unionizing,” he said.

Yet universities are also image-conscious, Hirsch noted, and coming out as anti-union can be a public relations blunder. “The rest of the student body cares too, oftentimes, including undergrads,” he said.

On Twitter Monday, pro-union advocates blasted the university for Francis’ letter, with some accusing the school of “union busting.”

“Unfortunately, my “potential to be an exceptional scholar” doesn’t pay the bills,” one Duke doctoral student wrote in response to the letter.

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