“Duke is a union buster” sign written in the mural on East campus at Duke University. (PHOTO BY Danny Kim)
On a hot Sunday afternoon, the burgundy T-shirt Casey Williams is wearing reveals tattoos on each arm: an arrow with a fountain pen tip on the left arm and a water tower on the right.
“The fountain pen tip I guess is a nod to writing, which is something I care about and like to do,” Williams says.
Williams is a young 25-year-old, first-year PhD student in the literature department at Duke University. He is moving out of his apartment on the corner of Dacian Avenue and Duke Street in the Trinity Heights neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina.
Williams is an active organizer for the graduate students for unionization on campus.
Currently, New York University’s graduate student organizing committee, affiliated with the United Automobile Workers, is the only graduate union recognized by any private university in the United States.
There are 8,400 graduate students at Duke University. Many of the PhD students sign a full package contract before enrolling at the university which guarantees full support for first five years of the program. If they can’t find funding after five years, PhD students livelihood will be in jeopardy. Williams and other supporters of the unionization state that the graduate student unionization will help prevent it.
The issue is more complicated at a university like Duke since the state of North Carolina is a right to work state, which means even with the representation of the union, members are not required to pay any dues.
“It weakens unions and makes it harder for workers to support their organizing efforts,” Williams said.
Casey Williams standing in front of the Friedl Building on East Campus, where the literature department is housed at Duke University (PHOTO by Danny Kim)
Duke’s literature department is home to 50 graduate students and one of the best in the nation. All 50 graduate students in the program have guaranteed five-year funding.
“I don’t know if anyone in our department has finished in five years,” Williams says.
The issue with that is once a student goes over the five year mark, the university starts to charge “continuation fees” to pursue your degree.
Jess Issacharoff, fifth-year PHD student, attested to the continuation fees. The fees are around $7,000 per academic year, excluding the mandatory health insurance fee for additoinal $2,650.
“We are not sure, why as workers and as people who are told fundamental mission to the university should be paying such outrageous fees,” Issacharoff says on the phone.
Like many other fifth-year PhD students, she has applied to many different sources of funding such as fellowships outside of her department.
“I’m still waiting to hear back from them.” Issacharoff says.
Williams is storing his too-big furniture; a large coffee table and a foldable dining table for the summer Colleen McClean’s place, his other graduate friend in the neighborhood.
McClean is a Berkeley native and a PhD student in immunology and greeted Williams while working in her backyard garden. Her big yellow garage filled with old furniture has an extra room for Casey’s too-big furniture.
On the back side of her garage walls McClean proudly shows her latest home improvement project: the decorative leaf-less tree trunk lacquered woods on the wall.
“After you get back from this summer we should continue our shop talk,” McClean says.
They waved hands as McClean rushed to attend to her other guests.
With much anticipation, Williams will spend his summer in Bangladesh doing his research on a project documenting how people are dealing with climate change in the weather and environment. It will be his preliminary research for his dissertation. Although it may sound unusual for a literature program, Duke university’s literature department has been shifting their research into climate change discourse texts in general.
When Williams started his doctoral studies in August, he was not a total stranger to Duke. Williams graduated from the university back in 2014 as an undergraduate majoring in literature.
“I applied to number of places, and got into number of places and ultimately decided to come back to Duke, specifically for the literature department,” Williams says.
After graduating, he had a year-long job as a researcher at a climate change research institute followed by a short gig with the Huffington Post in New York City as a science reporter.
The young 25-year-old graduate student turned to activism immediately after arriving back on campus.
“I still do freelance journalism on the side,” Williams says.
Williams turned to activism immediately after arriving back on campus.
Issacharoff, has known Williams since he was an undergraduate student.
“I’ve been so impressed, and proud, and happy to work with him,” Issacharoff says.
Williams has been actively involved in the graduate student unionization effort since day one.
“It was something I heard about right after I got to campus. I think that labor organizing is really important in general.” William says.
The effort for Duke University graduate students to unionize took place several months ago. The effort, in which the pro unionization students collected
‘authorization cards’ that allows students to vote for the union and filed them with National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), was somewhat successful. However, the legal battle started here.
“Duke hired an extremely expensive lawyers from New York to contest our ability to even file for an election.” William says.
With this action, the proposed election date was delayed from November to February.
As for the progress over the summer, Casey notes that “There maybe a really big action by the DGSU and other grad unions later this summer.”
To the eyes of pro-unionization graduate students, Duke University has not been transparent about the graduate unionization effort at all.
In a letter addressed to the public dated on November 2016, Duke University President Richard Brodhead issued a following statement:
“Duke’s relationship with its graduate students is quite different from that of employer to employee, and we do not believe that representation of students by a non-academic third party, focused on just one piece of a student’s experience, is in the best interest of students or the university.”
Paula D. McClain, dean of the university’s graduate school and vice provost for graduate education, referred questions about the unionization effort to Michael J. Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, who was traveling and unavailable to comment.
To the eyes of many fighting for the unionization at Duke, the manner in which the university dealt with the issue was disappointing. The chain of communication sent from McClain and others targeted graduate students by using fear tactics and uncertainty.
On Oct. 3, 2016, Dean McClain sent out a mass email to the graduate students advising “to educate yourself fully before deciding whether or not to sign a union authorization card.”
Not all students are pro-union. Tamara Lehman, fourth-year electrical and computer engineering PhD student is strongly against the unionization.
“Being a graduate student does not entitle you to anything,” Lehman says.
Students like Lehman see that every department has different requirements for completing a PhD program and grouping them all in one union won’t be beneficial at all.
However, the fight for unionization isn’t too discouraging for graduate students.
A few weeks ago, graduate students organized a fight to end gym fees for third-year and above PhD students by holding three gym classes outside the main quad on the west campus. This raised awareness that many of the graduate students don’t have access to the gym.
Williams recalls, ironically, some undergraduates stopped and asked in shock,
“Wait you mean there are white graduate students who aren’t able to use the gym?”
Issacharoff also got closer to Casey after working together on this gym class activism at the quad.
“We’ve been working a lot. We actually canvased together,” Issacharoff says.
The day after this action, the Graduate school made a swift change of their policy by eliminating the gym fees for first five years for all PhD students starting Fall 2017 and increased the support for the additional stipend levels from $3,000 to $5,000 outside of their own department.
“I mean that’s a huge win for us,” Williams exclaimed.
This all-day event drew attention to hundreds of students on campus both undergraduate and graduate students.
“It tells us two things. Employees organize, bosses listen and that we can be as successful as a union, even though we don’t have official legal recognition,” Williams says.
Williams plan to continue his fight next academic year. He has three ambitious goals. First, form a members-only union; secondly, get graduate students on the employee healthcare; and thirdly, end continuation fees.
“We expect we can win this issue pretty rapidly,” Williams is hopeful.
On top of his myriad of other research jobs, Williams priority lies with the graduate students unionization effort this Summer.
“We are beginning talks with the administration this summer,” Williams added.
On the other side of the campus, Lehman is confident that she is not alone in the anti-unionization effort.
Duke has a diverse graduate student population across 70 departments and six campuses, and 691 students voted against the union back in February.
“I’m very happy being a graduate student at Duke University and see no need for a graduate student union.” Lehman says.
In the meantime, Casey has been keeping himself busy with the unionization effort. Back in May, DGSU voted to be part of the Workers United, a local union chapter that is affliated with the adjunct professors at Duke.
“This is a way with one, affiliated with the real labor union, be part of the broader labor movement and also sort of support our colleagues, adjuncts at Duke.” Casey noted.