A Letter to Faculty from Provost Sally Kornbluth

By | October 18, 2016

Dear colleagues,

As you likely know, there is an effort under way on campus to form a union to represent graduate student assistants at Duke. I am writing to provide an update, as well as some important guidelines that faculty need to follow when discussing the topic of union representation with graduate students.

We are cognizant and respectful of the fact that there is a range of opinions among students and faculty on this issue. Whether or not to seek union representation is a personal decision that must be left to each eligible graduate student. There are legal restrictions on what university leadership and faculty can say to graduate students about unionizing. The guidelines in this email help ensure that each graduate student is able to hear all points of view as they reach their decision, and that all faculty have the academic freedom to express their views as well. Please review the information carefully and contact the Graduate School at gradschool-dean@duke.edu if you have any questions.

Current Situation
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in August that student assistants at Columbia University are employees, which gives them the right to bargain collectively. Since then, a group of students at Duke have been working with the Service Employees International Union to form a union to represent all Ph.D. student assistants. They are currently collecting union authorization cards.

Organizers need to collect signed authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the bargaining unit (i.e., the group of people that a union seeks to represent) to prove sufficient interest in union representation. If they reach that mark, organizers can then file a petition with the NLRB to hold an election on whether to form a union. If a majority of the people who vote in the election (as opposed to a majority of the bargaining unit) opt for a union, then a union will be created.

The university’s position on this issue is that the Graduate School has had a successful history of working directly and collaboratively with our students to enhance support and benefits, and that we strive to match or exceed all of our peer institutions in our graduate student support. We also believe there are significant reasons why the NLRB’s ruling in the Columbia case would not apply to Duke, and why our graduate students are in fact students and not employees. We believe that working through a union would create unnecessary constraints that could potentially detract from and delay future collaboration. Regardless of whether there is a union, we are committed to continue working to enhance the Duke experience for all graduate students.

We have been getting questions from students and faculty about various aspects of unionizing. In response, The Graduate School sent an email to all Ph.D. students on October 3. The email stated the university’s position, acknowledged that there are other viewpoints, encouraged students to educate themselves on the issue so as to make an informed decision, and provided a list of frequently asked questions about the process and potential effects of forming a union. A copy of the email was also sent to all Duke faculty, as well as directors of graduate study and their assistants.

Guidelines for Faculty Discussing Union Representation with Students
Graduate students might approach faculty members with questions about union representation, so we have compiled the following list of guidelines that faculty must follow when engaging in such conversations. Please review them carefully and contact us if you have any questions.

Can faculty discuss the issue of union representation with graduate students?

Yes. Faculty who wish to discuss this issue with students should feel free to offer any facts, examples, or personal opinions about unionizing in conversations with individual students. Faculty must, however, follow these guidelines:

DO NOT THREATEN: Do not tell or suggest to a student that forming a union or not forming a union will result in negative treatment for that student or for students as a group. For instance, you should not say or imply that joining a union (or not joining a union) will impede or help students’ job search or their success at Duke.

DO NOT INTERROGATE: Do not ask questions about where an individual student stands on unionizing or whether he or she is involved in unionizing efforts. If a student voluntarily shares that information, you may listen but cannot ask questions about it.

DO NOT COERCE: Do not demand that a graduate student share his or her personal opinion about unionizing. If a student voluntarily expresses his or her personal views or other information, you can listen and you can share your personal views in a non-threatening, non-coercive manner.

DO NOT PROMISE: Do not promise a student or a group of students anything of value as incentive to join or not join a union. While a union representative can make such promises, faculty are considered agents of the university and thus cannot promise anything on behalf of the university or the union.

DO NOT SPEAK FOR DUKE: Make it clear that you are expressing your own personal views, and not unnecessarily speaking on behalf of the university.

DO NOT SPY: Student activities such as attending union-organizing meetings or having group discussions about unionizing are protected by law. Do not engage in surveillance of such activities, and take care to avoid even the appearance of doing so.

Where and how should faculty initiate conversations with students about unionizing?

You may initiate a conversation about unionizing by telling an individual student that you would like to discuss the issue. If the student is not willing or seems uncomfortable with having the conversation, DO NOT continue. If the student is willing to have the conversation, you may then share your views.

You should only initiate such conversations with an individual student in public areas. Do not initiate these conversations in faculty offices, a setting that could be deemed coercive or intimidating because students might need to meet with you in your office about other topics.

You should not initiate group discussions (e.g., a lab or department meeting) with students about union representation. If you are at a group meeting initiated by students and the topic comes up, you may share your opinions, facts, or examples.

You should not post your opinions about union representation on your office door in in your faculty office.

What if students ask me about certain facts?

If students ask about factual information, such as current stipends or benefits, feel free to share that information if you have it. If you do not have the information, refer the student to someone who does, or find it yourself and relay it to the student.

What if I hear inaccurate information from a student during our conversation?

If you hear inaccurate factual information, you can and should correct it.

What if a student expresses concerns about the behavior of an agent of the university or the union organizers as it pertains to the unionizing effort?

You should direct the student to Kyle Cavanaugh (kyle.cavanaugh@duke.edu), vice president of administration. In the case of the behavior of union organizers, the university (and agents of the university) is very limited in what it can say or do, so do not try to advise the students on such matters yourself.

What if a student asks what I think might be included in a potential collective bargaining contract?

You can tell the student that contract negotiations do not begin until after an election on union representation is held and the outcome favors forming a union. You can also add that you are not privy to any discussions about any bargaining agreement.

Background Information
In August, the NLRB ruled in the Columbia University case that graduate student assistants at Columbia are not only students, but also employees. This ruling gave student assistants (TAs, RAs, GAs) the right to unionize and collectively bargain. The ruling, which reverses a long history or treating graduate students as students and not employees, carries broad implications. For instance, in addition to Ph.D. students, the ruling also applies to master’s and undergraduate students who work for universities. Significantly, the ruling has not yet been reviewed by any court and we understand it will be challenged by Columbia in the event the union wins an election there.

After the ruling, a number of universities joined an amicus brief (Duke is not one of them), arguing that graduate students should not be considered employees because their primary relationship with the university is educational. At this time, however, the NLRB’s ruling is in effect and organizing campaigns at a number of universities are in progress.

There are many unanswered questions about the implications of the ruling. Before and since the ruling, the Duke leadership have held regular discussions and attended a number of informational sessions as we work to understand the full ramifications of the ruling and how it could affect various aspects of the university and our relationship with students. We will update you on new developments as needed.

Relevant Links

Sally Kornbluth, Ph.D
Duke University Provost