Frequently Asked Questions


What  should I do if I’m eligible to vote but didn’t receive a ballot from the National Labor Relations Board?
Ph.D. students who believe  they are eligible to vote and do not receive a ballot in the mail by Friday, February 10, 2017, should communicate immediately with the Assistant Regional Director, Terry Combs, or by phone at (470)343-7477 so that a replacement ballot can be mailed out.

How do I know if I’m eligible to vote in the election?
We have received multiple questions from students about whether they are eligible to vote and how students can update their home address to ensure they receive a timely ballot for the election. Duke will send an email to all students eligible to vote on Wednesday, Jan. 25, once the list of eligible voters has been finalized and submitted to the NLRB. Afterward, inquiries can be made to the NLRB by calling 470-343-7477.

Can I expect to be contacted by SEIU representatives during the election period?
Yes. Union representatives may call or text you, and they frequently make home visits, both announced and unannounced. How you respond to these visits is entirely up to you, just as you can choose how to respond to any other visitor.

What is the current status of graduate student unionization at Duke?
The National Labor Relations Board has set the dates for the election to determine whether the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) should represent Duke Ph.D. students serving as research or teaching assistants. The ballots will  be mailed out by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Feb. 3, and must be mailed back and received by the NLRB no later than 10 a.m. on Feb. 24, at which point the ballots will be counted.

How do I change my address to ensure I receive a ballot for the election?
The NLRB specified that Duke provide the home address on file that is used for the distribution of W-2 forms. So, if you want to ensure your home address is accurate and up-to-date, please visit the “MyInfo” section on the Duke@Work self-service website at Use your NetID and password to access the secure website. 

Students on the non-comp payroll may not be able to access the Duke@Work website. If a student’s address is not available through Duke@Work system, it will be pulled from the Student Center/Home in the Duke HUB ( Any Ph.D. student who cannot access the Duke@Work website should review and update their address in the Duke Hub.

Any address changes need to be made by midnight Tuesday, Jan. 24 to ensure they are captured for the voter eligibility file.

What is a union?
A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a specific group of employees. This group is called a “bargaining unit.” A union negotiates on behalf of this group of represented employees to establish collective terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits. The University has had positive and productive relationships with University staff unions that represent skilled trades, housekeepers, and bus drivers, among others, for many years.

How is the union chosen? Who decides which union will represent graduate students?
Normally, a group of workers that want to unionize will affiliate with an established labor union, such as the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees International Union, or the American Federation of Teachers. Once the group has affiliated with a labor union, organizers employed by the union will collect “authorization cards.” If a union is able to collect enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” (generally a showing that 30 percent or more of the employees the union seeks to represent want union representation), the union can file a “representation petition.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will then determine whether the petition is proper and, if so, hold a secret-ballot election.

What are authorization cards? How are they used in the unionization process?
Authorization cards are written declarations signed by members of a potential bargaining unit stating that they authorize a particular union to be their exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment with their employer. Typically, unions collect authorization cards as part of an organizing drive – that is, an attempt to show that there is a substantial interest in unionizing and a desire to have the union serve as the exclusive bargaining agent. These cards are generally not revocable, so it is important to be sure before signing them. It is important to remember that each eligible voter is always free to vote however he or she wants in the secret ballot election, regardless of whether a voter has previously signed an authorization card.

How do unions obtain the right to represent employees?
Union representation usually is determined by a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to be in the bargaining unit are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters – and those who follow them into union-represented positions in the future – would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning pay, benefits, and other “terms and conditions of employment.”
If there is an election, when will it be held?
Absent unusual delays, an election generally takes place within approximately three weeks after the filing of a representation petition.

What is the election process?
A representation election is a secret-ballot election conducted and supervised by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal government agency. Voting would likely take place at an easily accessible location on campus on a specified day, during specified hours, or via a mail-in process.

Who should vote?
Every eligible person should vote because the election outcome is determined by the majority of those who vote, not a majority of those eligible to vote. Thus, union representation for non-voters will be decided by those who vote. Eligible voters are people who are part of the defined voting unit at the time of the election. Your status as a research or teaching assistant at the time of the election, not your status as a graduate student, will likely determine if you will be able to vote.

Will students have access to a draft of the proposed contract or a list of provisions that would be negotiated prior to a vote on unionization?
No. Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the representation election. The union’s agenda for bargaining is typically determined by union leadership in consultation with its members. The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms of employment,” which are broad concepts.

Can graduate students “opt out” of the union by not voting?
No. The results of any election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote, students who vote “no,” and future students.

If there is an election and graduate students vote NOT to unionize, can graduate students have another election at a later date?
Yes. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. If a majority of voters voted against union representation, the same union or a different union could seek an election one year later.

If an election results in representation by a union, how long will it represent the graduate students?
Union elections are not like political elections, which happen regularly to determine voters’ representatives. Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and will represent all students who will matriculate in the future. The process to decertify (or remove) a union typically also requires a vote, and it is a complex process that can take years to complete.

Who would be included and excluded from a union at Duke?
We won’t know unless a labor union files a petition seeking to represent graduate students at the University. Under federal labor law, members of a bargaining unit must have enough in common that they are deemed to share a “community of interest.” Usually, the NLRB gives unions wide leeway to decide who has a community of interest and therefore should be grouped together in a bargaining unit.

Would status as an international graduate student affect eligibility to be included in the union?
No. International student status does not affect eligibility. The process for determining who is included in the bargaining unit applies to all graduate students regardless of international status.

Would the issue of union representation apply to RAs regardless of funding source (e.g., federal government vs. private foundation)?
Yes, if the graduate student was included in the bargaining unit, he or she would be represented by the union regardless of the source of funding for the position.

Once the bargaining unit is defined, can it change?
Yes. A bargaining unit (i.e., the group of people a union represents) can change if the union and the employer agree to change it. The bargaining unit can also change if either the union or the employer files a “unit clarification petition,” which is a formal request that the NLRB revise the parameters of the certified bargaining unit. Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, the union initially proposes a bargaining unit when it files an election petition with the NLRB, and the NLRB ultimately decides the appropriate bargaining unit and thus who is eligible to vote.

Can graduate students come in and out of a union depending on their position at the University?
Yes. Because a labor union represents students only in their capacity as teaching or research assistants, students could enter the bargaining unit and be subject to union representation when serving as teaching or research assistants, but exit the bargaining unit and no longer be subject to union representation at other times.

Would all members of the bargaining unit be represented by the union?
Yes, a union would represent every person in the bargaining unit.

What are union dues and how are they calculated?
Like any business, unions need to collect income for the services they provide in order to pay their bills. For unions, this comes in the form of membership dues and initiation fees. Each union establishes its own dues formula. From what we have seen, SEIU dues appear to be stated as a percentage of income and we have seen figures that run from a low of 1.5% to a high of 2.5% of income.

At New York University, the only private school with a graduate student union, graduate students are charged 2% of total compensation during the semesters in which they are employed in a union position, and the dues are deducted from every paycheck. In addition to the dues, there is an Initiation fee of up to $50 (it may be less, depending on the pay grade) when individuals first join the union. For more on NYU, see

Are members of the bargaining unit required to pay dues to the union?
North Carolina has a “right-to-work” law, which means employees represented by a union cannot be forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of continued employment. Represented employees who do not join the union or pay dues are, however, still exclusively represented by the union. They cannot deal directly with Duke and would have to abide by the terms contained in any collective bargaining agreement.

In states that do not have a “right-to-work” law (e.g. New York or Pennsylvania), the collective bargaining agreement can contain a “union security clause” that requires represented employees to join the union (or at least pay dues to the union) as a condition of employment. While that cannot be a requirement in a collective bargaining agreement in North Carolina, unions like the SEIU still want employees they represent to join the union voluntarily, which obligates the payment of dues.

What would a union do for me as a graduate student?
This is a question we can’t answer right now. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment,” concepts that the NLRB and the federal courts have interpreted broadly.

For example, NYU’s graduate student teachers and some research assistants currently are represented by the UAW. After nearly eighteen months of contract negotiations, the UAW and NYU entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA, also called a labor contract). The terms and conditions of employment covered by the CBA include wages/stipends, working hours, health insurance, travel and meal expenses, leaves of absence, job postings, and access to offices. The CBA also contains a “just cause” provision limiting NYU’s ability to discharge a graduate student assistant, a grievance and arbitration procedure, and a no-strike clause. Significantly, the labor contract vests “exclusively” in NYU the right to plan, direct and control the university’s mission, programs and objectives; to determine the content and process for performance evaluations, to determine when instruction is delivered; and, in recognition that such matters involve “academic judgment,” the right to determine “who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught, and who does the teaching.” The CBA exempted all disputes over such matters from the grievance/arbitration process.

What would a union prevent me from doing?
It will depend on what is included in the labor contract and what is contained in the union’s by-laws. It is important to take into account that a labor contract governs only students’ activities in their capacities as TAs and RAs. The following are some examples of aspects of your experience as a graduate student that may be affected. Rules could be implemented that dictate how TAs are selected. It may be that faculty members retain the right to suggest TAs for their classes, for example, or it could be that assistantships must be negotiated exclusively with the union, with the union deciding what it thinks is best for graduate students.

Additionally, disputes that arise under the labor contract between the University and the union ultimately could be decided by an external labor arbitrator. Also, union by-laws often contain provisions that provide for punishment, such as fines, for various infractions such as coming to work during a strike.

Would the University be able to make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate the individual needs of individual graduate students in the unit?
No. Unless such exceptions are provided for in the labor contract or otherwise agreed to by the union, they are not permitted. Collective bargaining agreements focus on graduate students as a collective group.

What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?
Yes. The union speaks and acts for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless specific exceptions and differences are provided for in the contract.

What can a union bargain for?
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment” – concepts that the NLRB and federal courts have interpreted broadly. The NLRB and the federal courts have no experience analyzing what are “terms and conditions of employment” for graduate students whose teaching and research is part of their academic training.

If a union is formed, will graduate students’ stipends and teaching remuneration increase? What about benefits?
We don’t know. There is a common misperception that current stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits serve as a floor and can only improve with collective bargaining. There is no guarantee that any union can obtain improvements in any economic area. The law does not require either a union or management to agree to any contract proposal.

If graduate research assistants in the sciences are included in the bargaining unit, could their hours be capped?
We do not know. To date, graduate research assistants in the sciences have not been included in any bargaining unit at a private university. The Columbia University election petition, however, seeks to represent graduate research assistants in the sciences, including those funded by federal training grants. In addition, since working hours are a “mandatory subject of bargaining” (i.e., an item over which the employer and a union must negotiate), caps on the number of hours graduate students in the sciences could work each week would be subject to negotiation with the union. Research assistants in the sciences have been included in graduate student bargaining units at public institutions. Some of those collective bargaining agreements include maximum hour limitations for work performed by research assistants in their capacity as workers and some do not.

If there were a union, could graduate students serve on departmental or school committees?
We don’t know. We do know that a union would be the exclusive voice to the University for all students it represents on pay, work hours, and other employment matters related to teaching and research assistantships. This means that other avenues of communication between graduate student teachers/research assistants and the University such as departmental/school leadership committees might be restricted or limited.

If there were a union, would it affect the role of the Graduate & Professional Student Council (GPSC)?
We are uncertain how the existence of a union would affect the GPSC’s role as an advocacy group. Again, we do know that a union would be the exclusive voice to the University for all students it represents on pay, work hours, and other employment matters related to teaching and research assistantships.

How could a union affect the grievance process?
A union would likely negotiate a contractual grievance process, but there is no guarantee that it would be different than or an improvement over existing procedures. With or without a union, we need to continue to work to foster an environment where there is open dialogue and transparency and where all students feel comfortable using the grievance process when it is needed. It is not only having a grievance process that matters – it is creating and sustaining a culture where grievances can be openly aired and resolved in a manner that is consistent with our academic values and principles.

Can a union bargain over student fees?
It is not clear that student fees are a matter over which a union may require the University to bargain since these fees are charged to all students – graduate and undergraduate – regardless of whether they serve as research or teaching assistants. Even if a union is able to bargain over the amount charged for student fees, it could not bargain over how those student fees are allocated.
Currently, Duke graduate student fees are allocated as follows: 3% to student government and other recognized Duke student organizations, 7% to Registrar Services, 2% to University Center activities and events, 23% towards recreation facilities access and 65% to health and wellness. Many health and wellness services are covered by the Student Health Fee and include general medical care, nutritional
counseling, laboratory services, immunization and allergy clinics, sexual health counseling, and other services.

What effect could a union have on off-site research activities (e.g. conference/workshop attendance, field work, or research conducted at other universities) that are essential activities for our academic program?
We don’t know. If such activities are characterized as part of your work as an RA or TA, funding for conferences, travel and other work could be subject to negotiation with the union.

If I am a graduate student but not included in the bargaining unit, how will a union affect my graduate student experience?
We don’t know what effect unionization of one group of graduate students will have on the experiences of a non-unionized group of graduate students. With regard to teaching and research assistantships, however, the unionized group of students would be represented by an outside organization (a labor union) for purposes of negotiating a unified set of terms and conditions of employment, and the non-unionized group of students would be able to directly and individually engage their faculty “supervisors” regarding working conditions.

Many state universities have unions. Would their experiences apply at Duke?
Not necessarily. There are two reasons why comparisons to state universities are difficult. First, many states have written into their labor laws provisions that protect academic decisions from the collective bargaining process. Thus, there are protections in the applicable state law that prevent unions from interfering in academic matters at public universities. Federal labor law has not been tailored to address the needs of higher education, so these protections are not currently included in federal law. As a result, there is more leeway for unions to attempt to be involved in academic matters (e.g., TA and RA assignments) at private universities. This doesn’t mean that unions will be involved in these matters at private universities; it simply means that they may ask to do so.

Second, graduate students fill different roles at private universities than they do at public universities. At public universities, the teaching opportunities and remuneration for doctoral students are often tied directly to the cost of providing education to undergraduates. At private universities such as Duke, support for graduate students is not tied to how much it costs to teach undergraduates. Rather, teaching is viewed as a primary part of the educational experience, and not as an economic necessity for the University. Here, we have put policies in place designed to ensure that graduate students devote a majority of their efforts to their academic progress as students rather than serving in TA or RA positions.

What are the alternatives to unionizing?
The Graduate School sees itself as a school of students and, as such, has made a conscious effort to solicit and incorporate student ideas and voices in its decision-making. This is done in a number of ways, including:

  • Standing meetings between school leadership and leaders of student organizations such as GPSC.
  • Graduate Student Affairs Advisory Committee: A group of graduate faculty, students, and staff that meet twice a year and maintain email communication as needed to advise the school about student support services, student-faculty community-building efforts, recruitment activities, and program development. The committee also shares suggestions about how the school can best
    serve students’ needs and improve overall quality of graduate student life at Duke. This committee was formed in 1999.
  • Council of Presidents: A group consisting of leaders from various student groups that meets with the dean several times a year to help the school become more aware of what’s happening around campus so that it can address potential issues more proactively. This council was formed in December 2015 as a response to campus discussions on race and inclusion.
  • Grad liaisons: A group of graduate students who represent various graduate programs and departments. This group helps The Graduate School strengthen its relationships with the departments and programs by providing word-of-mouth promotion of the school’s events and resources, informing the school of student-life and professional-development needs and concerns within their departments, and volunteering for Graduate School events.
    Collaborations between students and the school through these channels have resulted in a number of resources and programs that help improve graduate student life at Duke, such as:
  • A child care subsidy for Ph.D. students (up to $5,000 a year per student to help defray childcare costs).
  • A childbirth and adoption accommodation policy to provide grad students with a guaranteed baseline level of accommodation as they transition to parenthood, including seven weeks of paid parental leave for the primary caregiver.
  • A medical expense assistance program to give Ph.D. students funds (up to $5,000) for medical expenses that are not covered by the Duke Student Medical Insurance Plan and that would create a significant financial hardship.
  • A set of best practices and core expectations for graduate education at Duke to provide a clear set of expectations for graduate faculty, graduate students, graduate departments and programs, and The Graduate School.
  • Significant expansion of professional development for graduate students, including a new position in The Graduate School to oversee such programs. Faculty, students, and staff worked together over the course of more than a decade to assess students’ professional development needs and create new programs to meet those needs. The fruits of this labor have been especially apparent in the past five years as the school has launched a number of new professional development programs and resources.
  • Duke Credit Union Graduate Student Assistance Program: A partnership between the Duke Credit Union and The Graduate School to provide short-term loans to Ph.D. students who need funds on a short-term basis. Up to $2,500 for up to 12 months at competitive interest rates.
  • The Helen & Gordon McKinney Emergency Loan Fund: Provides short-term, low-interest loans up to $1,000 for Graduate School Ph.D. students for general expenses such as settling into a new home, purchasing a computer, or addressing unexpected emergencies.

For more information, see “Collective Bargaining: The Basics.”