NLRB: Graduate Student Workers are Workers!

Image of graduate student workers at Duke University posing for a photo while holding signs that read we are workers, faculty forward, making Duke better together, among many others.

This is a moment that Duke could go beyond statements in support of DEI and protecting democracy, and take substantive action, and I really hope they do.

Members of the Duke Graduate Student Union, SEIU Local 27 (SEIU-DGSU) saw through to a major victory in their fight with Duke University administration. In a July 10th decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) re-affirmed what we already knew to be a fact: graduate student workers are workers. As a result of this ruling, the NLRB will move forward with SEIU-DGSU’s request for a union election. Ballots will go out to Duke PhD students on July 24th with August 22nd set as the day for a final count.

The implications of this ruling cannot be overstated. Our universities know the value of graduate student labor – this is why they lean on graduate students to carry out many of the most demanding tasks in academia. Yet while graduate student labor is built into the core of their business model, university administrators take every opportunity to deflect their responsibilities to their employees by making increasingly wild claims. 

"Duke provides significant financial and programmatic support for PhD students to help them reach their academic goals. That support is very different from an employment relationship. "

The excuses are tired at this point but remain the same. Universities across the United States produce statements that claim they only want the best for their students and are doing everything in their power to protect their academic principles. In light of our employers billion dollar endowments, our colleagues facing housing and food insecurity show us the truth of these empty promises that flow from the public relations offices.

The work done by graduate students has an impact on every student and worker across campus. Whether you are faculty or staff, grad student workers play a significant role in making sure we can do our jobs to the best of our ability. This ruling has potential to make substantial changes in the ability of graduate student workers to organize and take their future into their own hands. We’ve seen what happens when the administration is given the power to determine graduate student working conditions. It’s time to take that power back.

Hundreds of student workers across Virginia have joined together with staff and faculty to assert their rights to unionize and fight for the conditions they have worked hard to earn. These workers have come together in strong solidarity across classifications and titles as United Campus Workers of Virginia. Whether you are a research assistant, housekeeper, or tenured faculty, you can join your colleagues in making our universities into the workplaces that we deserve so that we can provide our students with the best educational opportunities.

Join your fellow workers in this fight. Join it for you. Join it for your families. Join it for your colleagues. We have power when we fight together and when we fight, we win.

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