At colleges and universities across the country, a heated battle is playing out right now over workers’ right to organize and have a say over how the institutions they keep afloat with their labor are run. From graduate student-worker unionization efforts and strikes at Temple University, the University of California, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern University, Northeastern University, the University of Chicago, and Indiana University, to faculty strikes (and near-strikes) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, The New School, Howard University, etc., to workers across the higher ed sector striking in the UK, the academic labor movement is one of the most explosive sites of labor struggle right now. Meanwhile, the administrative class is working overtime to not only slow down this movement, but to squash it altogether. As we speak, full-time and adjunct faculty at Rutgers University are prepared to strike for the first time in school history after months and months of bad-faith bargaining and union-busting from the university administration; at the same time, the Duke University administration has not only refused to acknowledge its graduate student-workers’ right to unionize, but it has vowed to go to the National Labor Relations Board in the hopes of stripping that right from graduates at all private universities.
In this panel episode, we talk with worker-organizers from Duke and Rutgers about the struggles taking place at their institutions and across higher ed. Panelists include: Matt Thomas, a PhD student in the English Department at Duke University and co-chair of the Duke Graduate Student Union; Kristina Mensik, a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Duke University and a member of the Duke Graduate Student Union; Bryan Sacks, an adjunct professor of Religion and Philosophy at Rutgers and vice president of the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union (PTLFC-AAUP-AFT); Todd Wolfson, associate professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers and general vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
Additional links/info below…
- Duke Graduate Student Union website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union website and Twitter page
- Rutgers AAUP-AFT website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Higher Ed Labor United (HELU) website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Matt’s Twitter page
- Kristina’s website and Twitter page
- Todd’s faculty page and Twitter page
- Alex Press, Jacobin, “Duke University Is Trying to Turn Back Time on Graduate Worker Unions“
- Deepa Kumar, Truthout, “One of US’s Largest Public Universities Could See First Strike in Its 257 Years“
- Nancy Solomon, Gothamist, “With 94% Vote, Rutgers Faculty Tells Union Leaders They Can Call a Strike“
- Indigo Olivier, Teen Vogue, “Graduate Unions: Why Student Workers at University of California, Temple, More Are Striking“
- Dave Kamper, Labor Notes, “What’s Fueling the Graduate Worker Union Upsurge?“
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- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
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Post Production: Jules Taylor
Kristina Mensik: I’m Kristina Mensik. I use she/her pronouns. I’m a PhD student in the Political Science department at Duke, where I study racial politics and American democracy.
Matt Thomas: Hey, my name’s Matt Thomas. I’m a third year English PhD student at Duke, and I’m the co-chair of the Duke Graduate Students Union.
Bryan Sacks: Hi Max. I’m Bryan Sacks. I’m the Vice President of the PTL FC at Rutgers. That’s the adjuncts union at Rutgers, and I’m the chair of our bargaining committee, and it’s great to be on with you.
Todd Wolfson: Hey Max, I’m Todd Wolfson. I am a faculty member in the Department of Media Studies and an anthropologist by trade. And I am vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents all the full-time faculty and the grad workers, as well as the postdocs and some counselors at Rutgers. And it’s really awesome to be on this show. I love you and your work. And also great to be on with Bryan, of course, but also Duke, because we’ve been watching you and really excited about your campaign.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So as you guys heard, we’ve got a really special and really urgent panel for you all today. I’m sure if you listen to this show, you have been hearing about the news going on in the academic side of the labor movement. A lot of incredible struggles that we’ve been covering here at Working People, over at The Real News Network, especially over the past year or two years. We’re talking about historic strikes at the University of California, unionization campaigns at Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Northeastern, Indiana University, non-tenure track faculty strikes or near strikes at the University of California, the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The New School, as we speak – We’re recording on Wednesday, March 15 – Higher ed workers across the United Kingdom are on strike right now. So shit is really popping off. And workers across the higher ed sector are really standing up and fighting back against, take your pick: Cost of living crisis, the top-down bureaucracy of administrative regimes that do not listen to the rank and file voices of the workers, faculty, staff, facilities staff who make these universities run. But also, as we’ve talked about many times on this show, the decades-long process of adjunctification in higher ed, corporatization of higher ed. You know, you guys know the story. But it feels like a lot of these long-brewing issues really reached a breaking point over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. And I think that is one of the major reasons that we’re seeing so much rank and file energy across the higher ed sector right now.
But as we should expect, we are also seeing the teeth and claws of the administrative class in higher education, to say nothing of these “populist” anti higher ed crusades that are being waged, not just in states like Florida under Governor Ron DeSantis, but this evil is really permeating the culture and politics of states throughout the country. So we’re in a real moment of struggle here for working people in general, but especially in the higher ed sector.
And that is why I’m so grateful and honored to be joined by Bryan, Matt, Kristina, and Todd, and to get these folks from two pivotal sites of struggle right now: Duke University and Rutgers University. As I’m sure you guys have been seeing the news of late, we’ve got two really pivotal struggles going on in these universities. And I’m going to read a couple of passages from a couple of different articles here to set the table for you guys in case. There’s a lot of news coming out, so I understand if you’re not totally up to date on everything. So I just wanted to give you that essential context, and then I’m going to toss it back to our great panel to deepen that context for you and tell you more about what is happening right now at Rutgers and at Duke.
So I’m first going to read a little passage by Nancy Solomon at Gothamist. This is a piece that came out on March 10 titled, “With 94% of the vote, Rutgers faculty tells union leaders they can call a strike.” And the article begins, “The Rutgers University faculty, one of the largest in the country, authorized its union leaders to call a strike – With a 94% supermajority voting for the authorization. If the leaders ultimately call the strike, it’ll be the first faculty walkout in the school’s 256-year history.
“The 10-day online vote closed Friday for the 8,000 members of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT and the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union. About 80% of their members participated in an online vote, according to the unions. The high turnout and overwhelming support for a strike show the frustration among the faculty, according to Rebecca Givan, president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents full-time faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral associates. ‘They’ve lost patience, they feel disrespected and they know their demands are reasonable,’ Givan said. ‘Asking for a living wage and equal pay for equal work and the Rutgers that our students need is pretty reasonable, and we want respect at the bargaining table – And if we don’t get it, we’re willing to take further action.'”
So again, we’re going to dig deeper into the weeds here of what’s going on at Rutgers. But I also wanted to read from a recent article in Jacobin by friend of the show Alex Press, which was published on March 14 and is titled, “Duke University is trying to turn back time on graduate worker unions.” So Alex writes in this piece – And we’ll link to both of these in the show notes so you guys can read them – But Alex writes, “Duke University’s administration is returning to an old union-busting strategy. When the university declined to voluntarily recognize the Duke Graduate Student Union (DGSU) after a majority of the school’s 2,500 PhD students signed cards in favor of unionizing with the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Southern Region Local 27, DGSU filed for a National Labor Relations Board election on March 3.
“Shortly after, the administration announced that it would challenge the union’s standing. As Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations Chris Simmons wrote, ‘In 2016 the National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate assistants at Columbia University – Based on the specific facts at Columbia University – Were employees and therefore had a right to unionize. However, a court of law did not review this decision. 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.'” Parentheses, fuck off. Close parentheses. “‘Duke will seek to present evidence demonstrating that its graduate students in their academic programs are not employees, and that the NLRB’s 2016 reasoning was incorrect.'”
So Alex Press continues, “The main impact of such a challenge would be to delay the union election – Itself a significant anti-union move, given that support for unionization tends to atrophy in the lead-up to a vote as employers stoke fear about unionization among the workforce and intimidate pro-union activists. But in challenging the employee status of graduate students at private universities by trying to revert to a George W Bush-era NLRB ruling that denied them such status, Duke is threatening workers well beyond its Durham, North Carolina, campus: if successful, the university’s challenge could impact graduate workers throughout the country.”
So that is just a little sort of taste of where we are. And I don’t know if you could hear it in my voice, but I’m really fucking pissed about all of this. I’m not going to pretend to hide that because I think Alex Press really hits the nail on the head here. This is something that I wrote about extensively for many, many years. Duke does not just want to decide that it can not recognize its graduate student union. So it’s basically deciding that it doesn’t have to recognize the rights of workers, but it wants to go further. It wants to challenge the 2016 NLRB ruling and make it, essentially, illegal for graduate students at private universities across the United States to unionize, stripping them of those rights. And so before I say something that will get everyone else in trouble, I wanted to toss things back to our incredible panel and ask if we could just, like, let’s start right here. Right where we are.
We have this historic strike authorization vote at Rutgers. We have a long-brewing campaign at Duke University for graduate students to unionize, which has now reached kind of new heights as the administration not only refuses to recognize the union, but wants to flip over the chess board and change the law so that graduate students, like those at Duke, do not have the right to unionize at all.
So I wanted to ask if you guys could deepen that context that we just started giving. Let folks know, people who are either in higher ed but maybe not in North Carolina or New Jersey, but also for people who are not currently working or living near the higher ed sector. What else do people need to understand about these pivotal struggles at Rutgers and Duke that I didn’t cover in that short introduction there?
Matt Thomas: I thought I might just give a little background as to how DGSU formed, this first campaign we had, and maybe talk a little bit about some of the wins that we’ve had as a direct join union, and then leading up to this current campaign that we’re into. And then maybe my fellow member, Kristina Mensik, could talk a bit more about what’s going on right now at Duke.
DGSU started in 2016 right around the time that the Columbia decision came out that private universities, the grad students at these universities could unionize and could actually have an employer recognized union. So a group of grad students got together and eventually had a union election. They had a card campaign. The result of that campaign was contested by Duke, so around 500 ballots were contested and impounded by Duke. And DGSU made the decision, rather than fighting a protracted legal battle between SCIU, who we’re affiliated with and remained affiliated with, and Duke, we decided to have this sort of direct join model that we’ve had up until now. And that means that we’ve had a union where we’ve had a small membership base, we’re collecting dues from that base, and we’ve had direct actions since 2017 leading up until the current campaign now.
And under that model, we’ve had a ton of success. We’ve had a number of wins. One notable one that I think we’re all really proud of is the pay campaign, which culminated in spring 2019. And we had an event, an action called Payville, which was modeled after K-Ville, which is where Duke undergrads get together and they camp out before Duke basketball games to get tickets. And so leading up to this event, we had a lot of grads getting together around this Payville event, and the threat of interrupting and getting loud about grad pay and a pay raise resulted in an across the board raising of the stipends. So this includes both the sciences side of campus and humanities and social sciences. And the result is that we are now on around a $33,000 base stipend minimum. Of course, Duke will never say that the union had anything to do with that victory and that pay raise, but it’s a win, and it’s something that we’re really proud of.
We’ve also gotten dental insurance, but it’s a dental clinic on campus. We moved from a nine-month funding schedule to a 12-month funding schedule also as a result of a union push.
So we’ve had a number of wins, and we’ve had these really creative direct actions that have had tons of success. But in practice, these wins that we’ve gotten don’t always look like what they are supposed to be. And we are running up against the limitations of what a direct join union can do without collective bargaining power.
So for instance, the pay win from spring 2019 at Payville, we didn’t see that win roll out in practice until a couple years later. And by that time, inflation had already caught up and rendered that pay raise insubstantial and far below the living wage in Durham – Which, by the way is skyrocketing, like a lot of other places in the US, of course – Dental insurance, it’s not real dental insurance, it’s something called Campus Smiles, which is like a clinic. And we can’t take this dental insurance to other clinics or to other actual dental practices outside of Duke’s campus.
And then one that a lot of grads are fired up about is this nine-month 12-month schedule. So we have this promise of guaranteed funding year round, which is incredible. But in practice, what it is is changing what the word “12-month funding” means. It’s a guarantee of getting some sort of internship over the summer and there’s opportunities for internships. Sometimes people go through three or four rounds of applying for these things. They have to then find these internships in the first place. And we’re actually experiencing that right now. So grads have never actually gone through it and successfully gotten them. They’re actually applying for these things and hearing back from the graduate school about them right now. And so this summer is the first summer that’s being rolled out.
And so the timeliness, the lack of having these things when we need them, the way that the university changes the terms and moves the goalposts on what these words mean, they all have indicated to us as a membership and as a unit, which is 2,500 PhD students across campus, that we really need a contract. We really need a union that can collectively bargain that is recognized by the employer.
So that’s what led to kicking off this campaign, which started on Sept. 15. And by the way, when we launched this campaign on Sept. 15 after having two rallies, one on Labor Day – Duke does not recognize Labor Day, and so we work on Labor Day – And then we had this action on the 15th launching the campaign. We went into the president’s office, hundreds of us, and we read a letter with our demands. We told Duke, like, hey, you can either take the side of Howard Schultz, you can take the side of Jeff Bezos, you can be like Amazon, you can be like Starbucks, or you can follow the path of universities like Brown, like Georgetown, like Syracuse has recently done, and you can work with us. You can work through voluntary recognition, or you can have an election neutrality agreement. We’re starting a campaign. All of us are going to sign union cards, we’re going to get to the majority. And we’re asking for card check, we’re asking for voluntary recognition.
So we put them on notice from the first day of the campaign. On that day after we occupied the president’s building, after we read our demands, we got an 11% pay raise. So now stipends across the university for PhD grad workers are going to be upwards of $38,000 a year. Which, by the way, is still $200 short of what MIT calculates as a living wage in Durham, and Duke is aware of that. And so it’s sort of an insult to injury, but it’s an incredible win just by launching a campaign. But again, it’s not about just getting these wins, it’s about actually having a seat at the table and collective bargaining rights.
We’ve said every step of the way of this campaign that we’re ready to work with Duke. We intend on winning our election and we intend on winning a contract and winning a second and a third contract. And so Duke could recognize us today. But they’ve chosen the nuclear option, and they’re not only speaking for themselves, but they’re really speaking on the rights of grad students everywhere. And so it’s a shocking position to take because it essentially is indicating that they’re crossing their fingers for a DeSantis administration, which flies in the face of not only the grad union movement that’s ongoing right now, but also in terms of their stated values as an institution. So yeah, I think that brings us up to where we’re at now. I’m sure Kristina could talk a bit more about what’s happening over the past couple of weeks in the campaign.
Kristina Mensik: So I think the first thing, over this past week at DGSU, it’s been really busy, to say the least. And honestly, I think I’m still in a bit of shock at Duke’s decision to suddenly make the unionization process at Duke not just about our internal fight but the ability of workers across the US to organize unions.
So I came in, I wouldn’t say that I was a rosy-eyed optimist, but I thought that given the just complete tide change that we’ve seen in graduate organizing over the years since 2016, I thought that given the emphasis and deepened understanding of the need at Duke and at institutions nationwide to understand how racism, racist systems were really the foundation of a lot of these institutions and have propelled them, and to, going forward, genuinely prioritize equity and access within academic institutions themselves. And I thought that the growing tensions around democratic access in the US more broadly would lead administrators at Duke to realize that there were pretty symbolic and material reasons to, if not voluntarily recognize our union, then at least adopt a position of neutrality so that democracy could play out among graduate students.
I believe that the institution could still maybe come about. I think the most important thing for folks who are off campus to recognize is that Duke has decided to make this a much bigger fight than about our ability to unionize. Not only in the sense that they’re challenging the ability of graduate workers at private institutions to unionize, but they’re also basically attempting to throw a wrench in this growing social movement.
Bryan Sacks: Hi Max, I’m Bryan Sacks. I am the vice president of PTL FC, as I led off with at the top. I’m excited and glad to be on this show. And I thought maybe I’ll just give a brief history of what’s happened with our union over the last four years. Our union is long-standing at Rutgers. We go back to the late 1980s, and we still have some original members of the union that participate on our board.
But the recent union activity on the adjunct side that you’re seeing at Rutgers is the result of a more activist board coming on about three to four years ago in the aftermath of the last contract campaign that won the full-time faculty and grad workers at Rutgers really historic gains, but less historic gains for adjuncts. We’re in separate units. Todd could maybe say more when he talks about the categorization.
But a number of us formed a caucus, an adjunct caucus, to try and get a no vote for our last contract. While we didn’t succeed in that, we did get a lot of support and lowered the threshold by which it passed considerably, it was in the 60s, whereas the full-time faculty contract passed, I think it was 99 to 1%. And so ever since that time, we’ve had our eye, as our board and the new members that have come on, on the next contract campaign. And we’ve worked really hard since that time not only to raise awareness among adjuncts of what we need to change about our working conditions, but also how we might best get that done. And in our view, that’s best done through collaboration with the other unions on campus. Of course, first and foremost, full-time faculty, grad worker union, but also across all categories of academic labor.
And at Rutgers, there’s a coalition of unions, of 19 unions, that have, I think more than 20,000 workers together that have met regularly during the pandemic, exchanged information, ideas, helped each other with organizing and all sorts of negotiation with the administration that’s come up and such. And that’s been very heartening too. But we’ve never lost sight as adjuncts that we have certain conditions that we labor under that are just different than a lot of those other unionized workers have. Our core demands, even after 35 years of being a union, our core demands are for job security, equal pay for equal work, and healthcare coverage. Adjuncts still don’t have healthcare coverage at the state’s largest public university. None.
Job security; Adjuncts are hired term-to-term, and there’s nothing that you can do, no matter how long you’ve been at Rutgers, the way our contract is currently structured, to get any real job security past that. There’s one weak provision that might allow for, after many years, two semesters. But even that’s conditional. And that goes for, again, anybody who teaches at Rutgers as an adjunct. There are people on our board like me who have taught for 17 years as an adjunct at Rutgers. There’s one person that’s taught for more than 40 years. She has zero job security.
And finally, our third demand for equal pay for equal work is a demand to put our salaries on par with the full-time non-tenure track teaching faculty at Rutgers, who are our colleagues and who support us and who we work very closely with and who would very much like to see us win this demand as well. So despite, again, the gains that we have made over the years in a variety of areas, we still lack the basic elements that, one, would relieve to a considerable degree, not entirely of course, but to a considerable degree the precarity that adjuncts at Rutgers, and of course elsewhere, adjuncts experience.
That historic strike authorization vote that you referenced, Max, that is a direct result, I think, of the administration’s intransigence during the pandemic at doing what, again, just appeared to a lot of adjuncts to be commonsensical things, not extending access to Rutgers health clinics, for instance, to adjuncts who don’t have any healthcare. They’re aware because of the work that we’ve done in our coalition, our adjuncts, that Rutgers at the beginning of a pandemic – And for a long time into it, I have to say, did not make adequate personal protective equipment, for instance, available to our healthcare workers at Rutgers. And these sorts of things added to – And I could list many others – These sorts of things, added to our historical conditions, have produced that historic, unprecedented upwelling of fervor on the part of adjuncts.
We have committed ourselves to organizing for the last couple of years. We have wonderful, committed executive board members, staff who have tirelessly activated our members. And the result is that that 94% vote you mentioned is across all faculty categories: grad workers, adjuncts, non-tenure track, tenure track, postdocs, and it’s just amazing, unprecedented and real.
So it’s a very exciting time at Rutgers. We’ve been bargaining now for nine and a half months or so without a contract and without any major progress on those demands that I mentioned. Nobody wants to go on strike. Nobody wants to expose their constituents, their members, to the uncertainty that comes with it. But nothing speaks louder than that 94%, with 80% voting, Max. People understand the circumstances and what you have to do to fight back. So that’s where we are.
Todd Wolfson: Yeah, I can pick up. And I think I wanted to say at the top, how much I feel for you, Matt and Christina. I was in Graduate Employees Together at University of Pennsylvania – And this is in 2003. We had an election to form a union. We had a majority card, we had an election, and we never got the votes counted. They got impounded by the NLRB, and the George Bush NLRB overturned our right, which NYU had already won. So I was there at that crux and I never got the right to a union in that moment. And so what Duke is doing is just reprehensible, and there’s so much on the line that we have to win to stop that union busting. Are we allowed to curse, Max? That union busting bullshit that they’re pulling off.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh yeah, baby, let them fly [laughs].
Todd Wolfson: And so I’ll say, just to pick up on what Bryan put out, so folks know the general place we’re in. So Bryan said it, but I’ll pick up on this. So we have been bargaining with the university – And this is 15,000 workers. So our union and Bryan’s union represent probably about 8,000 together. And there’s about five or six other unions that represent the other 7,000. One union, the medical faculty and the clinicians that are in the middle of another strike vote right now as we speak for the next week. And we believe that many other unions will follow suit. And within a month we might have four or five unions that have taken a strike vote at Rutgers. So you could see the tide is turning. But we’ve all been bargaining, 15,000 workers across 10 unions for nine months, and we’ve been working without a contract since July 1.
And I just want to give you an example from my vantage of how abhorrent the management has been. So we gave our initial salary proposal to the university in May of 2022, May of 2022. You know when they responded to that? They responded in December of 2022, 7 months later. That’s after the president, Jonathan Holloway, said that he was forming a new office, the Office of University Labor Relations, that would report directly to him to create more efficiency in negotiations with labor. He said that like two months before we gave our economic proposal, which took them seven months to frigging respond to. So that’s what we’re dealing with.
So we have a president, he’s the first Black president in the history of Rutgers University, he is a historian, he studies the Civil Rights Movement and movements prior to that and the Black radical tradition. And he talks about the beloved community. He just gave a preamble to a show yesterday where he talked about how he wants to lift up all the workers at the university. Yet the same president has got somebody who was Chris Christie, the most Republican governor in the last three decades, who negotiated the contracts for Chris Christie with state workers, particularly with teachers. And Chris Christie would say, I want to punch those teachers in the face as part of bargaining. The same person that bargained the contracts for Chris Christie is bargaining the contracts for Jonathan Holloway, who’s talking about a beloved community and how much he wants to lift up the dining staff. It’s the hypocrisy, the gap between what the president says and what the institution does, we could fly a plane through it. It’s just ridiculous.
And that hypocrisy is in every single one of the institutions in higher ed today. We can get to what this big struggle is, but I just want to say, these bureaucrats have taken over all of our institutions, whether they’re private institutions in North Carolina like Duke or public land grant institutions in New Jersey like Rutgers, they’ve all been taken over by lawyers, economists, and bureaucrats who could give a crap about research, teaching, and service. And all they want to do is grow their endowments, grow their athletics programs, and line their pockets.
And so we have been bargaining for nine months. And the demands are really simple. For adjuncts – And Bryan laid it out, but I’ll just re-articulate it to lay it all out – Equal pay for equal work, longer contracts, and more job security. For grad workers, it’s a living frigging wage. The academic year grad workers make $30,000 a year now, we think they need to start at least $37,000 and by the end of the contract get them to $40,000. That’s the beginning of a living wage, not even a living wage. But it moves us towards that.
We also want our fellows, so we have people who are grads who are TAs and GAs one year, and then they’re fellows the next year, and they’re not in the union. They need to be in the union. They’re doing some of the same work. And there was an unfortunate ruling out of MIT recently around this, but our grad fellows are doing the same work and sometimes they have a health condition. And when they move from a fellow to a TA, GA, their healthcare changes and they have no continuity of healthcare. They have to see different doctors. It doesn’t make sense. So our grad workers have a right to be, whether they’re fellows or TAs and GAs, to be in our union and to have the same healthcare coverage regardless.
And we also want a fifth year of universal funding for our grad workers so that they’re all funded, regardless of department or program, throughout the university for five years. For our non-tenure track faculty, we want more job security. Sometimes they’re working on a one-year contract over and over and over again which is not quite as debilitating as the semester-by-semester process that Bryan laid out, but it’s still pretty damn debilitating. And we think they deserve presumptive renewal. So they’re going to be renewed unless there’s some serious problem, and they can bank on that.
And then for all of us, we want to win, we think that the workers at this university should not bear the brunt of the historic inflation. Why should we? When Rutgers last year spent $150 million of state money and student tuition dollars on athletics – On athletics – And the same university gained $300 million in their reserves over the last two years, grew their reserves by $300 million. We don’t think in that scenario the workers should have to bear the brunt of this inflation. So we’re asking for real raises, 5% a year, connected to COLA, potentially, and minimums that make sense for our grads and other workers.
And beyond that, the only other things that we’re really fighting for are we want to win important things for our undergrad community and for the communities where we work. So we think that… Rutgers, if a student, an undergrad or even a grad student, owes a fine or fee for a book or a parking ticket, the university will not allow them to register or get their diploma. And then that same university and the president who talks about a beloved community takes those fines and fees and sells them to a third party collection agency. That’s reprehensible. Reprehensible. And so one, we’re saying that Rutgers needs to cancel all internal fines and fees, and two, it has to end that practice. And certainly, they can’t sell it to third party collection agencies. That is not the way a public institution should work.
We want to win a rent freeze. Rutgers in New Brunswick, Rutgers is the largest landlord. And so if we can get them to freeze their rent when our undergrads have something like 38% hunger, the rates of hunger among our undergrads are growing post the pandemic and food insecurity is at something like 30% to 40% among our undergrads. We’re saying that they should freeze rents, and that rent freeze would have big effects on the rest of the community. New Brunswick, the majority of New Brunswick is Spanish speaking, from Mexico, largely undocumented. They do all the service around the university, and Rutgers is creating these high-rise apartments and they’re getting pushed out with gentrification. So we want Rutgers to freeze their rents, and this will be good for our undergrads and our grads and our international students and the community where we reside.
And finally, we want Rutgers to charter what we’re calling a Beloved Community Fund, because Jonathan Holloway loves to talk about it, that would support the same undocumented community that were not eligible for care and support or other federal support during the pandemic and yet worked through it and carried us all through that.
So those are our demands. We are nine months into this thing. As Bryan said, we’re negotiating with people that don’t have the same value system as we have, that are looking to crush and break the union. We do not want to strike, but we are on the precipice of the strike. And not only that, we’re just getting stronger and the university is going to be on its back foot.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, I want to drill down on that, because I think everything that you guys said was really important, but that last point that you made, Todd, I think is something that I really want listeners to sit with. Because this is not just intransigent, stubborn management not wanting to budge at the bargaining table. This is management that does not believe it should have to sit at the bargaining table with anyone right now. And we’re seeing that made exceedingly clear in the case of Duke, that is what the university administration is saying. You graduate workers – We don’t even call them that; graduate students. You have no place at the bargaining table with us. You are not workers. You do not deserve or have the rights to collectively bargain. But that’s very much the case at Rutgers.
And it’s the case across the board, that mindset you talked about, that corporate mindset that has really taken over the higher ed sector. But it’s a poison that we can see in industries all across the board. Everyone who listens to this show – Don’t worry you guys, I’m not going to go into my spiel again about the crisis on the nation’s freight railroads – But that’s exactly what happens when you get this Wall Street, corporate, profit maximization mindset that takes hold of a vital component of our supply chain. You destroy it. You destroy the workers who make it run, all for the sake of executive and Wall Street profits. And we’ve been detailing through interview after interview what that actually translates to for the rank and file workers who make these industries run. But as we’ve seen in the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, let alone the train derailments that are happening every goddamn week around the country, we as the public are also put at hazard by this relentless corporate greed.
And so I wanted to make that connection, because that’s the kind of mindset that people, workers in higher ed are up against right now. It is a union busting mindset. It is a labor disciplining mindset. It is the desire to do whatever upper administrators want to do with these higher ed institutions – Including public institutions unilaterally with no real checks and balances on their power, especially not from the workers at these universities.
And I wanted to drill down on that question of work, because admittedly, it’s been a minute since I was in higher ed, and I feel my heart constantly breaks for all my friends and comrades and loved ones who are still in higher ed because I got expelled out. Like Marc Bousquet would say, I was the waste product of graduate education. But this was before the pandemic. The job market wasn’t great then, it sure hasn’t gotten better since. But, again, I feel like a lot of the things that we were seeing and organizing around and raising the alarm about before the pandemic really got supercharged over the past three years.
And I wanted to, in the tradition of this show, ask if y’all could talk a bit more about what that work looks like, what workers in higher ed like yourself are going through and have been going through over these past few years and how that connects to everything that we’re already talking about? Because I think that listeners to this show will be able to remember the things that other workers in higher ed have described to us. We’ve had interviews in the past year, year and a half with graduate students at the University of Indiana, another university where the administration does not believe that graduate workers have a place at the bargaining table with the administration.
We talked with non-tenure track lecturers at Howard University when they were prepared to go on strike. And at that point, I believe, they had been trying to negotiate a contract for four years or almost four years. So again, showing the disdain that management and the administration has for collective worker organizations like a union. We talked with Maggie Levantovskaya about the five-year campaign to unionize non-tenure track faculty at Santa Clara University in California, which is a private Jesuit institution. We talked with folks at Columbia University during the grad union strike; Aaron Major at SUNY Albany in 2021.
So you guys have heard through those different episodes what has been going on inside higher ed. But I wanted to turn it back to you guys and ask if you could speak a bit more about what the work of and in higher ed looks like for you all and how that has changed in recent years and how that connects to the struggles that we’re facing now?
Matt Thomas: Yeah, I could speak to one of the sea changes, I think, in grad organizing since the pandemic, is that no longer are these grad campaigns primarily the domain of, let’s say, the humanities, which is obviously acutely facing a job crisis. And our campaign can speak to this in particular very concretely. These are sciences-led campaigns, ours is led by many folks in the sciences. And so it’s across the board, but there’s a special change, I think, a sea change where during the pandemic, grads working in labs were very quickly asked to return to those labs after the onset of the pandemic. And they were not provided with protection, adequate PPE, things like that. But just the sheer fact of having to return so quickly to being physically in the labs. Whereas grads like myself and English and other humanities were teaching online, we were relatively safe. But people seeing their colleagues get sick, seeing the real risks of dying. And so as a result, I think there is a change in which folks are like, well, maybe the employer doesn’t have my best interests at heart.
And I think to that point too, in the sciences, there is a very difficult argument the university has to make. It has no standing to say that we’re not employees, of course, period. But it’s a very difficult argument to make in the labs where you have folks really doing something that resembles a nine-to-five or often working through the night. They have to pay to work, they have to pay these outrageous parking fees in our case at Duke, just to have access to these labs. And the relationship is one that is oftentimes like a boss because it is a boss. And so if things go wrong with your PI and you’re, what we call orphaned from a lab and you’re floating and you have to find a new lab because things sour with that personal relationship, you have to find a new lab or else you’re gone, and your career is tanked as a result. It’s not like you can go get another job, but you’re out.
And this is something that is happening right now, and this is something that I’m trying to help folks with, but we have conversations and I’m like, look, I wish we could do something about it, but we don’t have Weingarten Rights. We don’t have a recognized union. We don’t have a third party grievance process to solve this harassment case. You have to go through these university channels, which are utterly insufficient.
And so, you’re left with one simple fact, which is that we need a union on campus. So I think, again, just to reiterate that point, one big change from the pandemic is that folks are seeing that the employer no longer has their best interests at heart and that the only way that they’re going to get the protections that they need is through a union.
Kristina Mensik: I’ll add on to that. So first, I think I am one of the grad students at Duke who’s benefited directly from the years of organizing that folks like Matt have done with the DGSU that have actually already materially changed the… I think it’s the quality of the offer and resources that I was able to get upon admission. The thing to stress there is that it was just my own department. And the more I’ve worked with the DGSU over the time since I’ve been here, it is very clear that working conditions are extremely inconsistent across departments, which is why this movement for us is really about ensuring that our peers all have the same access to hold their employer accountable.
I think I keep on coming back to the point that none of what we’re asking for is particularly glamorous. I’ll talk to my friends in other industries about our bargaining demands and talk about a $40K salary in an environment where the cost of living and housing prices are absolutely skyrocketing. The Durham area has an Apple campus opening up that’s going to continue to inflate housing prices very quickly. There’s also a Google campus that’s opening up that’s going to do the same.
One of the things that’s happened in the past few weeks is that Duke has shown graduate workers, a majority of whom the DGSU has organized to support our union drive with very little resources – Which I hope we can get into this later, the context of trying to organize in the right-to-work South and in an environment where there’s not a cultural norm behind supporting unions, to say the least, and there are just fewer resources to go around – So the DGSU has been able, truly through the efforts just of graduate workers themselves, to reach a growing majority of support on campus, which we have actually seen in just the past week actually really ramp up specifically in response to Duke’s decisions over the past few weeks.
I don’t know if we’ve mentioned that just days before Duke made its interesting announcement that they’re going to put the rights of graduate workers across the nation to organize at risk by challenging the 2016 decision, they actually sent an email to all graduate workers. I think this also was a day after an employee thank you email went out. But in this next email, they told graduate workers on campus that while Duke very clearly opposed a union – They pulled all the expected anti-union talking points, no surprises there – But they told graduate students that they would hold and support basically free and fair elections, that everyone would have the opportunity to vote. The fact that that was Monday, cut to Friday, they essentially leaked or confirmed with reporters that they’re going to be challenging this decision, attempting to block elections, a decision that they haven’t actually communicated directly to graduate students themselves yet.
We have seen all of… I have gotten a number of emails and Twitter DMs from colleagues on campus who went from being supportive of the union but to now wanting to get engaged, and the simple fact is that they’ve seen that our broader working conditions is, we’re working for an administration that without a legally binding contract can tell us anything, can promise anything, can promise that our stipends will continue to be adjusted to reflect the cost of living and inflation, and then simply choose not to do that. And I think that Brian and Todd, your points about the corporatization of higher education coupled with this direct evidence that the administration doesn’t feel the need to be accountable to the things that it says even just days before to graduate students, simply underscores the need that we have going forward, not just for ourselves, but to make Duke more accessible and better for future students and graduate workers, to secure bargaining power to be able to… We basically just can’t rely on the administration to, going forward, adjust for cost of living.
I think the other thing I’ll say, some of the basic demands that we are working for at this point are just so common sense; improved parental leave policies for parents on campus. For me, that’s, frankly, an issue of equity. If we want folks from all kinds of backgrounds to be able to access higher education, working people who maybe did not have the opportunity to get an undergraduate education until later in their lives. I work with, in my work before coming to Duke, still currently work with an organization that’s by incarcerated men in a medium security prison, all of whom became extremely mobilized by the political education they received in higher education courses within the prison, which I would never want to say… Don’t take this as me saying that incarceration did a good thing; access to education did a good thing.
And now these men are coming out wanting to take the next steps in their academic careers, but they have kids. Higher education would not be accessible without parental leave benefits, without, at a very minimum, a living wage for adult students.
And then the last thing I’ll flag is that Duke offers inadequate resources to support international students on campus. One of the places that I saw this play out, during the COVID-19 pandemic I wasn’t at Duke at the time, but I had friends who were at private institutions getting their graduate degrees who basically had to leave the country during the pandemic because their institution was not offering any resource to help them navigate reinstating their visas during the pandemic or taking leave.
So again, I just come back to this, the point, especially in the context where we’re working, trying to work with an institution that has a billion dollar endowment, that all of our demands are just common sense. There’s no extravagance here, and they’re all completely in line with the values that the administration espouses when they get the opportunity. And I’m still trying to maintain my optimism here, but it seems like they don’t, may not always live out in practice.
Bryan Sacks: Kristina, hearing you say that, it really does drive home how much of a playbook there is at these universities despite the differences between them. We hear some of the same things about visas and lack of resources and administration playing chicken with the lives of grad workers like it did this summer, Todd, when they wouldn’t establish a fund, didn’t know where the money was going to come for certain [inaudible] appointments.
And so it all had me thinking, you asked about working conditions, Max. At Rutgers, adjuncts haven’t received a raise since September 2021. We have to reapply for our jobs each term, we have to sign new contracts each term. The administrative burden never fully subsides on adjuncts. There are background checks that we have to go through every term in some departments. And I’m reminded listening to Kristina that Rutgers has hired union busting law firms like Jackson Lewis to advise it during bargaining, which Todd and I, our unions are experiencing nine months out of contract, this is part of that playbook. They use delay tactics, they bargain in only the most surface ways. We know Jackson Lewis advises bargaining to impasse to its clients in order to enable them to evoke various powers.
There’s just so much. I mean, it’s an unending list, Max. Even when PTLs do advance in rank, it doesn’t necessarily get registered in all departments that we teach, that’s part of that administrative burden. You have to go and make sure that in your letters of appointment your proper salary is being delivered. It seems to happen routinely that adjuncts don’t get paid on time. That just happened in the fall again, where for weeks and weeks adjuncts were either receiving too little money or nothing, and in some rare cases getting paid way too much too.
And we’re shut out, despite our contractual right to bargain with them over changes to our working conditions like that. We’re just locked out a lot of the time from participation in the remedies that they choose. I could go on with it. We don’t get appointment letters in a timely fashion. It’s not uncommon for adjuncts to start teaching without actually having signed appointment letters in their hands. We lose contact with our students sometimes because we have to be rehired between semesters. Students send us emails, but our email accounts are no longer active, and we hear about these sorts of things routinely. And of course we can’t tell students that we’ll be around to mentor them, or that we’ll be around to have classes that they want to take. I get asked all the time like, what are you teaching next term, professor? Well, gosh, I don’t know.
At bottom, the administration is just happy, it seems, with this set of circumstances where adjuncts and other precarious workers can’t plan their lives. We can’t plan our lives in the most basic ways. You hear Kristina talking about commonsensical things, things which rhetorically the administration says it wants to provide and that we deserve, but in actual practice has no intention of providing unless we demand it, unless we make them. And that again is what I think our organizing efforts have shown. People are ready to do that.
Todd Wolfson: Yeah. Just picking up on Brian, one thing I want to flag is our… I’m going to pick on our president again. Our president came into Rutgers and he said, there’s a real, oh my God, there’s a real adjunctification crisis here at Rutgers. I really gotta solve it. That’s what he says, because he really cares about everybody. And then the amazing leaders of our adjunct union say, okay, here are some things that we have as contract proposals that could solve the adjunct crisis: Longer term contracts, equal pay for equal work. And then he has the nerve to say, in a university-wide setting, oh, I didn’t mean we were going to solve it at Rutgers, I meant this has to be solved [inaudible] [Max laughs]. These people.
So I guess the only piece I wanted to talk about about the conditions, and it impacts the publics more than the privates, but I think it’s an important really quick story to tell, which is, there was a moment in time when we were getting full, free public higher ed. And that was in the ’60s and ’70s, and particularly the CUNY and the UC, University of California, they were free. And as they became free and low cost to places like Rutgers and other state universities like NC State, people of color started getting broad access to those universities, and they became important bastions for organizing.
And then, 1970s forward, the federal government and state governments across the country started taking that money out. And they took that money out because of the organizing around the Civil Rights Movement that was happening on our campuses, the organizing against the Vietnam War that was happening on our campuses, and the fact that people of color were getting broad access to free public higher ed.
So the big story about higher ed that we’re seeing is that there was a… It wasn’t even a conspiracy. There was a direct attack by the federal and state governments to divest from our institutions because of the role of our institutions in creating an educated populace that could fight back.
And then that divestment has had all the effects we see. So first the university said, particularly… Well all of them said, oh God, what are we going to do? Let’s become more corporations and less like universities. So that’s the first move they make. And okay, well, what are we going to do? If we’re going to become more like a corporation, we need to hire more business people to run our universities and get rid of that pesky shared governance. Now, there was never really shared governance because only faculty that were tenured might have had it, but still it was something different, and they had to get rid of that.
But there were many other things like,okay, well, if we’re not getting federal and state investment, let’s make students pay for their higher ed. And that’s why we have $1.7 trillion in student debt, and also tons of institutional debt where our institutions like Rutgers think about debt service and paying off debt service, and think about their bonds rating first and foremost. So that’s what’s on their mind with almost every decision they make is bond rating, so they can get more loans, blah, blah, blah.
And then there’s other outcomes too, like commodified education, new masters programs that pop up every day that are cash cows. But then most importantly, a grad jobs crisis, which Matt and Christina can talk about, where we have more PhDs being educated than jobs because we are no longer hiring people for tenure track, long-term secure positions. And so for grads, that means no jobs when you’re coming out, and for adjuncts it means that you are on these insecure contracts that Brian told us a lot about.
And so adjunctification is an outcome of this divestment in our institutions, and I think it’s really important to understand that. So in 1970, 75% of instruction at Rutgers was done by tenure stream faculty, and now it’s about 25% of instruction, with non-tenure track grad workers and adjuncts doing the rest of the labor. And it’s not like those people aren’t amazing, it’s the contracts that they labor under which is screwing everything up.
And so the job conditions that we are facing, that Kristina and Matt are facing, that Brian’s facing, and that also I’m facing in a different way and I’ll flag how, are a function of an attack on our higher ed system. And that’s what is at stake. Hopefully we’ll get to the question about the stakes here. That’s what’s at stake, and now is the moment of crisis. And I’ll say, the pandemic, as you flagged, Max, really accelerated this. Rutgers 1000, maybe closer to 2000 people were laid off. Across the sector, something like 700,000 or 15% of the sector was laid off during the pandemic. So that laid bare all the contradictions of the system, and that’s why we’re seeing this real upsurge in labor militancy.
And it’s important to note that other public sectors wouldn’t get away with this, other sectors in general. You would never get away with the kind of contracts that our adjunct faculty work under in a K-12 institution. It just doesn’t… Somehow our public institutions that are higher ed and our private institutions that are higher ed have become addicted to these short-term contracts that are undignified and pull down all of our possibility, and there has been no real fight back, and this is the moment of fight back.
And I’ll say one last thing on this which is, the most privileged part of the sector has always been tenure stream faculty. And what administration has been able to do is buy them off and pull them either towards the administration or at least keep them neutral. But even tenure track faculty recognize the attack now. And that’s why I think we’re in the most… That’s what Rutgers signifies here is that full-time tenure faculty, non-tenure faculty, grads, adjuncts, postdocs altogether, hopefully with staff and with medical workers, that transforms the environment. Because now when the most privileged start to see that they’re in the fight too and start to see that their lot must be thrown with all the other workers and they’re not special and their work isn’t so special, they’re really just workers, it really will change the dynamic. And so that’s the hope of this sector. But to me, I just wanted to lay out what I see as the long-term conditions that have gotten us to this point.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, I think that was masterfully done, and I wanted to say how necessary and refreshing that perspective is. And I know that Rutgers, y’all at Rutgers have really been leading the way in advocating the importance of wall-to-wall unions, the necessity of solidarity across these different tiers and labor forces within higher education. Because this was my perennial frustration as a graduate student worker with other members of the higher ed workforce, especially tenure track faculty, when we were trying to negotiate our own contract or when there were other issues at hand that required solidarity from the other members of the university workforce, getting tenure track faculty to even show up to a rally, let alone use that position of privilege that they’ve spent their entire fucking lives trying to get to, and then when they get there, they don’t use it for anything. And trying to get them to show up to a rally was like pulling goddamn teeth.
And it was just like, I wanted to shake someone, I was like, can’t you understand that what is happening to us is coming for you too? That this affects all of us? If they are able to get away with this, if they are able to break through these successive lines of grad student unions or faculty unions, shared governance, all these different barriers that they’ve broken to essentially wipe the floor with us and not have to bargain with us, let alone listen to us, that is the direction that we are going in, that is the end result of everything that you guys are talking about here.
And yet again, just a few short years ago, trying to get tenure track faculty especially, but not exclusively, Matt, I know you mentioned that even between disciplines it was tough to get my fellow grad students in the hard sciences to see this as well. And I hope that at least one thing that’s coming through this conversation, which it’s been a real honor and privilege to have with you all, is that we are learning from those mistakes, and we are learning from those mistakes. And I hope that everyone listening to this, especially if you are within the higher ed sector, are taking that lesson to heart, and you realize that we are ultimately much, much stronger together. And as labor’s enduring message holds true in higher ed: There are more of us than there are of them in the administration if we ban together.
And so I do want to end by zooming out, talking about the stakes here, as we have begun to. And then I also want you all to finish off by letting people know what they can do to stand in solidarity with you all at Duke, at Rutgers in these immediate fights, and what we can all do to better support one another in this larger fight that we’ve been detailing over the course of this conversation.
And before I toss it back to Matt and Kristina, I wanted to just clarify one thing, because it’s really important. And I do think it came out, but just again, for people who maybe aren’t labor dweebs like all of us here and who read past NLRB rulings, I just wanted to clarify what we’re talking about in the Duke University case, and why the stakes are so high here for the decision that the Duke administration is making.
So I beg everyone to forgive me here because I’m going to be a total douche bag and quote myself, but I wrote this better than I could articulate it now. I wrote this for a piece in The Baffler years ago, so I’m phoning it in and I’m just going to read what I already wrote about this.
But I wrote in this piece for The Baffler, which I’ll link to in the show notes if you want to check it out, it was a piece called “Laboring Academia”. And this paragraph says, “In 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate employees at private universities did not have the right to unionize because as the ruling stated, graduate employees ‘are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic relationship with their university.’ In 2016 though, in a landmark move, the Board overruled its 2004 position and asserted in its report that ‘The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistance as statutory employees where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship;iIt is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.'”
“So in layperson’s terms,” I wrote, “The 2004 ruling deemed that graduate workers are not employees because their relationship to the universities that pay them is ‘primarily educational in nature’. The 2016 ruling, on the other hand, deemed that it doesn’t matter that graduate employees are also students, because ‘an employment relationship with their university under the common law test’ still exists; one relationship does not negate the other.'”
And so, I don’t know what Duke is planning to challenge here, because it feels like they’re just going back to the well and trying to make the same exact argument, which is that their graduate workers are primarily students, and so that supersedes their employment relationship with the university, when the whole point of the 2016 ruling was that doesn’t fucking matter. You can be both. And if you are still being told by the university when to show up to work, what that work looks like, when you have to do that work, what your benchmarks are and how much you’re going to get paid for it, that is an employee/employer relationship. That’s all you need to know.
But again, the stakes here, to start us off on this final turn, the stakes of trying to go to the NLRB, trying to overturn this ruling, is again rolling back all of that progress that has been made since 2016, especially at private universities where graduate students, like here in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins and beyond, and at Columbia University, they’re trying to roll all of that back.
And so I wanted to toss it back to you guys and ask, from the graduate worker side all the way across the university, what are the stakes of this struggle that we’ve been talking about here? The struggle between management and labor, the struggle for workers to actually have a voice on the job in higher ed and beyond? And yeah, what can folks do, as you at Rutgers and Duke wage these struggles, what can folks do to support y’all?
Matt Thomas: Yeah. Well, thank you Max. And like Todd was talking about, I mean this is really about the future of higher education. At Duke, they’re not just coming out and saying that 1,900 out of our 2,500 unit are workers, and then we’re going to leave fellows to the side. They’re starting from 0, they’re saying that none of us are workers, and it defies reality. 45,000-plus grad workers have moved to unionize since 2022 alone., That’s not even counting what’s happened since 2016. And we’ve seen historic wins, for instance at BU, they won by a margin of 98-plus%. And I think by some standards for 1,000-plus units, that may be the first time in US labor history that a margin has been that high.
And so the mandate, I mean the wave, it’s incredible and it’s historic. And Duke wants to sit and stand between that and just say no, and hit the nuclear button, it just flies in the face of reality, but it also puts all these other workers at risk. We have four unions on campus outside of the Duke Graduate Students Union; Duke Press, the Duke Faculty Union. We also have the Housekeepers Union, which was the first union on campus at Duke, which is Local 77. We have the Bus Drivers Union, ATU Local 1328, and we all talk to each other. And we’re a worker-led union, we have no full-time staff. And so we rely on each other to make these wins.
But going back into what you were saying about what this implies for the rest of the unit, I’m sorry, for the rest of the grad organizing writ large, I mean, it’s something that a regional board may toss out. But Duke has the ability to have a $12 billion-plus endowment, they have Proskauer Rose, and by every indication, they say they want to take this to a court? Well, they can do that. I mean, they can bring this up to the big board in DC. They have the resources, they can fight this.
And so I think one thing that’s important, if this is what’s at stake – And it is – I think one thing that’s important is, yeah, seeing the significance of it, amplifying it on social media. And I think Kristina can talk about more material ways to support. But I think just understanding the stakes, understanding that a university like Duke would rather have its trustees like Tim Cook and Adam Silver and all these folks calling the shots, rather than the people who actually work at these institutions. And they’ve already tried to roll back certain wins that the Duke Faculty Union has made. They fought very hard against Duke Press. And it’s just a contradictory situation.
The President of Duke, Vincent Price, on Juneteenth in 2021, made a statement. I can read it. He said, “We must be focused on progress, accountability, and clear outcomes. And while words are important, our success depends on concrete actions.” Concrete actions you can take are voluntarily recognizing our unit. In a state that has a 2.8% union density, the second lowest in the country, in a right-to-work state that bars public workers like at NC State, like at UNC, like any public worker in North Carolina, from unionizing. They don’t have any collective bargaining rights.
Not to mention the gerrymandering that goes on in North Carolina. And they’re saying that we want to choose that side. And they’re crossing their fingers for a Republican-led administration that could reappoint members to NLRB, and then those members could then potentially roll back. If they want to take this appeal, they want to go all the way and they want to play the long game, then that’s what they’re saying. And they should absolutely be held accountable for taking that public position, because obviously, it doesn’t line up with the stated values of the institution. It doesn’t line up with academic freedom. Someone like DeSantis certainly doesn’t stand for that.
And so there’s all those things going on. And I also want to underscore the relationship that our union has, as a worker-led union with no full-time staff, we lean on our allies, the fellow unions on campus. We also lean on other workers in Durham because Duke is the largest employer in Durham, and it’s one of the largest landowners in Durham. And I mean, it has this multi-billion dollar endowment, yet we have a food pantry on campus. And so our first organizer training in August among grads was held at the Raise Up the South office here in Durham. They are now the Union of Southern Service Workers and they’re our allies in this fight, and they help us, we help them. And so we’re all in this together.
And so this is an opportunity for grads at Duke to get involved in a fight that is not only on campus for us, but it’s also about the community of Durham. It’s also about the South, and it’s part of this crisis in higher education that Todd and Brian and you have been talking about. So I think the stakes are high, very high. And this is a chance to get involved in something, whether it’s on Duke’s campus or whether a listener might be at their own university and thinking about getting involved in organizing. This is the time to do it. And so, that’s what I would say is, it’s a movement and you got to get involved, and we’re making wins. Just by starting a card campaign, we got an 11% raise. These are benefits that we’re going to get now, and the needs of grad students are felt now.
There’s a presumed idea of what a grad student is, and it’s not someone with a family, it’s not someone with dependants or a spouse, it’s not someone who has health issues, and grads need to be able to plan for their futures. They need to be able to have expectations about what they can do over their summer and they don’t have to be worrying about the fact that they might go an entire summer without getting paid and not being able to make rent. These are material, urgent needs that we’re trying to solve, but it is part of this larger context that is both in and outside higher education.
Kristina Mensik: Matt, I feel like that covered this bigger context that comes up when, for example, we’re trying to engage folks who have maybe sat a little bit more on the sidelines. I’m thinking about our efforts to try and engage more faculty in this fight, more public figures in North Carolina who can help us put some pressure on the administration to live up to its values. I think Matt completely stressed how this fight is suddenly not just about Duke, but it’s really about higher education more broadly.
As Matt said, if the regional board, as it did in 2017, overturns this challenge, which is effectively what we expect will happen, the next move for Duke to do what it has stated it intends to in overruling the 2016 decision is effectively to continue to try and delay a union vote through a number of tactics that are part of this playbook we’ve been talking about. And that includes, essentially, waiting for a ruling, to get a ruling in DC with the NLRB. I really don’t want to think that the administration would do that because it would suggest, again, as Matt said, that they are banking effectively on a Ron DeSantis presidency. I actually had thought that for some of the opposite reasons, or I guess deeply related reasons, the administration might see the importance of standing in solidarity, or maybe that’s too high an ask, but at least letting elections play out on campus.
The fight at Duke is completely about the future of higher education, but I actually think it’s also about the future of democratic access and who gets to influence policies and pretty much any material aspect of our lives writ large. For me, it’s hard not to look at North Carolina, which is a state that maintained literacy tests at the polls until 1970, whose right to work origins, anti-union origins are actually a direct result – They are part of Jim Crow. It’s a result of white supremacists effectively trying to split labor and maintain racial hierarchies.
We also know that unions can reduce racism. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to see unions as an important step in combating racism that still endures in this country, and supporting the kind of civic engagement that we need. I go back to one of the reasons I applied to grad school in the first place was because I read, I was concerned about the lack of civic engagement among my peers, people heading to Wall Street, to whatever consultancies, and not participating in community in other ways.
And not to get on this bandwagon too much, but one of Putnam’s main findings is this decline in civic engagement that we’ve seen since the 1960s and ’70s that coincides with the stripping of resources from institutions of higher education and pathways for people of all backgrounds to get higher education. That coincides with this decline of civic engagement, which unions are really important in facilitating. They let people get together with people who are different from them, have the practice of just working in solidarity to hold first employers accountable, and then turn to additional needs, grow the tent and work with their communities.
Given that context, given especially that we’re talking about North Carolina, which in basically 10 years went from being a fairly small-D democratic state to one that is basically the US’s most gerrymandered, has implemented countless barriers to voting, reduced reporting requirements on lobbyists. North Carolina, in so many ways, is emblematic of this tilt to authoritarianism that is itself a product of right-wing politicians who have campaigned on…Wwe talk about racial threat, racial resentment, effectively campaigning on racist messages, which, my understanding was Duke as an institution is here to combat.
For all of those reasons, this is not just, it’s both about higher education, but it’s really about supporting civic engagement writ large. And I don’t want to sound too alarmist, but to me, it really is a question of whether we’re going to have a democracy and whether our institutions will allow their workers to hold their institutions accountable, especially as the institutions themselves become increasingly corporatized.
And as Matt said, I’ll just echo that any support online on social media actually matters. I’ve had really nice moments of hearing from folks who have seen retweets, seen Twitter commentary and have asked how they can get more involved. So following the DGSU on Twitter and amplifying coverage really helps.
We also, as we head into a hearing with the regional NLRB, could especially use support from anyone across the country. We’re continuing to gather signatures on a public petition that folks can find on dukegradunion.org. There’s an option both for Duke graduate workers, but you’ll see if you go to dukegradunion.org that there’s a public petition for non-Duke, anyone to sign as well. We really want to be able to go into that hearing and communicate to the board and to Duke that the academic and working communities writ large are paying attention to the hearing and see exactly the gamble that Duke is making with workers’ ability to organize.
We also expect going into the hearing that we’ll be reaching out to signers with additional ways that folks can support. So there will be a lot more, this is still developing. And I also just want to say thank you so much for having us on and centering this fight at Duke. I think it feels like we’re just at the beginning of a pretty big fight that will not be over anytime soon. So I really appreciate being on.
Todd Wolfson: I really appreciate the big vision that both Kristina and Matt have offered. The stakes bring me to this moment in December of ’22. In the same week that the grad workers and the postdocs and the student researchers, etc. at the UC launched the biggest strike in the history of higher ed, with 48,000 of them going out, the same week that happened, the biggest strike in 2022 and the biggest strike in the history of higher ed, the same week that happened, Ron DeSantis attacked tenure in Florida, which was a precursor to his more recent attack on academic freedom with the attacks on critical race theory and gender studies as a racist, homophobic, transphobic move that he’s making in Florida to stop faculty from teaching that in higher ed, which is mind-boggling.
And to me, that captures the stakes. In one hand, at the heart of the future of the political fight against fascism and for democracy, higher ed is right in the center of that fight and will be right in the center because the right and the fascist right have been targeting and will continue to target higher ed as, along with K-12, as one of the places where we build an educated, engaged democratic populace that can build power and fight back. So on one hand, higher ed is going to be a central place where we’re fighting against fascism and fighting for real democracy.
And then on the other hand, there’s been an amazing wave of strikes writ large. And I know this show has been doing an amazing job covering all the amazing fights around strikes, and Max, you’re like a gem for us, you should know that. But the fact that we have a place, we’re in the middle of this strike wave across multiple sectors, is amazing. But what’s also amazing is that higher ed is arguably the most militant sector of them all right now, with the most strikes, with the five biggest new collective bargaining units in 2022 all coming out of higher ed. And so the stakes, I think, that lifts up that the stakes are massive right now in the labor movement in higher ed.
And so I guess, the only other thing where I want to go with this is that a lot of this feels like doom and gloom, we’re in tough fights, they have nasty strategies. The shit they’re doing at Duke is like these vampires attacking, Duke is crazy town. The way they’re treating us is completely undignified. But what I actually see is that the labor movement in higher ed is one of the keys to both rekindling democracy, which I think Kristina played out pretty powerfully. A powerful labor movement in higher ed will be the way we stop the attacks in higher ed and create a deep engaged populace.
But it’s not just that. It’s also, I think, a place to reinvigorate labor. When labor was at its best, people were organizing industrial wall-to-wall unions in the industrial core of this country. And many of those amazing wall-to-wall unions have gone away because of globalization. Also because of attacks on the CIO, frankly, and the merger of the AFL-CIO. But also because of globalization and the loss of a lot of the factory jobs in this country. And the only way we’re going to rekindle the imagination of wall-to-wall industrial unions that are class based and not based on our trade is in big physical places. And there’s hospitals, there’s K-12, and there’s universities. There might be some other places too.
And so, I really think that the stakes here are huge, and that if we can build a wall-to-wall, coast-to-coast movement of higher ed workers, not only can we transform higher ed, but we can also transform labor. And I’ll just say, to that point, that we have been building that. We’ve been building this thing and I hope that the Duke Grad Union joins us and the other Duke unions do, higher ed labor united, which is meant to do just that. Build a wall-to-wall, coast-to-coast movement of higher ed workers to fight over the future of higher education, and then also to reimagine the labor movement.
And so, to me, the stakes are massive, and we are actually on our front foot even though it doesn’t feel like it. We’re on the offensive. We are taking the fight to the boss and we are building powerful locals at our universities that are fighting across job categories, and we’re building it nationally. And that is exciting and powerful.
And then, just to the last, I would really, and folks who are in higher ed, organize unions, as I think Matt was flagging. Get down there, organize your union, build a union, challenge bad court cases if you don’t have the right to a union. Or develop new models like CWA has throughout the South with their United Campus Workers models, which are wall-to-wall unions throughout the South and Southwest. So start something new. And then join Higher Ed Labor United and pull your unions towards it so we can build a union, because frankly, we’re splitting across 12 parent national unions. Matt and Kristina are in SEIU, I’m in AFT and AAUP. And they’re great, our national unions, but if we don’t talk across our national unions and across our job categories, we can’t reimagine the sector together. And so join HELU so we can do that together.
And then, at Rutgers, Bryan really laid out the things we can do. So the only thing I’ll add is we’re probably going to be on strike in March, April. It’s going to be nice spring days. Come on up to New Jersey and join us on the picket line. We’ll get you fed and you can have a good fight against the boss. And also, we’ve launched a strike fund, and if you want to find it, punch in a Google search or whatever platform you’re using. Google sucks.
But punch in a search, Rutgers Adjunct Union, you’ll get to the adjunct page. They launched the strike fund, but both unions are collaborating on it. And please give to the strike fund. The money would go to the most vulnerable workers out on strike, first and foremost. And there’s been a lot, like UAW’s amazing. They’re able to give their folks $400 a day on this picket line. We don’t got that. So our strike fund is going to be really important, and we will prioritize our grad workers and our adjunct faculty being supported in this process.
But please join us in New Jersey. The fight’s going to be fun and more to come. And it’s fantastic both to be on a show with you, Max, and then also to hear more about the amazing fight too.
Matt Thomas: Find our social media accounts and follow them and recirculate them. Make people aware. To the degree that you can, please follow and spread the word about our struggles. It means a lot to people who are contemplating this kind of action, to know that they’re supported. And talk to your friends, talk to the people inside the university about what this place is like, wherever it is. And shorten the amount of time, I guess, I would say, Max, for people who are in this environment, between them coming in and having the expectations they do for how they’re going to be treated and their realization that the place isn’t exactly what they expected, and that there’s organizations like our unions that want to do something about it. So solidarity, and thanks for having me again.