Students Against Duke Unionization Risks and uncertainties about the formation of a Duke graduate student union


This an incomplete list of questions that we have collected about the unionization of graduates students at Duke University. Please join and submit any questions via our facebook group.

How much are union membership dues?

Dues are typically collected annually and are a percentage of your gross income from the employer (e.g., your stipend).  Typically, this percentage is around 1-2% of the gross income.

From the SEIU constitutionArticle, XV Section 6(a). "Effective January 1, 2016, for all members with annual earnings of $16,000 or more, the minimum dues shall be equal to $36.00 per month. Effective January 1, 2016, for all members with annual earnings between $5,500 and $16,000, the minimum dues shall be equal to $31.00 per month. Effective January 1, 2017, through January 1, 2020, the minimum monthly dues for all members with annual earnings of $5,500 or above shall be increased by $1.00 annually, effective January 1 of each year." 

How will my dues be spent?

SEIU does not provide a breakdown on how it spends its members dues. According to federal labor filings, in 2015 alone, union President Mary Kay Henry (the president of SEIU) received total compensation of $296,549 and nine other administrators made over $200,000. An additional 19 staff members received over $150,000. On top of that, 200 SEIU staff members took home over $100,000. In addition to sustaining its tremendous and handsomely compensated bureaucracy, SEIU has spent literally millions to prevent its own members from disaffiliating and to retaliate against those who succeed.  In one infamous (and ongoing) example, SEIU has spent an estimated  $50 million to “crush” members who disaffiliated to form the National Union of Healthcare Workers. SEIU also gives millions every year to politicians In 2014, it spent $48 million on “lobbying and political activities.” Technically, this money does not come from “dues,” but from a special membership tax. 

Will Duke students have our own “local?” What does it matter?

Unlike every other union, SEIU will not grant us a local charter--in other words, Duke students won't have our own "local." This means that we cannot elect our own officers and we cannot decide how to spend a cent of our own dues money. Having a local gives us a way to have a say in our own union. Without one, SEIU can and will ignore us. That is the point. SEIU has the constitutional authority to merge us with any other workers it chooses at any time. (See Article XIV, Sections 3 & 4 (pg 25-26) in the SEIU constitution. For example,  the 1400 adjunct faculty members of Northeastern University who pay dues to SEIU are submerged in the 20,000 member “Local 509” along with an assortment of child care providers, mental health clinicians, various state employees, and others. Exceedingly centralized, SEIU uses such "megalocals" to short-circuit local autonomy by lumping workers from various bargaining units, workplaces, and even industries in a way that creates organizational distance between workers and their unions.  Note: we know that Duke graduate students will not receive our own local charter because SEIU’s campaign manager, Larry Alcoff, said so in a conversation specifically devoted to the question. The conversation with Alcoff took place only after one student made a tremendous fuss about SEIU’s policy of lumping workers into “megalocals,” and sought assurance that it wouldn’t happen to us. Such assurance was denied. Some pro-SEIU students insist that we can indeed have our own local. We ask them to get this in writing from SEIU officials and we will happily drop the point.

What happens if I don't pay dues?

Because North Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, SEIU cannot force you personally to pay dues. That being said, only dues paying members are eligible to participate in contract ratification elections. As for the very first contract (before dues collection begins), students may or may not be asked to pay an initiation fee and/or take an oath of membership before voting. Regardless, after the first contract, students must pay dues and be in good standing with the union in order to vote on subsequent changes. You also have to be a dues paying member to vote on strike authorization. If there happens to be a "negotiating committee" for future contracts, only dues paying members can run as a candidate or vote on candidates. And, only dues paying members can vote for local officials and convention delegates---since we won't have our own local, the people running for such spots can come from any bargaining unit with which we are merged. The important thing to remember is that everyone’s contract--of members and nonmembers alike--will be in the hands of SEIU.

Will students get to vote on contracts?

Dues paying members of the union, that are in good standing, will get to vote to ratify whatever contract the union negotiates (note: even nonmembers may be able to vote for the very first contract -- see previous question).  But this is far from comforting. In most cases the membership will go along with whatever the union recommends--for the practical reason that the union controls the channels of communication and it is hard for workers to organize an opposite vote. Moreover, there are examples of SEIU using dirty tricks to force its members to vote the way it wants them to vote.

Why is SEIU our only choice? 

Long before the unionization drive was announced at Duke, a handful of students took it upon themselves to decide that SEIU would be our only option. In response to some students who insisted that unionization should proceed deliberately and with the input of as many students as possible, SEIU organizers insisted that the best way to form a union would be to lay out a clear path and “organize” people to follow it. When a few students contacted the United Auto Workers (a union that actually has experience representing graduate students) so that we would at least have TWO choices on the ballot, SEIU executives contacted the regional director and warned him to back off "or be dealt with." To make matters worse, SEIU students at Duke wrote UAW graduate students at NYU and told them to sign a letter asking their union to stop "raiding." Once the NYU students were told the truth, they immediately stopped the letter campaign and rebuked SEIU in the process.  A group of students at Northwestern University took an alternative route: 

"At Northwestern we've formed what is for the time being a non-affiliated organization of grad students; we're in the process of drafting bylaws and going public. This organization will hopefully...serve as a forum for we grad students to make informed individual (and, I hope, collective) decisions about what union to support. I personally also think it's important that we first organize independently of any union, because doing so will only give us more power to get the most beneficial or participatory agreement with whatever union we decide to affiliate with."

If we vote “no union,” this election, does that mean we will never have another chance to unionize?

No. We would be eligible to vote in another certification election in one year with whatever union we want. We can also have an election to certify as an unaffiliated, independent union. 

Can we ever leave SEIU if we affiliate? 

Yes. To disaffiliate, Duke students would have to collect signatures from 30% of the bargaining unit and submit them to the NLRB. We would then have to win an election. The first opportunity to petition to decertify SEIU would be three years after the first contract has started. And even then, SEIU makes it extraordinarily difficult for workers to leave (see "How will be dues be spent?"). If we decide to affiliate with SEIU, we are probably stuck.

Can SEIU tax us for political purposes?

SEIU has the constitutional authority to tax us to pay for their political operations. See Article XV, Section 18 (pg 31-32). In 2016, such money was spent to defeat Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primaries.

Why should students who believe in the concept of unionization still vote against SEIU?

Students who believe in the promise of democratic unionism should vote “no.” SEIU has lead the effort to squash and pervert this promise. SEIU is notoriously anti-democratic, centralized, and corrupt. Here is an open letter written by labor historians and other scholars to SEIU in regards to its anti-democratic seizure of a local affiliate which had the audacity to oppose a particularly heinous directive. It was signed by over 300 people and published in the New York Times. It concludes: "Putting UHW under trusteeship would send a very troubling message and be viewed, by many, as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU. In our view, this would have negative consequences for the workers directly affected, the SEIU itself, and the labor movement as a whole. We strongly urge you to avoid such a tragedy." SEIU did not avoid such a tragedy, and to this day it continues to retaliate against the members who disaffiliated in response to being “trusteed.”

We highly recommend veteran labor journalist Steve Early’s The Civil Wars in US Labor:Birth of a New Workers' Movement or Death Throes of the Old (Haymarket, 2011) for a full accounting of SEIU’s hostility to local autonomy and democratic unionism.  Early’s book is available on e-loan through the Duke University Library.

What do the studies say about graduate student unionization? Are they reliable?

 We are not aware of studies that address the issue of graduate student unionization in private institutions and its effect on the student-faculty relationship and academic freedom.  The NLRB decided in favor of this in 2016 and the only union at a private institution is at NYU. An often cited paper on the effects of graduate student unions at public institutions is Rogers, 2013. The authors surveyed graduate students at 8 public institutions, 4 with and 4 without a graduate student union.  Students were chosen out of 4 disciplines. The questions were responded using a 1-5 scale. There were 225 union students and 248 non-union students. The average score is given for 29 questions such as “my primary adviser accepts me as a competent professional” and “my primary adviser gives me advice on how to build a reputation in my academic field. The difference between the average score at the institutions with and without the union are compared. Only 10/29 questions have statistically significant differences at a p-value of 0.1 and the average difference of those 10 questions is 0.1890.  

Limitations of this study are that this was conducted at a public universities which are subject to state law, unlike private universities. State law governs bargaining procedures to which private institutions are not subject and therefore, it is unclear what limits on bargaining are adhered to in the private university setting. Further, the sample is small- 4 disciplines is not analogous to the 70+ we have at Duke. Another issue is that for a given university, conditions were not measured before and after the union so it is difficult to establish cause and effect relationships. Finally, differences are not very statistically meaningful and more research would be required on this issue to establish the benefits of a union. More information about the issues of unionizing in private institutions can be found in a amicus brief, written at the behest of professors at Ivy League schools + MIT and Stanford.