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Duke non-tenure faculty vote to unionize

People gather at Duke Chapel to celebrate Duke Teaching First becoming eligible to unionize.

People gather at Duke Chapel to celebrate Duke Teaching First becoming eligible to unionize.

Most non-tenure track faculty at Duke University decided to join Service Employees International Union by a vote of 174 to 29 on Friday.

Speakers included Duke students, UNC faculty, Durham City Council members and labor activists in local child care and food service industries.

Jennifer Bowles, Duke lecturing fellow, said the diversity reflects a broader movement.

“Not only are we working on the crisis in higher education, we’re working on the race to the bottom in general,” she said.

“The same forces that lead to increasingly bad conditions for faculty are the same conditions that also keep fast food workers making $9 an hour.”

Duke’s unionizing efforts aren’t just about wages, but benefits and job security, said Nancy Fisher, chairperson of UNC Fixed-Term Faculty Committee.

“One of the underlying animals in all of this is that as a single entity negotiating with one’s department chair, if you speak out then you put yourself at risk for not getting renewed,” she said.

Bowles said Duke’s provost responded to the faculty’s movement by hiring a union-busting law firm and instead urged direct engagement between faculty and administration.

But Bowles said faculty in Duke Teaching First had already tried a direct approach.

“The fundamental issue of this campaign is that a group of contingent faculty had already tried to address some concerns with administration long before SEIU was ever involved, and there was no answer,” she said.

Duke biology instructor Christopher Shreve said antagonism wasn’t the aim.

“I think the most important thing for people to remember is we’re not doing this because we don’t like Duke,” he said. “This is not an attack.”

Progress will continue to depend on consensus, Bowles said.

“We’re beginning to gather information from our faculty about what people are going to want,” she said. “Right now we don’t have any specific campaign around anything because this is about a collective voice.”

At UNC, faculty have forged ways around North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining at state agencies.

Fisher said the UNC Faculty Council relays professors’ equity issues to the faculty chairperson, who then consults with the provost and chancellor.

Altha Cravey, a tenure-track geography professor at UNC, said after Tom Ross’ sudden dismissal, the Faculty Forward Network has been working with the Fixed-Term Faculty Committee, a group within the Faculty Council, to press the administration.

“We can’t have a union, but we can organize tenure track; we can organize everybody,” she said. “So that’s what we’re trying to push, two things at once, statewide: faculty voice empowering people like me who are tenured and more secure, and also the parallel track to improve the conditions of the fixed-term faculty.”

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