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Union victory at Duke sparks momentum for UNC worker's union

UNC graduate students and employees are hoping to unionize despite North Carolina being a "right to work" state — meaning North Carolina public employees do not have collective bargaining power. 

English Ph.D. candidate Abigail Lee is one of many organizers of the new University Workers Union at UNC, a group that has tasked itself with facilitating a more communicative relationship between the University and the employees of its various departments.

Lee feels emboldened by the success of union-seeking Duke faculty, but she and her colleagues understand they will be faced with certain roadblocks that their counterparts in Durham would find unfamiliar.

“There is no specific protection for anti-union retaliation,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, a law school professor who specializes in employer law. “A state employer like UNC has no duty at all to bargain, negotiate or deal with in any way any union that represents its employees.”

The roots of North Carolina’s animosity toward unionization extend back to the American South during the time of Jim Crow, when Lee says the state senate enacted a law to prevent minority workers from joining unions that could advocate for them, unite them and inform them of their rights.

“The end result is UNC employees can join a union that will advocate on their behalf, but the extent to which the union will actually talk to the University, much less have any impact, is solely up to the University itself,” Hirsch said.

There will be no binding negotiations, no collective bargaining, no real leverage. The University can listen to all or none of the union’s requests and respond however they see fit. They hold the cards.

“My guess is that for a while they’ll do nothing,” Hirsch said. “I think what will be the determining factor is how much public attention and steam picks up. If the union is able to get enough public support to be a pain for UNC, they’ll start listening."

Lee lamented about ways the University cuts corners to save money at the expense of its employees. The bricklayers, for instance, aren't replaced once one of them is fired or leaves the position, creating a larger volume of work for a shrinking group of employees. 

She said the housekeeping scheduling has been adapted to try to make their work appear invisible. For some of the custodians and housekeepers, shifts start at 2 a.m.

“We’re hoping, by joining graduate workers with campus workers, we can help protect each other,” Lee said. “We know from the history of unionizing in this state, even at this university, there will almost certainly be reprisals and consequences. But we think that together we’re stronger.”

Scott Barish was on the organizing committee of the campaign to win collective bargaining at Duke. His success would mean Duke will lose substantial leverage over their graduate students at the negotiating table.

“The university went to court with us to argue that graduate students weren’t actually workers but instead students only. And that therefore we had no right to have an election whatsoever," Barish said. "We were in court for at least a week and a half debating this point." 

The Duke Graduate Student Union won the initial case and was allowed to vote for a union, but the results were indeterminate and are in the process of being resolved. 

“Everyone saw how the university pushed back against their campaign,”  Lee said, referring to the legal battle between Duke and a collection of its graduate students attempting to unionize. “That hasn't happened here; we hope that doesn't happen here.”

UNC hasn't retaliated against the University Workers Union in any comparable way. Arguably, UNC has far less to lose, even if the Union continues to garner support. But Lee said that doesn't mean the two entities are on the same page.  

“We do have shared values," she said. "I just think that our interests and constituencies are fundamentally different, so there will be fundamental differences.”


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