Employees at Duke University Press announced on Monday that they had filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking legal certification for their union.

In March, workers had gone public with Duke University Press Workers Union, a unit of The NewsGuild, TNG-CWA Local 3203.

Shortly thereafter, the university began meeting with anti-union law firm Ogletree Deakins. The INDY contacted Duke’s spokesperson, but they declined to comment. 

In a mission statement, staff members said that the union aims to address “constant turnover, extended vacancies, disruptive reorganizations, lack of professional growth opportunities, patterns of discrimination, inconsistent enforcement of policies, and compensation that is not commensurate with our quality of work and years of experience as professionals (or the cost of living in Durham and around the Triangle) have all contributed in various ways to make working at DUP harder than it should be.”

On Monday a “majority” of the press’s 80 non-management employees submitted signed cards authorizing union representation to the National Labor Relations Board, workers say. If Duke University does not voluntarily recognize the union, the next step will be for the NLRB to carry out a union election. 

The NewsGuild represents thousands of media, journalism, and nonprofit workers at companies including The Chicago Tribune, The Associated Press, and The New Republic. Unionizing efforts in the media realm have gained increasing attention, as workers at high-profile companies like The New Yorker and The New York Times have sought recognition for their union efforts. 

University press unions are rare, but not unheard of. Some employees of Harvard University Press are represented by the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, according to InsideHigherEd;  workers at leftist publisher Verso Books also formed a union last fall, and received recognition. 

“Duke can voluntarily recognize our union at any time, and we hope that they will follow the lead of organizations like NPR and Verso Books, who quickly recognized the unions their employees formed earlier this year,” said Jessica Castro-Rappl, publicist and academic exhibits coordinator for Duke University Press, in a statement. “Especially over the past year, we’ve heard from Duke and DUP leadership that equity and inclusion are mission-critical goals. This is the perfect chance for Duke to show that they’re committed to making real, structural change.”

In the past, Duke University has not exactly been friendly to unionizing efforts—in 2019, after years of attempting to bust the graduate workers union, it raised the minimum wage for graduate workers, but refrained from recognizing the union. North Carolina, meanwhile, is notoriously anti-union, and belongs to the five states with the lowest union membership rates, alongside South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Duke University Press was founded in 1921. It publishes 140 books yearly, and more than 50 journals. The union has received support from Duke University Press authors and journal editors, as well as local and publishing industry leaders. 

“What comes through the collective of people, processes and decisions known as Duke University Press are some of the most important critiques of neoliberalism, histories of struggle, and radical re-framings of relation that exist at this time in print,” reads a letter signed by more than 350 DUP authors. 

“And,” the letter continues, “we support the possibility that an institution that stewards so many different published forms of institutional critique would embrace its own transformation and its continued role in the transformation of academic labor and publishing.”

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