As anticipated, Duke University administrators remained silent in response to the thousand-plus graduate student workers who sought voluntary union recognition from the university on Friday, delaying—but not dooming—an effort to win worker protections for student teaching and research assistants.

As a next step, the Duke Graduate Students Union (DGSU) has filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and requested that the election take place by the end of March.

“Securing employer recognition—whether voluntary or through a vote—is urgent,” said Felix Borthwick, a Duke graduate student worker, in a release. “Grad workers who lack proper childcare and a living wage need those things and more now. We can’t wait any longer. We’re in a moment where support for labor organizing is stronger than it’s been in decades and we’re bringing that to the South—we can’t let this moment pass.”

The DGSU was formed in 2017 using a “direct-action, direct-join model” that enables workers to exercise collective bargaining power without requiring formal union recognition from employers. 

While the union has seen a number of wins in the past six years, including affordable dental coverage and guaranteed move-in stipends, formal recognition would give workers more leverage in addressing long-standing issues like workplace harassment and lack of healthcare access. It would also mark a historic victory for labor organizing: if the NLRB election is successful, the DGSU will become the first employer-recognized graduate student union at a private university in the South—a region where legislative blocks and systemic exploitation  have long thwarted unionization efforts.

At the DGSU’s “Rally for Recognition” on February 28, Duke alum and labor rights advocate Reverend William J. Barber I called on the university to set an example for other institutions.

“You ought to be leading the South,” Barber said. “You ought to be leading the nation. You ought to be leading the way. These students are not going anywhere: they are going to win. In fact, Duke, you ought to be encouraging it.”

The day of the rally, DGSU members submitted a letter to Duke president Vincent Price, requesting voluntary union recognition by March 3.

In the wake of the administration’s silence, Barber’s call to action reads more as a condemnation.

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