Duke University administrators this year hired a law firm with an anti-union reputation shortly after its academic publisher announced that it had created a workers union to collectively bargain for competitive salaries, paid leave, fairness, and transparency.

Employees of Duke University Press (DUP) in late March announced on Twitter their intention to form the Duke University Press Workers Union. 

Founded in 1921, DUP has long been recognized as a national leader among academic presses with the publishing of books and journals that recognize the more marginalized sectors of society, with topics ranging from LGBTQ issues to critical ethnic studies.

One day after DUP employees made their announcement, Duke University hired Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, a multinational law firm with a reputation for cracking unions apart.

Sandra Korn has worked as an assistant editor with DUP for a little over six years. She has a master’s degree and earns about $43,000 a year, an unconscionable salary from a private university that is ranked as one of the best in the world with an $8.5 billion-dollar endowment, she said.

“It’s the wealthiest [private] university in North Carolina, but there are people who have been with the press for decades who make less than what I do,” Korn told the INDY. “If there’s a precedent for employers to raise wages in Durham, Duke University should be that employer.”

Mike Schoenfeld, a spokesman for the university, said Duke regularly engages expert outside counsel to assist with complex legal issues, and emphasizes that the union utilizes legal expertise in its efforts as well. 

In June, about 96 percent of the DUP’s roughly 70 non-supervisory employees cast ballots for or against the union.

“It’s close right now,” Lee Willoughby-Harris, a DUP marketing manager, says about the results. “The actual result will depend on the adjudication of the challenged ballots. Seven ballots have been challenged.”

On July 7, Ogletree Deakins filed an objection with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about conduct that may have affected the union election.

The four-page affidavit claims there were “administrative failures in the mail ballot process.”

Schoenfeld says that both Duke and the NewsGuild branch under which DUP is organizing, and hopes to join, challenged the eligibility of the voters in the Duke Press election: Duke challenged the eligibility of two voters, Schoenfeld says, and the union challenged the eligibility of five voters.

“Duke raised objections to several procedural errors that occurred before the vote and during the vote count, including the fact that the NLRB distributed ballots without return postage that required extending the deadline for voting,” Schoenfeld explains. “As required by law, those objections will be the subject of an NLRB hearing to determine whether the election needs to be redone to ensure the integrity of the process and the rights of all eligible employees to have their votes count.”

Korn said Duke’s real motive is “to maintain power and have the only voice of what Duke University Press should look like.”

“Duke is desperately trying to do anything to not have to listen to the vote,” she says. “Duke is desperately putting these legal barriers in the way.’

Ogletree Deakins is a formidable opponent. According to NLBR records, Ogletree Deakins has represented Duke University in dozens of labor cases since 2000. The company’s website touts the firm as “a pioneer in developing strategies and practices that create positive employee relations.”

Korn says Duke has a history of organizing against its employees’ efforts to create unions for greater bargaining power. She points to Karen Brodkin Sacks’ Caring by the Hour: Women, Work, and Organizing at Duke Medical Center, a 1988 book that chronicles the efforts of medical center workers to unionize during the 1970s and the university’s stiff resistance to unionization.

In 2016, Duke’s graduate students formed a union with the Service Workers International Union. Duke University officials responded by spending “millions to fight the union effort,” according to the Duke Graduate Student Union website. 

Schoenfeld disputes this characterization of the events.

“The NLRB held a free and fair election and the union lost,” he says. “Duke currently has amicable relations with four unions that represent more than 1,500 employees who do vital work in a number of areas across the university and health system.”

Korn says the creation of a workers union at Duke University Press is “part of a wave of workers in the publishing and communications industry who want a greater say in what our workplace in the future looks like.” 

She points to workers with Oxford University Press, the largest academic press in the country, who in late June announced they were forming a union. In early July, workers with the University of Washington Press, the largest academic press in the Pacific Northwest, also formed a union.

The push by DUP employees to create a workers union literally started with a bang: the deadly, early morning downtown gas explosion on April 10, 2019. It was the Bull City’s 150th anniversary. The concussive blast shook the DUP offices. It also jarred the consciousness of the 75 to 80 DUP employees who streamed out of the building onto Main Street. They could see the smoke rising from the Kaffeinate coffee shop and soon saw the flames that killed Kong Lee and injured 25 others.

“We were getting different messages from the managers about what had happened,” says Willoughby-Harris, who explained that the gas leak explosion jump-started a series of conversations about the varying levels of information they had about the explosion. That led to other concerns about transparency, paid family leave, and unfair salaries.

“Living in Durham right now on academic publishing wages is tough,” says Willoughby-Harris, who has been with DUP for 35 years. “We’re looking for something that will allow us to keep our heads above water.”

Korn says DUP employees’ efforts to unionize have been met with “fierce opposition from management,” saying the workers have received press releases encouraging them to vote against a union.

The DUP editor says the opposition has been spearheaded by Dean Smith, director of the academic press.

“I can only assess that it was something he was told to do by the anti-union lawyers,” Korn says. “Right now there is intense pressure in our workplace. Despite the pressure, the majority of us are still holding on to form a union.”

Willoughby-Harris is convinced that she and her fellow workers should have a voice in their workplace.

“We deserve a place at the table and being part of the conversation,” she says.

NLRB is expected to render a decision about the union as soon as this month.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include comment from a Duke University spokesperson.


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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.