Duke University Hires Anti-Union Law Firm in Effort to Squash Graduate Student Union Plan | News
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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Duke University Hires Anti-Union Law Firm in Effort to Squash Graduate Student Union Plan

Posted by on Tue, Nov 22, 2016 at 12:07 PM

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After the National Labor Relations Board decision in August to recognize graduate students as legitimate employees, Duke graduate students announced their intention to form a union.

"As graduate student workers, we know that our job conditions directly determine the learning conditions of our students and the quality of our research," a group of students wrote in a Duke Chronicle op-ed in September. "Healthy, stable, and financially secure graduate students are better able to teach and mentor undergraduates and to conduct research, vastly improving our educational environment."

But Duke, it seems, isn't letting this happen without a fight. On Monday morning, Graduate School dean Paula McClain sent out an email, obtained by the INDY, alleging that students and organizers behind the unionizing effort have harassed international students and others who are expressing opposition to the union:

In the past week, a number of students have come forward to express their concerns about how contentious the organizing process on campus has become. Some international students reported that union representatives told them that if they did not vote for the union, their immigration status would be in jeopardy. Other students told me that flyers they posted expressing opposition to the union were defaced or torn down. Still others reported that a meeting they scheduled to discuss the merits of continuing without a union was interrupted by union supporters, including some students.

Friedo Merhout, a third-year sociology graduate student from Germany, disputes McClain's allegations.

"I absolutely disagree with that interpretation. I'm not sure where the administration is taking this from," Merhout says. "We had this meeting [on Friday, November 11] where we invited the entire international community where we stated [that their visa status wouldn't be in jeopardy if they opposed the union] very clearly."

Merhout's account checks out: the Duke grad student union's website has a blog post dated November 16, which addresses this issue:
  1. Will my union membership affect my student visa? Can it affect future visas?

No. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cannot ask you questions about your union membership or participation in lawful union activity. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognized the importance of enforcing labor laws and signed an agreement with the Department of Labor (DOL) that states it is essential to ensure proper wages and working conditions for all covered workers regardless of immigration status. It is your right to belong to a union and being a union member cannot affect your visa application.

Duke public affairs vice president Mike Schoenfeld reiterated what was in the McClain email.

"A number of students have been in contact with the graduate school and university officials to express concerns about conduct over the past couple of weeks," Schoenfeld said. "And as a result, Dean McClain sent out the message that she sent out this morning.”

McClain's email isn't the end of Duke's efforts against unionization, however; according to filings with the National Labor Relations Board, the University has also hired Proskauer Rose, a firm known for its anti-union efforts in major sports leagues, to represent the university.

Proskauer Rose has also represented Columbia University in its own union busting efforts when graduate students there attempted to form a union. The firm also represented the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in labor negotiations for nearly two decades, but quit in 2009 because, according to sources of the New York Daily News, agency heads were too friendly with labor.

When asked why they went with Proskauer Rose, Schoenfeld responded: "The University continues to believe that a union is not in the best interests of the students or the university. We will use whatever resources that we deem appropriate to protect that position.”

"I am aware that this is a legal process," Merhout says. "They need legal counsel with this like we do, but my personal impression is that hiring this particular law firm speaks very clearly to Duke’s intentions to prohibit the forming of any union for graduate students at Duke.”

As of press time, Proskauer Rose hasn't responded to calls from the INDY requesting comment. Read the entire email McClain sent in full below.

Dear students,

As you know, the SEIU has filed a petition asking for an election to determine whether master’s and Ph.D. students at The Graduate School want to form a union. Last week, President Brodhead wrote to all of youto give Duke’s position on graduate student unionization. I am writing to address some concerns I have been hearing since then.

In the past week, a number of students have come forward to express their concerns about how contentious the organizing process on campus has become. Some international students reported that union representatives told them that if they did not vote for the union, their immigration status would be in jeopardy. Other students told me that flyers they posted expressing opposition to the union were defaced or torn down. Still others reported that a meeting they scheduled to discuss the merits of continuing without a union was interrupted by union supporters, including some students.

As we would do with any student complaint, we are investigating each of these allegations to determine whether university policies, which apply to all members of the Duke community, were violated. To be clear, no student—whether for or against the union—will be punished by Duke for expressing their viewpoint in a manner consistent with Duke policies. No student will lose his or her immigration status based on how he or she votes in a union election.

As an academic institution, we cherish robust debate and foster an environment where all students feel safe to express their opinions and to have their voices heard. Whether or not to form a union is an important issue, and we fully expect that there would be strong opinions on all sides and that the debate would be spirited. What we did not expect—and must not accept—is the use of intimidation, threats, or coercion to limit free debate on the issue.

While I do not believe a graduate student union is a good idea for students or the university, I certainly respect each student’s right to feel otherwise and to share their opinion with others. What concerns me is that the environment on campus has become increasingly adversarial even before a union election is held. I would like to encourage everyone to respect each other’s right to express ideas from all perspectives. No matter where we stand individually, we must respect each student’s right to learn about the issue, express their opinions in open discussion, and reach their own decisions.

We want all students to feel supported as they navigate this process. To that end, if students have concerns about anything on this front, or feel that they are being mistreated by other students or by people outside the Duke community—whether they are for or against the union—please feel free to contact me directly (gradschool-dean@duke.edu) or get in touch with the National Labor Relations Board at 336-.

I hope each of you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

Sincerely,

Paula D. McClain, Ph.D.
Dean of The Graduate School and
Vice Provost for Graduate Education

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