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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Duke Adjuncts Take Union Fight to Durham City Council

Posted by on Thu, Feb 4, 2016 at 3:06 PM

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Contingent faculty at Duke — that is, adjunct and non-tenure-track instructors — have been organizing in support of a union since last year. In January, their cause won the support of the Durham People's Alliance, the influential local political group. Today, they brought their arguments to the Durham City Council in the form of a proposed resolution. 

Councilwoman Jillian Johnson opened this afternoon's council work session by reading aloud the proposal, which ticked off facts about the university: 35,000 employees, 3,300 faculty members, $8 million in property taxes exempted in the most recent tax year. It noted that Duke (and, of course, most institutions of higher learning) is increasingly dependent on non-tenure-track faculty, many of whom have worked for years without meaningful raises or access to healthcare benefits.

"The cost of living is increasing in Durham and expected to continue to increase," Johnson read. "[Adjuncts and non-tenure track professors] who want to invest in a long-term future in Durham can't afford to do so."

Jim Haverkamp, an adjunct professor in Duke's Arts of the Moving Image program, told the council, “A growing percentage of instructors at Duke are contingents that work semester to semester, year to year, and don’t have any power to sit down with administrators and say, "Can we do better?' I know the council has a good relationship with Duke. One hallmark of a good relationship is when you can say to the other, 'I think you should rethink the way you’re doing things.'”

Mayor Bill Bell noted that he has long supported the rights of labor unions, but didn't support the proposed resolution the way it was currently written. "There's a lot of numbers on here that, while I don't contest them, I'd like to see them verified, see the source." He added that he didn't see how Duke's exemption of certain property taxes was relevant. "If you talk about that, then you have to talk about what Duke's given to the city, also."

Bell continued: "It seems to me the appropriate thing to do is to re-establish our support for people to unionize if that’s what they want to do, and from there it’s up to the institution to decide if they want to do that." 

Councilman Steve Schewel is a non-tenured visiting professor at Duke. "I've been visiting from Club Boulevard for 16 years now," Schewel joked. After clearing with city attorney Patrick Baker that speaking on the issue wouldn't constitute a conflict of interest, Schewel said that he feels very fortunate at Duke. 

"I've got a fancy title, a wonderful boss, a great department," he said. "But many at Duke don't have as good of a situation as I do, and I think for them unions would be a very good thing." 

Councilman Eddie Davis agreed. "I would like to see this resolution polished and passed so Duke workers can move ahead with the business of allowing employees to collectively bargain with Duke." 

Because the item wasn't on today's agenda, Bell suggested discussing it in a future work session. No word yet on when that will occur. 

As the INDY reported in October, Duke does not seem particularly eager for its adjuncts to unionize. 

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