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Duke University Press Workers Are Unionizing—And Gearing Up for a Fight

It's still unclear how the notoriously anti-union school will respond.

Duke Chapel, early spring
Duke Chapel.
Danny Navarro

Duke University is not in the habit of welcoming unions. Neither is the state of North Carolina. But workers at the school’s publishing house are hoping to change that.

Duke University Press (DUP) workers announced their intent to unionize with the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild last week, and asked the university which employs them to voluntarily recognize the union. A win at Duke would be remarkable for a number of reasons—not only is North Carolina is one of the lowest union-density states in the country, but DUP would become one of the few unions in the publishing industry. (The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers represents some Harvard University Press employees, according to InsideHigherEd, and workers at Wayne State University’s press also belong to a union, according to DUP union organizers. The Verso Books Guild, which represents workers at the left-wing publisher, is also affiliated with the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild.)


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The press publishes about 140 books and more than 50 academic journals per year, according to its website. Despite Duke University’s reputation as a stuffy southern Ivy, its press has garnered a reputation as a somewhat progressive publisher on issues of race, gender, class, and politics. More than 300 authors and editors who have worked with DUP have signed a letter of support for the union. “We see all staff at Duke University Press as our crucial and esteemed collaborators and we want them to have what we all deserve, which is collective voice and power in the institutions that shape our everyday lives,” the letter says.

According to assistant editor Sandra Korn, workers at DUP have discussed a union since she started working at the press six years ago, and an intentional effort to organize has been going on for over a year, though it has been made more difficult by the pandemic. (If successful, the unit would have around 80 members, she estimated.)

“I think the need for a union and for workers’ voice has been clear for a long time,” she told Discourse Blog by phone Monday.

But Duke, somewhat predictably, does not agree. On March 29, the day the union effort went public, DUP director Dean Smith sent a letter to workers at the press advocating against the union. “Unions can change the culture of an organization,” Smith wrote. “I want us all to be colleagues who work together. Your decision to support or not support union representation will be a very important one – for you, for your family, and for all of us at the Press. My goal is to encourage you to get all the information you need and get satisfying answers to all of your questions before you make a decision.” (Smith did not respond to an email from Discourse Blog.)

So far, the university itself isn’t showing its hand. “Duke University will observe all legal requirements of the union organizing process if and when it is activated,” Duke vice president of communications Michael Schoenfeld told Discourse Blog in an email Monday. “The university is deeply committed to our core values of respect, trust, inclusion, discovery and excellence, and these values are reflected in the extensive benefits that are offered to all Duke employees.”

A successful unionization effort at Duke is not unprecedented; in 2016, Duke adjunct faculty voted overwhelmingly, 174-29, to unionize with the Service Employees International Union. But if Duke’s track record in labor disputes is any indication, DUP workers will have to fight tooth and nail for recognition and the protections a collective bargaining agreement would provide. In September 2016, less than a month after the National Labor Relations Board said graduate workers at private universities had a right to organize, Duke graduate workers announced their intent to form a union with the SEIU. In response, the university hired noted anti-union law firm Proskauer Rose to help bust the union and accused pro-union workers and organizers of harassing graduate workers.

The election ultimately ended without a resolution. The initial tally stood at 398 yes votes to 691 no votes, but more than 500 ballots were challenged between the university and the SEIU, much larger than the margin between the two sides. Facing the prospect of a drawn-out legal battle overseen by a now anti-labor NLRB under the then-new Trump administration, Duke graduate workers ultimately withdrew their petition in early 2017 and chose instead to form a “direct-join, direct-action” union that has no formal recognition but still provides an avenue for collective action. (That group has won a number of victories).

A day after going public with their intent to unionize, DUP workers said the university had hired multi-national management-side law firm Ogletree Deakins to help fight the organizing push. Ogletree Deakins has represented Duke in labor disputes going back to 2000, according to NLRB filings.

When asked if the university would hire a law firm in an attempt to bust the Duke University Press union, as it has done in the past, Schoenfeld declined further comment.

Despite the fact that Duke had an $8.5 billion endowment as of 2020, Korn said “non-competitive wages, low wages and salaries, high turnover, and unfilled vacancies” are some of the reasons DUP workers are attempting to form a union, as well as “feeling like we don’t have a voice in our workplace.” Korn also said racism and discrimination in the workplace have been a problem.

“I’m white, but I would have coworkers who were experiencing or witnessing racism who would say, ‘We really need a union so we could have an advocate here and we could advocate for each other,'” Korn said.

She also said that in the past, Duke University Press employees have encountered problems with political speech. Korn, a Jewish woman, has been organizing around issues of Palestinian rights and justice for years, and a few years ago faced harassment on the internet for her activism while having her workplace linked in her Twitter bio.

“Some dude in California who has no connection to Duke found my Twitter bio and called the customer relations department of Duke Press and was like, ‘You have an anti-Semite on staff,'” she recalled. Korn’s supervisor was very supportive, she said, but for a time, higher-ups at Duke University forced her to remove the link to the press and university from her Twitter bio. (She’s since been informed it’s OK to link to the press on her social media again, she said.)

“For me, the most terrifying part of that experience was not knowing who I could bring with me into the meeting with HR and not knowing what HR would say,” she said. “So I think one of the things that we are most looking forward to is having Weingarten rights, where you have the right to have a union steward with you in any meeting about your working conditions. That’s something that we desperately need.”

There’s also issues of benefits. Though Schoenfeld told Discourse Blog in an email that the university provides DUP and other employees with six weeks of paid parental leave, it has not always been that way, said Kelsea Smith, a managing editor at the press since 2016. Smith said that when her baby was born in May 2020, the policy called for just three weeks of paid leave. After that period expired, Smith was forced to take nine weeks of unpaid leave, which ended July 24; the policy change doubling paid leave to six weeks was announced that month, while she was still out on unpaid leave, and went into effect a week and a half after she had returned to work.

“My baby should have been born ten days later,” Smith said.

DUP workers know they have a fight on their hands, thanks in part to the university’s history of aggressive union-busting.

“It was really shameful how hard Duke fought that,” Korn said of the university’s campaign against its graduate students. “I think Duke saw political will shifting against workers and sort of saw themselves as having the opportunity to join other massive universities in fighting grad workers’ right to be considered workers.”

“I think that the current administration and the Labor Board leaning in the direction that it’s leaning, I am optimistic that we’ll be a little more neutral,” she added.

Apart from the opportunity to kickstart efforts at other academic publishers, the Duke University Press union also has the potential to be another victory in the South, which has traditionally had a lower rate of union membership than other parts of the country. North Carolina was one of the first states to adopt a right-to-work law in 1947, and nearly 75 years later, it’s still going strong—just 3.1 percent of North Carolina workers were unionized in 2020, tied for the second-lowest union density in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the winds are beginning to change in the South. In addition to the ongoing union election at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, last year nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville voted overwhelmingly to unionize with National Nurses United, the biggest labor win at a hospital in the South in 45 years.

“If I were a nurse at Duke University, I would be looking to Mission Hospital and wondering why I didn’t have union protections too,” Korn said. “I think that there’s a lot of room for Duke, as a multi-billion dollar institution, to give more to its workers.”