DURHAM, N.C. — Graduate students across the country are attempting to form student unions. Although unionization efforts aren’t new, they’ve been getting more attention over the past couple years.


What You Need To Know

Graduate student unions are becoming more popular all across the country

Duke University is trying to follow suit

Ph.D. students held a rally Friday to ask the university to voluntarily recognize their union

If Duke refuses, the students will bring signatures to the National Labor Relations Board for a vote


Grad students at Yale, Harvard, John Hopkins, Boston University and University of Southern California are just a few big names that have recently unionized. Now, the movement has spread to Duke University.

Friday, hundreds of Ph.D. students came to the steps of Duke University Chapel to support unionization efforts. The rally was a way for graduate students to ask the university to voluntarily recognize their union. It’s a process that has been in the works for months.

The Ph.D. students, led by biology candidate Anita Simha, are working hard to form their union. They are pushing for five key points: a living wage, comprehensive health care, international student protections, workplace equity and democracy in the workplace.

“I’m really proud to be at Duke … and I think part of our mission is to improve Duke even more,” Simha said. “We're putting all of this work into Duke because we believe in it. … People often call Duke the Harvard of the south. But a big difference between Harvard and Duke is that Harvard has a grad student union.”

English Ph.D. student Matthew Thomas says people often don’t realize how much work they do for the university. 

“Oftentimes we're only doing coursework for the first or second years of our program,” Thomas said. “And then really we're just doing service for the university for the next five years, often six years.”

It's not an extension of undergrad he says, it’s their livelihood. That’s why their unionization efforts are so important.

“We're not anticipating this being an easy road,” Simha said. “But we know that as long as we are staying together, as a majority, we're going to win.”

Duke graduate students have been through this process before in 2016 with little luck.

This time, if Duke refuses to recognize their union voluntarily, Simha has had enough employees sign support cards to bring them to the National Labor Relations Board. There they can vote to form a union. 

For now, they’re waiting to see how Duke responds. Although, Duke staff members have refused to sit down with Simha and their colleagues, they did provide Spectrum News 1 with a statement after Friday’s rally.

Erin Kramer, associate vice president for Duke communications, wrote: “We value our graduate students as part of the Duke community and have a long history of working collaboratively with them to reach their academic goals during their time at Duke. We received a request from a group of graduate students asking for Duke to voluntarily recognize the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as the representative for all Ph.D. students. We are in the process of assessing the request and will respond to the group as appropriate.”