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Dive Brief:

  • Duke University doctoral students may vote to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board ruled this week, rejecting a challenge from institution officials who argued they were not employees. 
  • University administrators sought to overturn an NLRB decision from 2016 finding that graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants at private institutions have collective bargaining rights. 
  • About 2,500 doctoral students will now hold an election on whether to unionize. A Duke spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Dive Insight:

The spotlight has been on graduate student student unions for almost a year, in part because of high-profile strikes at the University of California system and Rutgers and Temple universities.

Of course, graduate student unions’ efforts at public colleges have been intensifying for decades. But at private colleges, graduate unions were barred from striking until the 2016 NLRB ruling.

Duke graduate workers tried to unionize after the NLRB decision, but a vote failed in 2017. At the time, Duke officials had refused to acknowledge a potential union to a regional labor board.

It made a similar argument that doctoral students aren’t employees, as workers started mounting another unionization effort this year.

The NLRB didn’t buy it.

“I find that PhD students who provide instructional services in undergraduate or graduate-level courses or labs and who are compensated by and subject to the direction and control of Duke University are employees within the meaning” of the National Labor Relations Act, Lisa Henderson, NLRB regional director, wrote in the ruling. 

Ballots for the graduate union will be mailed out later this month and counted in August, per the ruling.