Duke employees’ organizing efforts

Aug. 24, 2013 @ 11:02 AM

Soon after Duke University admitted its first black graduate students in 1961, a few students organized the Students for Liberal Action. Its concerns included academic freedom and racial integration, as well as what would become a galvanizing issue on campus: Duke's treatment of its largely black nonacademic employees.

At that time universities were exempt from federal minimum-wage regulations and a number of other labor laws. As the scope of the Civil Rights Movement grew in the mid-1960s, nonacademic wages became an increasingly high-profile issue at Duke.

In February 1965 long-time Duke employee Oliver Harvey organized a Duke Employees Benevolent Society to campaign for higher pay, better benefits and working conditions, and help from a national labor union to organize Duke’s nonacademic employees. In September, the society became Local 77 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Two months later, the university trustees agreed to improved benefits and wage increases, but not to collective bargaining or recognizing a union.

In April 1967 a series of three protests by hundreds of employees, students and faculty in front of the administration building called for the administration to seriously address the issues employees raised. "It has been and continues to be our position," a Local 77 statement proclaimed, "that there cannot be an acceptable way to settle employee grievances at the university without impartial arbitration."

Wages and organizing came to the forefront in April 1968, when the federal minimum wage and the right to collective bargaining were demands of the "Silent Vigil" on the Duke campus following the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The trustees agreed to a further rise in pay and, this time, to review "the adequacy of the relationship between the university and its nonacademic employees." It was not collective bargaining, but the administration's concessions did lead to nonacademic employees having a greater say regarding their working conditions and put in place mechanisms to express and appeal their grievances.