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Students await visitors with signs outside Page Auditorium on the campus of Duke University.

Photo courtesy of Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity

Students await visitors with signs outside Page Auditorium on the campus of Duke University.

Duke students demand $15 for university workers

By Kathy L. Gilbert and Heather Hahn
April 7, 2016 | UMNS

Students demanding higher wages for Duke University employees have shut down the building that houses the president’s office for more than a week.

At least eight students have occupied the hallway outside the president’s office at the United Methodist-related university since April 1. The students said they are not moving until the administration agrees to negotiate. The administration said no negotiations until the students leave.

There were initially nine occupiers, but one student left for a national poetry contest and expects to return April 10.

Richard Brodhead, president of Duke, sent a letter to staff and students late April 6. He outlined steps the university will take to “address issues of respect, civility, wages and inclusiveness for staff.”

“While Duke has been frequently recognized as a leader in employee benefits and satisfaction, the recent student protest is consistent with our own commitment to continually review and improve our workplace culture,” Brodhead said in his letter.

Independent review

He said the administration would engage a “recognized, independent expert” to review the staff’s grievance and complaint procedures; review the guidelines for contractors and their employees; raise awareness of processes for the recruitment and review of senior administrators; and initiate a process to further raise the Duke minimum wage of $12 per hour.

However, one of the organizers of the protest (though not one of the occupiers), said: “We are thoroughly unconvinced.

“The administration’s language of ‘reviewing,’ ‘raising awareness,’ and ‘initiating’ is not unlike what we’ve heard from the administration before,” said Zachary Faircloth, a sophomore at Duke. Faircloth is one of a larger group of students in tents outside the Allen Building.

Faircloth said raising the minimum wage to $15 is a matter of economic, racial and moral justice.

The group, Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity, formed after the student newspaper, the Duke Chronicle, reported an incident in 2014 in which a white administrator at Duke allegedly hit a black contract employee with his car and used a racial slur. The contract worker was with the Parking and Transportation Services department.

Tallman Trask III, executive vice president at Duke, has apologized for the incident.

The nine students who started occupying the building said the apology is not enough and they are asking for increased wages and better conditions for all Duke workers.

Shortened list of demands

A press release from Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity on April 6 offered a shortened list of demands “in a gesture of goodwill.”

They want Duke to initiate an independent investigation on their labor practices, a commitment from Duke to raise minimum wage for all workers from $12 to $12.53 per hour by the end of the year and to $15 per hour by the end of 2019. The group also wants the administration to negotiate with the students and workers.

“If the Duke administration meets these demands, then the student occupiers will leave the Allen Building,” states the press release.

California and New York recently increased the minimum wage to $15 per hour in their states. The federal minimum wage is $7.24 per hour.

Duke spokesman Keith Lawrence said the university is recognized in North Carolina and nationally for progressive employment and compensation policies.

“In addition, every full-time employee receives benefits that include paid time off, retirement benefits, health insurance (80 percent of the cost of which are paid by the university), long-term disability, life insurance and tuition benefits for themselves and their children. Duke’s total compensation package is very attractive relative to other employers in the area,” Lawrence said. 

Lawrence said Duke has a long history of working with contractors and is moving towards requiring that all full-time subcontractors working on campus be paid the Duke minimum wage of $12 per hour.

A petition going to the 2016 United Methodist General Conference, the Global Living Wage Model, states all workers should have a living wage in a healthy and safe environment with reasonable hours of work.

“Since its earliest days, the Methodist movement has challenged our church and society to build an economy that values work, honors the dignity of all workers and ensures that all share in the abundance which God has entrusted to our care," said John Hill, executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

In the meantime, the Allen Building on the campus of Duke University remains closed with limited access to workers. Classes scheduled in the building have been relocated. Students and staff are advised to check today.duke.edu for further updates.

Gilbert and Hahn are multimedia news reporters for United Methodist News Service. Contact Gilbert at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.