Recently, two baristas walked into their shift at a Duke University coffee shop, put on a hip hop playlist, and lost their jobs hours later because an administrator didn't like their choice of music.(1) The incident doesn’t just reveal the arbitrary abuse of power by an out-of-touch administrator, but a serious structural problem with the university's labor policies. Whether Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta ordered their termination directly, or the contractor Joe Van Gogh made the decision to keep Duke happy, the fact is that Britni Brown and Kevin Simmons lost their jobs without cause, without warning, and without recourse.
This simply couldn’t have happened to most food service workers on campus. That’s because the vast majority are members of AFSCME Local 77, the service workers union. With a union, workers are protected from bully bosses. A union contract places legal limits on arbitrary firings and workplace harassment. If an administrator demanded union members be fired for their musical taste, a union steward would have told him to get back in line. Administrators at Duke are hiding behind a loophole in labor law to circumvent the right of contracted workers like Britni and Kevin to benefit from union protections. Instead, they’ve contracted with small local businesses to provide dining service to an increasing number of locations on campus that used to be staffed by union members. Here’s the catch: Duke isn’t actually letting those businesses set their own working conditions. Everything from the workers' schedules to their wages -- and now, apparently even their employment -- is subject to the whims of Duke administrators who really call the shots. Customers can’t fire baristas for their musical preference. Academic advisors can’t fire baristas for their musical preference. Only bosses can fire workers for their musical preferences, and they can only get away with it when workers don't have workplace protections. This is the kind of sneaky maneuvering we might expect from Uber or Walmart -- not a non-profit organization with a $7.9 billion endowment.(2) The university's mission statement says that Duke seeks “to contribute in diverse ways to the local community,” and to “attain and maintain a place of real leadership in all that we do”. With vast resources and noble goals, Duke can and must do better.(3) The recent firings of subcontracted food service workers at Duke University shows that the university's policies for contracted and subcontracted workers are woefully inadequate. It’s the responsibility of the entire campus community to show up on their behalf, so that the firings of Britni and Kevin weren’t in vain -- but are instead a wake up call to demand that Duke catch up with peer institutions like Harvard and Georgetown that have had fair contractor policies for years.(4)
We’re calling on Duke University to adopt a Labor Code of Conduct, guaranteeing all contracted and subcontracted workers job security, parity in pay and benefits with direct employees, and the right to democratically organize free from harassment or intimidation.(5) Add your name below to join the growing coalition demanding that Duke treat all campus workers with dignity and respect.
Footnotes:1) https://www.indyweek.com/news/archives/2018/05/08/a-duke-university-vp-walked-into-the-campus-joe-van-gogh-heard-a-rap-song-demanded-that-the-employees-be-fired2) https://giving.duke.edu/ways-to-give/endowment/ 3) https://trustees.duke.edu/governing-documents/mission-statement 4) https://uale.org/document-table/conferences/conference-2016/426-just-employment-policy-guide/file5) https://docs.google.com/document/d/1M_xA-AM_RnJupSoMlnuuGaNdI0cErKY2ztZ4aXx8rtY/edit