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Let go of the fear

Unionizing Duke University Press

Joe Stapleton interviews Ale Mejía and Ben Kossak about the newly formed Duke University Press (DUP) Workers Union
Duke University Press workers campaign for a union. Credit: DUP Workers Union.

Joe Stapleton: What were some of the main issues that agitated workers at Duke University Press leading up to organizing the union?

Ale Mejía: During the pandemic, departments were understaffed, so many employees were just being overworked. There was a university-wide hiring and promotion freeze, so [positions] were left open for extended periods of time in different departments. But I think this has been a problem, especially within our production department, even before the pandemic.

I think another issue has also been the history of institutional racism at Duke. I’ve seen different colleagues of color just have really bad experiences navigating the institution, such as having supervisors who put different expectations on them. And that makes me think specifically about relationships with supervisors as another issue. A lot of times as an employee, you don’t have a mechanism to submit complaints about your supervisor if you are struggling in your relationship with them. If you went to HR, which is something that I saw some of my colleagues do in the past, HR ultimately worked to protect the company’s interests. Similarly, whether your supervisor likes you or not really dictates your time at the press and whether you’re able to move up. We can’t rely solely on internal processes designed to address individual cases—this is another reason we need a union.

And then there’s obviously compensation and low salaries, especially for entry-level positions. Through organizing and getting to better know colleagues, it’s just been pretty eye-opening to see that there are people who have been in this industry or at the press specifically for such a long time, and they’re still in the same position for years or are still making similar to or just a little bit more [than] what I make having only been here for three years.

Ben Kossak: I think that it’s an issue endemic across the industry that people are underpaid in publishing and specifically in academic publishing. Academic publishing is at the unfortunate Venn diagram intersection of the nonprofit world and the publishing world, both of which are industries that often ask their employees to make sacrifices because the employees are dedicated to the product that they’re putting out. And so they sign up for lower salaries, work longer hours, etc. And because it can be hard to advance, a lot of people end up feeling stunted in their growth at the press.

And then, also, I know the Director [of the press] has put a lot of emphasis rhetorically on transparency. Part of that is because of the relationship between the press and the university. A lot of the decision-making power over things like benefits or salary resides with the university, and we don’t have any real direct access to that. So, it can feel like not only are our working conditions being affected arbitrarily, but even our bosses can’t do anything about it.

I’ve heard a lot of people talking about difficulties around FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act], and especially people trying to have some flexibility around part-time FMLA or coming back to work have been problem points for various employees, and some have left the press because of it. They weren’t able to return to their position because they couldn’t extend their leave or the return wasn’t flexible enough to account for the fact that maybe they still needed to take care of their mother ten hours a week or something.

JS:Workers at the press formed an equity and inclusion working group a few years back to address institutional racism. Did that function as something like an incubator for the organizing you’re doing now with the union?

AM: The equity and inclusion group is about three or four years old, and it started as a grass-roots effort with some of the staff members. It was started by a person of color and another white person who is really committed to anti-racist work broadly. And it’s sort of like a community around racial justice work. Within the equity and inclusion group, a lot of coworkers, specifically people of color, really felt empowered to voice their concerns about the workplace and also the alienation and isolation that they felt in a predominantly white workplace. The equity and inclusion group opened up space for people to connect on a personal level and feel less isolated at the press, and to talk about their experiences and challenges that they were facing. Under the new leadership at the press, the equity and inclusion group was able to form different working groups that focused on different things, like a mentorship program, a metrics group, a trans and queer inclusion group. The equity and inclusion group definitely helped bring workers together to talk about concrete problems at the press and come up with their own solutions to them.

This preliminary work facilitated the process of collective organizing in some ways. But how did this relate to our organizing? Well, it’s really hard to retain staff of color because they usually leave after one or two years at the press. So part of what went into developing a mentorship group was thinking, okay, what are ways that we can make working at the press more sustainable for people of color? One way can be mentorship. But I think we also became very aware of the limitations of that work. You can have a mentorship program to increase retention, but what about people who can’t stay there because the entry level salaries are so low? A lot of us had those initial conversations about our workplace [with] other coworkers and shared similar stories in the equity and inclusion group.

A lot of the things that we are talking about, like inclusion or equity or anti-racism, can be further achieved if we have a union. And if we have more say over our working conditions as workers. Otherwise, there are structures that no amount of work from the equity and inclusion group can address.

JS:Why do you think we are seeing a lot of new organizing and increased militancy in media and publishing right now?

BK: I think that unions generally are coming back a little bit from the low points of the post-Reagan era. So they’re a little bit more in the news. You can see the organizing efforts around Amazon or other places like that. I think also millennials are now in their mid-to-late thirties, early forties. We came up with a different set of values around work and the value of our own work. And perhaps don’t have the same associations with unions that an older generation did. Also I think that there’s been a lot of organizing work in academia more generally. I know graduate students have been organizing across the country. It’s hard to be in an industry where you are publishing scholarship about the problems of economic inequality and not reflect on your own working conditions.

Publishing also has taken steps to be more inclusive. It used to be much more of a white male industry even than it is now—although it remains very white. It’s also an industry that catered to people who had spouses with comfortable jobs or came from money. Fighting against that means inviting in all these different people. But then once you do that, you also have to change the structures such that it is economically viable for them to participate in this without the same kinds of systems of savings and support people from more privileged backgrounds have.

Logo for the DUP Workers Union. Credit: DUP Workers Union.

JS:What has it been like organizing with the NewsGuild as a rank-and-file driven union?

BK:They have been really invaluable in terms of providing guidance around legal structures. Navigating the NLRA and the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) is sometimes a little byzantine, and Duke, of course, has millions of dollars to throw at lawyers who know the ins and outs of these laws and how to use them. So to have somebody that we can approach to ask, “Who is and isn’t in the unit? What are our rights as organizers?” has been helpful. And it’s been really great for networking, like connecting us with newspapers and other publishers that have organized so that we can talk to other people who have gone through this process recently of fighting for a union.

AM:Just being connected to other workers who are at different stages of their campaign or their organizing, like the Verso union. We also had the chance to hear from the nurses at Mission Hospital [in Asheville, NC]. That was a huge victory in the South. It’s been important working with a union that’s used to working in the publishing industry and knows both the historical white-maleness of the industry, but also the self-sacrificing attitude and the low pay, as well.

JS:What has the support been like from other locals within the NewsGuild?

AM:Not just the organizing committee, but the union as a whole has had conversations with other worker organizers [in the NewsGuild]. One of the biggest misconceptions and fears about unions is that it’s another organization coming in and imposing rules on the workplace or bossing people around. It’s really nice for us not to just say, “We are the union,” but to see people from other locals who have the same positions that we do at a different company have this kind of union we’ve described. It’s also just been really nice to hear from them about organizing challenges that they faced, how they problem solved. It just feels very directly applicable to our people. With the nurses, we also talked about challenges of organizing during the pandemic and just having very down to earth, very real conversations about what it means to be a worker organizer.

JS:What were some of the challenges posed by organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you address them?

BK:It’s impossible to overstate how much more difficult it’s been to simply contact people when you can’t run into them in the lunchroom or as they’re coming out of work. For many people, we had a personal email address, maybe phone numbers, but not for everybody. So for those people who we didn’t have personal contact information for, there just really was no way to even just be like, this is happening.

AM:It’s been particularly hard to talk to some of the workers in the warehouse, for example, just because they’re in a different location. And that speaks broadly to the fact that, even when we were in person, the departments felt separated from each other. It was very rare for me to talk to anybody outside of my department. 

I think the biggest challenge was, how do you create trust with your coworkers during the pandemic? A big part of organizing is obviously getting to know a person, like really getting to know their concerns about the workplace and building that relationship with trust. If we don’t really know each other in deep, meaningful ways—I don’t know. I think that was definitely a challenge for us and it was exacerbated with the pandemic. So we’ve just tried different methods of communication. Recently we’ve been door knocking.

JS:What kind of community support has the campaign received and how has it provided a lift to your organizing?

AM:That’s also been one of my favorite parts about this campaign—just talking to community allies and partners and different organizations. We’ve had solidarity statements, but also really meaningful conversations about organizing with different community organizations in Durham, different unions, and things like that. We’ve had solidarity statements from the Durham Association of Educators. We also had one from the North Carolina Triangle DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). Also Duke-affiliated groups like the Duke Graduate Students Union and the Duke Faculty Union.

We’ve had so much community support. I think that a lot of that comes from knowing Duke’s role within Durham. Duke University is one of the largest employers not just in Durham, but the whole state of North Carolina. A lot of our community partners know the importance of organizing a union at Duke University. Just knowing the power that Duke has within the community and how our campaign can have a ripple effect within Durham.

JS:Over 350 authors have signed a letter supporting the DUP Workers Union. Why do you think authors are so supportive?

BK:The support has been amazing. I think that we expected the authors to be on board, but I don’t know if anybody expected how quick and overwhelming the support would be. Especially because a lot of our big-name authors were really eager to come on board. I was blown away when Fredric Jameson signed our support letter. We publish scholarship that is progressive and pro-equity, and that is what we’re known for. And so our whole author base is very invested in the same questions that are motivating this campaign.

JS:Even though you are a small shop, what does this campaign mean in the context of increased militancy in the US South?

AM:I hope it will be a really good step forward and will inspire other units around Duke and in similar situations. What happened with Amazon just shows the extent to which these big corporations are threatened by worker organizing. I think we can see something similar with Duke hiring Ogletree Deakins [a notorious union-busting law firm]. A win for us would be really significant because we’re going up against one of the biggest powerhouses of the state, you know? I really hope that this campaign is really energizing to other workers across the city and across the state.

JS:What would your message be to other workers in publishing and media who are thinking of forming an organizing committee, or have been organizing and are contemplating going public?

BK:I would definitely say do it. You have nothing to lose but your chains! 

Talking to other workers within the industry was really valuable for us. I don’t want to speak for the whole OC [Organizing Committee], but I think we would be really happy to talk to other workers who are also thinking through organizing and how to do it. What are different challenges that they’re facing? 

But I would just say do it. It’s really worth it in the long run. You get better at it. I think it’s just a matter of letting go of that initial fear. It’s really important.

I think the other thing I would add is that it’s really important to understand your own unionization effort not as a push toward an ideal of creating unions or something like that. Be sure that you and your coworkers are talking to each other in order to improve your own lives. At the end of the day, a union really is about looking at the material conditions of your work and saying, what could be better about my life from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day? Okay. What could be improved there can be improved by a union, basically. It’s all on the table.

I know I said, somewhat jokingly, that the only thing you have to lose are your chains, but I’ve heard from a few coworkers, learning about our organizing and unions in general, “Okay, I’ve heard a million different things that are great about unions, but what are the downsides?” And my reaction was, literally there are no downsides! The only possible downside is that nothing gets better or your campaign fails—in which case you’ve lost some time and effort, but you’re just back where you started. There’s only things to gain.

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Aaron Amaral View All

Aaron Amaral is a member of the Tempest Collective and serves on the editorial board of New Politics.