Duke University Labor Organizing, 1961–1968
Soon after Duke University admitted its first black graduate students in September 1961 (the undergraduate schools would be integrated the following year), 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 contingent of nonacademic employees.
Oliver Harvey and unidentified student distribute literature about employee issues in April 1967. Photographer: Bill Boyarsky . Durham Civil Rights Heritage Project Collection (NCC.0040), North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library, NC . Photo ID: mss_0040_024
At that time, universities, like many nonprofit institutions, were exempt from federal minimum-wage regulations ($1.15 per hour in 1961, or $7.26 in 2004 dollars) as well as a number of other labor laws. As the scope and intensity of the Civil Rights Movement grew in the mid-1960s, nonacademic wages became an increasingly high-profile issue at Duke.
In February 1965, a 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 nonacademic employees at Duke. In September, the society became Local 77 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. The AFSCME hired a professional organizer, Peter Brandon, to help get the fledgling union established. 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, hour-long protests by hundreds of employees, students, and faculty in front of the administration building called for the administration to seriously address those issues raised by the employees. "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."
250 employees, students, and faculty protest in front of the Duke Administration Building on April 19, 1967. Photographer: Bill Boyarsky . Durham Civil Rights Heritage Project Collection (NCC.0040), North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library, NC . Photo ID: mss_0040_020
Employees, students, and faculty protest in front of the Duke Administration Building on April 19, 1967. Photographer: Bill Boyarsky . Durham Civil Rights Heritage Project Collection (NCC.0040), North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library, NC . Photo ID: mss_0040_021
Wages and organizing came to the forefront in April 1968, when the federal minimum of $1.60 an hour ($8.68 in 2004 dollars) and the right to collective bargaining were focal demands of the "Silent Vigil" following the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The trustees agreed to a further raise 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 mechanisms to express and appeal their grievances.