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The More Things Change, The More Things Stay the Same...Unless they get worse.

Wendy's Goes South at Duke

by Paul Ortiz

Does anything ever change here at Duke University? Perhaps not. Consider the testimony of a Duke employee in 1979: "My father worked at Duke. His mother worked at Duke, and now three members of my family work there too. I guess it's always been one of the best jobs you could find in Durham. But I'll tell you, they don't care anything about you here and I don't think they ever will. I don't count on it ever changing."

The occasion for these bitter words was the ultimately unsuccessful union organizing drive at Duke University Medical Center in the late 1970s. Duke, then (and still) being nearly the third largest employer in North Carolina, went all out to crush the latest union organizing effort at the Med Center. The University proved its aggressiveness by hiring one of the nastiest union-busting organizations around: Modern Management Methods, or "3M" for short. 3M specialized in psychological warfare, and, according to Duke employees, open intimidation of workers who supported unionization. Not surprisingly, the workers—60% of whom were African American—lost this campaign. Duke University is on the verge yet again of backhanding its work force. This time the vehicle, depressingly familiar to American workers, is "privatization." In a recent Duke Student Government (DSG) referendum, approximately 35% of Duke's undergraduates voted to award Wendy's the new fast-food franchise over Burger King. But many students who voted "for" Wendy's did not understand that their vote meant privatization and a drastic cut in wages for the workers. [Usually these fast food franchises on the Duke campus are worked by Duke employees, but Wendy's refuses to hire these unionized workers, demanding to bring in their own employees who are not organized and who thus earn less and have fewer employment benefits.—Editor.]

Campus activists also point out that this referendum might have been gerrymandered from the start. A small group of undergraduates called the Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee (DUSDAC) actually placed Wendy's on the ballot, excluded other fast-food options that would have precluded privatization, and did not attempt to genuinely educate voters on their choices. "The impetus behind Wendy's coming to the University was a suggestion by [DUSDAC]," admits DUSDAC member Matt Brent in a postelection April 17, 1998 letter to the editor of the Chronicle, another campus publication.

If this was the case, why bother with the vote at all? It seems as if some of our young people are learning how to set up an elections that provide the appearance of—but not the substance of—democracy. This is the stuff that cynicism and apathy are made of. No wonder campus activism is sputtering. At this point, the number of employees that would be directly affected is small. However, labor activists understand that privatization is like a tooth abscess. It starts out as a small annoyance. Before you know it, one tooth is gone and others begin rotting out. Finally, all of the healthy living teeth are replaced by artificial dentures. If you think this is a joke, then just visualize a root canal: some of the workers I've spoken to lately at Duke are feeling just that kind of pain. On the bright side, the campaign against privatization and union-busting at Duke is heating up. At this writing, apparently fearing a grassroots rejection of the DSG referendum once its implications became clear, the "conservative" Duke Review has urged Duke Dining Services to usher Wendy's in before it is too late. The newspaper claims that such decisive action will "show whether [Duke Dining Service] is here to serve students or to serve as a make-work project for Durham's workers."

It is becoming increasingly clear however, that a majority of Duke students and employees do not agree with the Duke Review. Witness the new campus student group called Students for Justice at Duke (SJD). In a mere three days of activity, SJD has collected over seven hundred signatures from students protesting the impending privatization. Many who have signed this petition confess that they had no idea what they were really voting for in the DGS referendum. These folks obviously believe that the staff at Dining Services work hard for the benefit of the entire campus community.

Did I say that campus activism at Duke is sputtering? I take it back. After meeting with a group of SJD activists, I have regained my faith in the transformative impact of labor struggles across lines of class and ideology. SJD is a powerful force to be reckoned with. These young students, many engaging in their first grassroots struggle, have had to endure the crude taunts of class mates while gathering signatures for their righteous petitions. "Outsiders!" or "Communists!" they were called. If SJD can forge an alliance with employees, faculty, graduate students, and other activists, then privatization will suffer a mighty blow at Duke University.

I must admit that I have a personal stake in this labor crisis. With apologies to my vegetarian friends, I have become an avid patron of Duke's Burger King franchise over the past few years. On lunch breaks from research at Perkins Library, I slide on over to Burger King and place my order for a chicken sandwich with fries and a soft drink. I have always received excellent service. The staff are attentive, take orders with obvious relish (no pun intended) and rarely make mistakes.

It angers me to discover that privatization would cut wages down to $6.50 per hour, a wage well below the poverty level for a family of four in the Raleigh-Durham area. Wage cuts hurt families, and children especially suffer. Who in their right mind (other than the Chronicle and the Duke Review) believes that such a wage reduction would improve service? I join the growing call on campus for a new DSG referendum—one that truly informs voters of their fast-food choices and the impact that these choices will make on all of the members of our community. I likewise call on undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and community members to organize around this issue. We have to decide what kind of community we want to build here at Duke and Durham. We know that Duke has a long and inglorious history of anti-labor ideology and racism. This is our chance to turn the tide.

  Paul Ortiz is a graduate student at Duke and a labor activist.

Author's Note: Celebrate May Day the right way: fight privatization, boycott grapes, and catch Michael Moore's latest movie, The Big One. It's a damn good movie.

The More Things Change, The More Things Stay the Same...Unless they get worse.

Tony Dunbar, in his classic article "The Old South Triumphs at Duke" (in the magazine Southern Changes, June, 1979), captured an intense backlash directed against workers at Duke Med trying to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Even Duke President Terry Sanford joined in, Dunbar noted, adding insult to injury. Dunbar wrote that Sanford "had previously been considered a friend of labor for stands he had taken as governor, but now he wrote a lengthy letter to the faculty urging it to oppose AFSCME on the grounds that wage increases for the hospital workers might compete with faculty salaries and that a hospital union would inevitably result in a strike to the detriment of patient care."

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