The Old South Triumphs at Duke

The Old South Triumphs at Duke

By Tony Dunbar

Vol. 1, No. 9, 1979, pp. 5-8

Somewhere in the annal’s of Duke University you will find these lofty words:

The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion as set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; to advance learning in all lines of truth: to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth; to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance; to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife; and to render the largest permanent service to the individual, the state, the nation and the Church. Unto these ends shall the affairs of this university always be administered.

Not long ago the following comment was made:

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.

As amazing as it may seem, the “Duke” referred to in the second statement is the same institution referred to earlier in such laudable terms. It is difficult to believe that an institution erected upon such noble principles recently hired one of the most successful and expensive anti-union consulting firms in the country, Modern Management Methods of Chicago (“3M”), at $2,500 a day to block the path of a labor union. But, in addition to being a fountain of learning whose graduates people the walkways of Southern government and commerce and whose endowment would give comfort to many a small nation, it is also the largest employer in Durham, North Carolina. When the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), set out to organize the 2,100 wage workers at Duke University Medical Center, Duke responded by putting up the best fight that money could buy. What ensued is one of the best examples of “Old South” justice a “New South” institution could provide.

Duke has had serious labor difficulties since the mid 1960s when the university service employees, most of them Black, began to agitate for a union. Their essential grievance then was the manner in which Duke had historically treated its Black workers. Janitors, until they simply refused to do so any longer, had been required to address White undergraduates as Mister and Miss, and the Black custodial staff had to take its meals in the kitchen rather than in the dining hall. Under the leadership of Oliver Harvey, a custodian who had participated in the Greensboro sit-ins, a Duke Employees Benevolent Association was formed which tried unsuccessfully for two years to win benefits from the university.

Then the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a Memphis sanitation workers strike turned the small question of Duke employees’ welfare into a major campus issue. Fifteen hundred students made a vigil at the home of Duke President Douglas Knight (which finally sent him to the hospital for a “rest”) demanding that wages for non-academic employees be raised to $1.60 an hour and that Knight speak out for open housing, denounce racism, and resign his membership in a segregated country club.

Dining hail and custodial workers called a strike, and Duke students boycotted classes and the campus eating spots for two weeks. The strike ended when the university Trustees promised to formulate a plan to resolve employee grievances. Once the workers were back on the job, however, the Trustees dragged their heels until most of the students had gone home for the summer and then agreed to recognize an Employees Council as an informal bargaining agent for its custodial and clerical personnel. Thereafter the university declined to make any significant concessions to its employees or to raise pay beyond the increases already planned.

In frustration the university service employees linked up with a national labor organization, AFSCME, chosen for its reputation as a democratic union keenly interested in organizing Black workers. An election was held in January 1972; the union won it by a vote of 491 to 10, and AFSCME Local 77 was established on campus.

During this same time there was also considerable dissatisfaction among the much larger workforce at Duke’s sprawling 900 bed medical complex. Dieticians, microbiology lab technicians, and computer terminal operators had all staged brief, unauthorized walkouts at various times, and with other hospital workers they tried to form an AFSCME local of their own in 1974.

The university succeeded in delaying an election on union recognition until November 1976 and in expanding the definition of those eligible to vote to include not just the cooks, clerks, orderlies, and secretaries, whom the union was counting on to vote “Yes,” but also a large number of highly skilled employees, such as Senior Laboratory Assistants, who often hold Masters’ Degrees and were thought to be less conscious of themselves as “workers.”

The university was aided by the disarray of the local union organizing committee torn by internal political disputes and the fact that the international union lent only minimal support to the campaign. As a result AFSCME lost the election by a scant 42 ballots out of 1616 cast.

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Even given the diversity of the employees in the hospital “bargaining unit” the union organizing committee felt confident that with a more concerted effort they could win an election the next time around. Most of the wage workers at the hospital, as even the administration admitted, shared the feeling that they were inadequately rewarded and respected by their superiors. In common s ith most hospitals, it was the Duke physicians, professors, fund raisers, research directors, and specialized technicians who won the awards, gave imperious commands, were amply compensated, and got quick attention sshenever they had a problem.

The cooks, operating room attendants, X-ray technicians, and lab assistants, on the other hand, were, and are, the hospital’s second class citizens, even though many of them share the professional’s pride in contributing to patient care and are often called upon to perform extra hours of drudgery in emergencies. In a major teaching hospital like Duke, which occupies 30 buildings, sees more than 390,000 patients a year, and is aswarm with more than 2,000 doctors and students in one or another field of health care, everyone’s work is vital. Differences between the treatment given professional and service personnel are, therefore, a constant source of friction.

As a second AFSCME campaign commenced at the hospital in the summer of 1978, the union hoped to capitalize on the fact that most of the wage workers felt unfairly harassed by their supervisors, and that Blacks, who made up about 60 percent of ths hospital work force, continued to feel that the administration discriminated against them. Many employees, too, worked at the minimum wage, and there was a maximum pay level for every job classification regardless of years of service. For example, Dorothy Harris, a lab assistant and head of the union organizing committee, could only take home S6,000 in 1978 though she had worked at Duke for 17 )ears. The grievance procedure was also said to be stacked in the administration’s favor, and all of this, the union argued, lowered employee morale and diminished the quality of patient care.

Assisted by Wil Duncan, a Black organizer sent in from AFSCME’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Duke Medical Center campaign got underway in June 1978 with a demonstration in front of the hospital of 75 employees demanding higher wages. All was cordial, and, in fact, pleasantness characterized the relations between the administration and the employees during the first six months of the campaign. The union mustered student support, created a Duke Friends of Labor, got professors and doctors to sign AFSCME petitions, and in November 1978 was able to present the National Labor Relations Board with “green cards” signed by more than 1,000 hospital employees requesting a new union election. The date selected was February 16, 1979.

It seemed certain that no matter which side won, the campaign would arouse none of the bitterness of the 1968 student and worker protests. The university was now in the hands of President Terry Sanford who, as the moderate governor of the state in the 1960s and campus peacemaker in the 1970s, had achieved a reputation for tolerance. His administration had done nothing out of the ordinary to resist previous union efforts on campus, and it stated that relations with Duke’s two existing unions, AFSCME Local 77 and a smaller local of Operating Engineers, had been “very good.”

But the university, it turned out, regarded the union drive at the hospital with greater trepidation than anyone imagined. An additional hospital wing, costing $92 million, was under construction, and many new employees would be required to staff it; it was no time to permit a union, which was bound to demand substantial wage increases, to become established at the Medical Center. At least two months before the union election, Duke quietly hired the Chicagobased anti-union consulting firm, Modern Management Methods, or “3M.” Each “3M” consultant is paid from $500 to $700 per day, and as many as five of these agents were believed to be on campus at one time during the climax of the campaign. It is impossible, however, to report exactly what the Chicago firm cost the university because Duke repeatedly refused to disclose this information during the campaign. (And after the campaign was over, no responsible official at Duke was willing to discuss the matter in any depth.)

Modern Management Methods exemplifies the new wave of American union-busting. Gone are the axehandles, the goons, and the blacklists – the agents of “3M” and kindred consulting firms wear three-piece suits, boast college degrees, and avoid ever being seen outside the personnel offices of whatever company, or university, has paid for their services.

They operate very much behind the scenes in the labor conflict, so it is impossible to render a detailed account of their performance at Duke. Their known activities, however, all seem to be impeccably legal and highly effective. Duke was attracted to the firm because “3M” specializes in fighting hospital unions, their methods are quite sophisticated, and because they shun the press like a farmer avoids fire ants. Almost every non-union corporation in the South employs some type of labor consultant, but few can afford “3M.”

The principal tactic of Modern Management Methods, the Duke union said, was to turn all department supervisors into full-blooded organizers against AFSCME by

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interviewing each supervisor, gauging his or her feelings about the union, and making it clear that management expected their full support for its anti-union program. These meetings were not threatening (a supervisor at Duke described her “3M” interviewer as “one of the tallest, most gorgeous Black men who ever walked the streets,” and a supervisor at a Boston hospital where “3M” was active said she felt as though she were “being seduced” throughout her interview) and were designed to ally the supervisors in a common cause with the upper echelons of management. Then came seminars where the supervisors learned what they might or might not do, under existing labor law, to influence their employees. In the latter stages of the campaign the supervisors became the eyes, ears and voice of management as far as the workers were concerned. The union claimed that the supervisors kept track of the wavering sentiments of each worker in their unit, vigorously espoused management’s line, and were made to feel personally responsible for how each of the workers in his or her department voted on election day.

Duke’s executives described the “3M” program differently. They were “communications experts,” said Richard Jackson, head of personnel at the Medical Center. “Their function was to educate our supervisors in the best ways to communicate to the employees the many good things that Duke was doing and to counter, by legal means, the arguments of the union.” Duke had hired these “outside experts,” he told me, in response to the fact that AFSCME had assigned outside organizers to the campaign.

The impact of the “3M” strategy was immediate. Before their arrival debates for and against AFSCME had been conducted fairly freely in the Medical Center corridors, but the hospital’s friendly climate quickly turned sour when the neutrality of the supervisors evaporated. Employees became fearful of discussing the union on the job and began to worry about how secure their jobs would be if they were identified as AFSCME supporters. Friends of years standing became distrustful of one another. A secretary who had worked 19 years at Duke and was known to favor AFSCME said, “During this union campaign people would not walk down the hall with me. We’d be walking and they would say, “I’d better go down this way so people won’t see us together. We’d be standing in the bathroom talking – not even union talk – and one of the girls would say, “Would you mind waiting just a few minutes, I don’t want to be seen walking out with you.” You know, there’s a strange kind of fear here. I can’t understand it, because I don’t have it, but I think it’s a fear that Duke has put there.”

AFSCME tried vainly to make a winning issue out of Duke’s employment of “3M.” “Is your pay raise being used to hire these Chicago union-busters?” the union asked. But it could never get any hard facts about what the consultants were up to or how much they were being paid. The “3M” agents stayed in the background as far as possible. When one of them inadvertently stumbled upon a TV news crew doing a story on the AFSCME campaign, he was filmed rushing down the hall trying to avoid the camera. The aura of secrecy surrounding “3M’s” mission on campus actually seems to have worked in the administration’s favor because it added to the anxiety of some employees that they were being watched.

So that everyone would know exactly where the administration stood, a daily barrage of letters and “3M”-designed leaflets poured out to the employees insisting that AFSCME was an alien force that would disrupt the previously congenial relations between the workers and Duke’s management. The personnel department repeatedly stressed the possibility that employees might even lose existing benefits and pay if they voted in the union. Much of this literature reached the employees through their hospital mailboxes, a channel of communication denied to AFSCME. Duke went so far as to assert, inaccurately, that if the hospital workers voted for AFSCME they would be forced to join the Blackdominated Local 77. It is unclear why the university pressed this point, but union sympathizers felt it was a play on the racial fears of White hospital workers.

Even President Sanford underwent a curious transformation. He 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.

The second charge went to the real heart of the matter because the union was contending that only the hospital workers, and not management, truly cared about the welfare of the patients, and that a better paid and happier work force, not the ever more expensive medical hardware in which the hospital preferred to invest, was the key to improved health care. AFSCME backers also maintained that strikes were unlikely, and that even if one did occur the hospital workers would not desert sick patients. Sanford’s letter had the effect, however, of chilling faculty debate about the union and serving notice that his administration was from top to bottom unalterably opposed to the notion that the hospital workers should organize.

Toward the end of the campaign the pressure began to build. “In the beginning the momentum was on our side,”

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one of the hospital employees said, “then people started getting nervous when 3M came in using a lot of scare tactics. They starting having meetings every single day with the supervisors, and, Oh Lord!, the rumors they were spreading around were unreal. Supervisors told the people that if they went with the union they might lose their job whenever someone with more seniority wanted it. They were told that the first thing the union will do is go on strike, and you’ll never get another job, and you won’t get unemployment, and you won’t get food stamps. A lot of employees bought that. I mean, who would want the kind of a union 3M was describing. We were trying to present the union as a progressive force in the workplace, but we simply couldn’t get out the word as effectively as 3M. People were scared to death, just scared to death. People would come up to me and say, l think this is a good thing, but I can’t talk to you.’ Or Don’t call me, don’t come by me.’ They inspired incredible amounts of tear.”

Duke’s tactics worked. On February 16 the hospital workers voted 995 to 761 to reject representation by AFSCME. Not even the administration claimed that the outcome could be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the university. Rather it may fairly be concluded that Duke’s employees, who dwell in a state where the major history of unionism is one of defeat, were easily persuaded that they risked losing their livelihood if they defied the university. Duke insists that it won the contest by appealing to the intellect of its employees, but a great portion of the university’s anti-union literature played on the natural insecurities of the loly and on the pessimism common to Southern workers which teaches that they shall never have the power to win a bigger share of the pie.

The Medical Center’s constant warning to its employees was that “in the give and take process of collective bargaining, no one can predict the outcome. It is a gamble; you could gain or you can lose wages and benefits you now have.” Such tactics and worse are, of course, the standard fare of many North Carolina corporations devoted to making profits, but they seem somehow less tolerable when put forth by a wealthy, charitable institution devoted to “the eternal union of knowledge and religion as set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the time is past when this distinction meant anything. One month after AFSCME’s defeat Terry Sanford re-emphasized the mercantile aspect of Duke’s institutional character when he told the press that “working as a citizen of Durham personally and as president of its major corporate citizen,” he would take an active role in seeking new industry for the city. One might speculate that he will seek hardest that industry which shares Duke’s labor philosophy. In light of the fact that Duke University is one of the shrines of the New South (some think the New South was actually invented there) it is only natural to wonder how much hope for laboring people is contained in the dawning of this new age.

Tony Dunbar is a free-lance writer living in Western North Carolina.