Duke University Press Workers Organize with NewsGuild

Duke University Press Workers Union posing in matching black T-shirts on grass.

Duke University Press Workers Union's campaign is the latest in a wave of organizing in the media and publishing industries. Photo: DUPWU

Update May 5: The Duke University Press Workers Union officially filed for an election on May 3.—Eds

After years of high turnover, low pay, and discriminatory practices affecting people of color and queer people, workers at Duke University Press in Durham, North Carolina, are organizing a union.

The 120 workers do a wide range of jobs: editorial work on journals and books, sales and marketing, IT and business tech. Most are women and most are white—although mostly men occupy the upper-level positions, a reflection of the university publishing industry.

Many of the workers hold advanced degrees but are doing entry-level jobs for entry-level pay because the academic job market is so tight.

The DUP Workers Union would join the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. Their campaign is the latest in a wave of organizing in the media and publishing industries.

These workers had hoped things would get better under the new director hired in 2019. But management at the press was either unwilling or unable to negotiate improvements for workers with Duke University. The press is technically a department of the university, which has final say on issues like payroll, though the press generates its own revenue.


Instead of improving, the problems got worse with the implementation of austerity policies in response to the Covid pandemic.

“In the last year, we all effectively got a pay decrease, because we didn’t get a cost-of-living adjustment, and many of us got our retirement contributions removed in 2020,” said Sandra Korn, an assistant editor.

Recently Duke said the retirement contributions for press workers will resume in July—likely a response to worker organizing.

“This past year, while we’ve been working extra hard to make sure our books and journals are accessible to everybody, we’ve been in a hiring freeze,” Korn said. “Many of our departments have been understaffed.”

Korn said the shift from in-person to remote created extra work. Libraries that typically rely on paper copies of books now needed access to e-book copies. When the warehouse closed for safety reasons, workers had to shift to a print-on-demand workflow.


Workers and some managers had started an “equity and inclusion group” back in 2016 to discuss and address the concerns of people of color and queer people. The latter two groups had not been promoted or retained at the same rates as white and/or straight people, on average appeared to earn less, and often faced more scrutiny over work and benefit policies.

The group focused mainly on recruiting workers of color and retaining them by making their work life sustainable in the long term. It even suggested assigning a worker in each department who would listen if workers were facing discrimination from a supervisor or needed support. Korn said this is how she envisions the union shop stewards functioning.

The group became something of an “incubator” for organizing. It gave workers a space where they could openly discuss conditions at the press, and it broke down barriers of isolation between different departments, fostering new relationships.

“It just became more and more clear that there were some things we wanted that we weren’t going to be able to get through providing input [to management] through the equity and inclusion group,” said Kelsea Smith, an assistant managing editor for journals.



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The equity and inclusion group gave workers enough confidence that, when new director Dean Smith was hired in 2019, they invited him to one of their meetings and presented an open letter of recommendations for how to make the press an inclusive organization. These included a mentorship program for minority workers, funding for hiring managers to recruit from a wider applicant pool, and the formation of voluntary affinity groups for minority workers.

“It was basically a list of demands,” Korn said. “In front of all the staff he was wanting to be seen as a leader of, he said, ‘Yeah, this sounds great, let’s make it happen!’ He basically had no other choice.”

But workers knew they couldn’t rely on the word of the new director. Soon after, they started exploring unionization. Now, almost two years later, they have filed for a union authorization election with the National Labor Relations Board.


The DUPWU would join the NewsGuild, a union that has grown in new organizing and militancy over the past several years. Workers at the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune recently formed unions, and 600 tech workers at The New York Times just announced that they are organizing with the NewsGuild (which already represents 3,000 journalists there). Workers at three different Conde Nast publications recently voted to strike.

Why the surge in organizing? “There’s a layer of people who previously might have been considered professional or para-professional who are increasingly proletarianizing and taking up forms of class struggle,” said Ben Mabie, an editor at the radical book publisher Verso Books, another recently unionized publishing company. “What we’re seeing with publishing workers and media workers more broadly fits with this kind of trend.”

Other driving factors in the publishing and media industry, Mabie said, are thin profit margins, general speed-up thanks to Amazon’s influence, and broad questions of representation and diversity forced by recent protest movements. The powerful “old guard” of the industry is overwhelmingly white and male, while the newer parts of the workforce tend to be more diverse.

As a member organizer with the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild, Mabie is part of the union’s program to match nascent unionizing efforts with experienced rank-and-file activists—not just union staffers.

“The goal is having as much of a member-led union as possible,” said Marissa Dadiw, a campaign lead with another New York City local, the News Media Guild, who has been working with the DUP Workers Union. “Nothing is better for groups going through this super-challenging process than hearing from other folks who have had the same experience. It’s in line with our other goal of having [organizing committee] members facilitate their own information sessions with their colleagues and things like that.”


Support for the DUPWU, both from local groups in Durham and across the industry, has been overwhelming. Local politicians and prominent labor groups like the Durham Association of Educators, the Duke Faculty Union, and the Duke Graduate Students Union have all made statements of support.

More than 350 authors who have published work with Duke University Press have signed a statement calling for Duke to recognize the union and start negotiating. Letters of support are also circulating from Duke employees and students, and from other workers across the university press publishing industry.

“We’re getting nothing back from Duke—we’re asking them to come to the table and they are giving us nothing,” Korn said. “At the very least, we know the community has our back.”

The next step is to file for an election. Meanwhile, Duke University has hired Ogletree Deakins, a union-busting law firm with ties to the Republican National Committee—the same firm that defended the North Carolina Republican Party against accusations of racist gerrymandering that were later upheld in court.

This firm also failed to prevent the unionization of 200 non-tenure track Duke faculty, who joined SEIU in 2015.

Joe Stapleton is a public high school teacher and a member of the Durham Association of Educators. The author is married to a member of DUPWU.