(Photo credit: Ed Robertson via Unsplash)

Duke University Press is known for publishing groundbreaking intellectual work that reimagines the world, but it seems management at the storied publishing house has failed to cultivate a workplace in which staff of color move up the ranks. At a press located in a historically Black city—with stated values of forming “strong, inclusive partnerships … that honor and nurture equality and diversity” and a history of publishing dozens of forward-thinking books by Black authors in African American Studies and Black Diaspora—just eight of the approximately 120 employees are Black women. 

Against this backdrop, workers at Duke University Press announced this month that they have filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board to gain legal certification for their union with the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. In a statement last month, Duke University Press (DUP) workers wrote that working conditions have been a problem for years. 

“Constant turnover, extended vacancies, disruptive reorganizations, lack of professional growth opportunities, patterns of discrimination, inconsistent enforcement of policies, and compensation that is not commensurate with our quality of work and years of experience as professionals—or the cost of living in Durham and around the Triangle—have all contributed in various ways to make working at DUP harder than it should be,” the statement said. To make the press “a truly inclusive place” for staff of color, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and staff members from poor and working-class backgrounds, the workers said “structural changes are required.”

DUP employees are part of a larger wave of cultural workers nationwide who are organizing to improve workplace conditions, but they will face an uphill battle at Duke University and in North Carolina, both of which have long anti-union histories. 

‘A full-blown movement’

Workers in book publishing are notoriously hard to organize. While these workers have historically suffered poor conditions and low pay, their employers have made them feel as if they should be “grateful for the privilege of working” in the “hallowed culture industry,” Jacobin reported. But in recent years, bookstore employees and book publishing workers have started unionizing, inspired by the wave of newsrooms that began unionizing in 2015. Cultural Workers Organize, a research project tracking labor organizing in arts, communication, and cultural industries, reported that these new media unions represent a historic moment—one that has brought “thousands of media workers into the labor movement.” 

If successful, DUP would be one of just a few university presses to unionize, joining the ranks of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents some Harvard University Press employees, and workers at Wayne State University’s press.

These organizing efforts by cultural workers not only challenge assumptions about what kinds of workers deserve protection, Beige Luciano-Adams wrote for the American Prospect, but also draw “attention to the gulf between institutional mandates and internal labor practices.” 

‘Enough is enough’

Book publishing has discussed its own overwhelming whiteness for decades now, with no real action to rectify it. Publishers Weekly’s 2018 annual salary survey, which tracks the demographics of publishing employees, found that white people comprise 84% of the workforce. The Lee & Low Books’ Diversity Baseline Survey was created in 2015 to survey publishing houses and review journals regarding the racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ability makeup of their employees. For the first time in 2019, Lee & Low Books included members of the Association of University Presses and widened the sample set from 3,706 responses in 2015 to 7,893 responses. The 2019 findings were stark. Seventy-six percent of respondents working in the industry were white.

This falls in line with the experiences of DUP workers, who report that people of color leave the press because of a lack of opportunity and that Black women in particular are regularly sidelined for higher-level jobs. One worker said that a Black woman with more than 20 years of experience has been passed over repeatedly for a management position. Another Black woman who has been at the press for more than 10 years has more experience and education than her white male colleagues, but she is continually overlooked for management positions.

“There are no black female managers at DUP. No Black women directors or editors. There are no Black women in jobs that would allow them to move up into career track positions. No Black women have been promoted in the last year. Two Black women have left the press in the last year, one not lasting an entire year at her position,” said one worker at the press, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Another worker at the press who did not want to use her name said that deciding to unionize was a “slow burn.” 

Things came to a breaking point when the worker began to experience health issues. She shared doctor’s notes with her manager, who questioned her work quality and output despite her illness. Earlier this year when she had to take time off for unrelated health reasons, she alleges that her manager expected her to do work while she was out. 

“I did not want to be working while I was not feeling well because I didn’t want the quality of my work to continue to be questioned, but I was also literally not cleared to be working,” the worker said. 

After that experience, the worker said she started to look more critically at the demographics of the press—paying close attention to who was in entry-level positions, who was leaving because there were no opportunities for them, and who maintained positions of power for years. Black people are mostly hired by DUP for front office or administrative work, she said, leading her to believe the press doesn’t trust Black people to “perform higher-level work.”

“That’s when I decided to say enough is enough,” she said. “There are many worse places to work and I wouldn’t be at the press for as many years as I have been if it was horrible, but I do think there are racist practices and it’s difficult to look past them once you are fully aware of them. It’s like when a glass breaks and you start seeing the shards everywhere.” 

Duke University did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

A seat at the table

Another worker of color at DUP said a breaking point for many people at the press came after a tragic accident in the Durham community highlighted the lack of clear communication from management. In April 2019, a gas leak downtown caused an explosion, collapsing a beloved coffee shop called Kaffeinate, killing its owner Kong Lee and injuring 25 people. Duke University Press, located in Brightleaf Square, was less than a five-minute walk away. 

The worker said that after the explosion, panicked staff members turned to the internal staff listserv to share information and seek guidance. Were they supposed to leave the building or stay put? Should they all go home? Was their office in lockdown? 

DUP managers shared conflicting guidance, she alleges, and eventually the publisher’s human resources department stepped in and instructed staffers to stop sharing certain information. 

“They weren’t telling us what to do in a clear way and there was confusion about whether we were receiving formal information from management or not,” she said. “It was a very confusing and scary situation and we were trying to figure out the protocol. We didn’t know what the explosion was at this point, so the fact that some people were reprimanded for sharing information seemed really inappropriate.” 

The incident sparked conversations among DUP staffers about the potential for organizing, both to improve communication and address the larger equity issues workers face at the press. 

As a formerly undocumented immigrant with a working class background, the worker said that in her life she has witnessed “constant precarity, manipulation, and wage theft,” which forced her to learn that workers are the experts on their own condition. The demographics of their industry illustrate how women of color like her aren’t represented in publishing and she said that until the industry shifts—moving away from unpaid internships, low salaries, and the requirement that a prospective employee have years of publishing experience under their belt for entry-level positions—presses will continue to be difficult and unsustainable places for people of color. 

“We want a seat at the table,” she said, noting that DUP has an anti-racist task force that employees organizing the union are active in. “There is only so much that institutionally-housed equity groups can do in these instances. The structural changes we need to make publishing more welcoming to people of color and to make [Duke University Press] more sustainable for people of color can be further instituted with a union.”

‘Real change’

Hundreds of authors, editors, and contributors to Duke University Press books, journals, and editorial collectives have signed a letter in support of the union. The union has also been endorsed by The Duke Faculty Union, The Duke Graduate Students Union, The Durham Association of Educators, as well as local officials, including Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson. However, leadership at DUP are taking a different approach—one that aligns more directly with previous union-busting efforts from Duke University.  

Discourse Blog reported that the day the union effort went public, DUP Director Dean Smith sent a letter to workers at the press advocating against the union. 

“Unions can change the culture of an organization,” Smith wrote. “I want us all to be colleagues who work together. Your decision to support or not support union representation will be a very important one—for you, for your family, and for all of us at the Press. My goal is to encourage you to get all the information you need and get satisfying answers to all of your questions before you make a decision.” 

North Carolina law bans government agencies from making contracts with unions and bans public employees from striking, which may explain why the state is second-to-last in its number of unionized workers. Only 2.7% of North Carolina workers are unionized. However, during the pandemic there has been a striking display of worker-led organizing across the state—including recent efforts by fast food workers in Durham who are demanding a $15 minimum wage. 

There is also a precedent for the labor organizing DUP workers are attempting to do at the university. In 2016, Duke University adjunct faculty voted to unionize with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In response, the university hired an anti-union law firm to bust the union, accusing pro-union workers and organizers of harassing graduate workers, Discourse Blog reported. The election ultimately ended without a resolution because hundreds of ballots were challenged between the university and the SEIU. Facing a drawn-out legal battle overseen by the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration, Duke graduate workers withdrew their petition in 2017 and formed a “direct-join, direct-action” union with no formal recognition. Discourse Blog reports that Duke has already hired the law firm Ogletree Deakins to combat the DUP union. The firm has reportedly represented Duke in more than two dozen National Labor Relations Board cases. 

The formerly undocumented DUP worker anticipated a fight, but maintains that DUP is a workplace “worth fighting for.” 

“The presence of a union doesn’t need to be antagonistic to management, but we are also combating years of anti-union sentiment and a U.S. history that has cracked down on unions,” she said. “We wouldn’t do this unless we cared about our workplace and our colleagues. We want the press to be a place where people can thrive and where policies are enforced equitably. We want real change and we are organizing because we know what’s best for us.” 

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.