Monday, employees at Duke University Press announced they have formed Duke University Press Workers Union, a new unit of The NewsGuild, TNG-CWA Local 3203, in hopes of forming a union to negotiate with Duke University Press. The NewsGuild represents over 20,000 journalists, media, and nonprofit workers including employees at The Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune. The organizers said they had a majority of the 80 non-management employees of the 120 total employees at the press, agreeing to participate in a union.

In a press release, the organizers said they seek to ensure an "equitable working environment that mirrors the themes of equity, justice, and inclusion that are central to the books and journals the press publishes." Duke is a nonprofit publisher that produces some 140 books and 50 journals a year. In February the press announced the launch of the Scholarly Publishing Collective, which would entail it managing sales and other digital services for journals from Michigan State University Press, Penn State University Press, Society of Biblical Literature, University of Illinois Press, and Longleaf Services -- which works with to Cornell University Press, Texas Tech University Press, and the University of North Carolina Press.

"For years, the press has struggled with constant turnover, extended vacancies, low compensation, inconsistent policy enforcement, and patterns of discrimination," the union organizers said. "The expansion of different initiatives, including those related to acquisitions, platform development, product creation, and distribution, has come at the price of employee well-being. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the precarity experienced by staff members."

The press release continued: "Employees urge Duke University Press and Duke University to recognize the union and to collaborate together to build a strong, transparent, equitable, and diverse future. The press publishes content at the forefront of fields traditionally marginalized within the academy, including Black studies and queer studies, that work toward a more just world. Now is the chance for Duke University Press to prove that it really does stand for those ideals." Organizers have gotten support from the union representing Duke University faculty and also consulted with the Verso Books Guild.

The union is seeking several changes, including better compensation, longer family leave, better retirement options, as well as a stronger influence on hiring decisions. One staff member who spoke to PW said they estimated their starting salary was $15, which is the equivalent of minimum wage in New York City, where much of publishing is headquartered.

Several employees reflected on the need for a union, including Alejandra Mejía, an assistant editor at the press, who said, "As a formerly undocumented immigrant with a working-class background, I grew up in a context where I witnessed constant precarity, manipulation, wage theft, and fear in my community. Through those experiences, I’ve learned that workers are the experts of our own condition, and we must have a say in the working conditions that affect our lives. I believe that a union would be the most powerful mechanism to ensure equity at DUP. I care about my colleagues and I want to see us all thrive."

More than 50 Duke University Press authors and journal editors have signed a petition in support of the move to unionize.