November 1, 2016

OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM | Cornell Is Wrong About Unionization

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Courtesy of Aser Greev

Cornell and President Rawlings are wrong. There is really no other way to say it.

Last week, President Rawlings sent an email letter out to all of campus, which forcefully attacked the concept of a graduate student union at Cornell.  I think the content and spirit of this letter were not only intellectually dishonest, but obviously supported anti-union propaganda. I say this only because the language of this letter is very similar to language used by companies against union campaigns for workers. This letter suggests that Cornell has a long way towards fulfilling its goal of “openness” and should really reflect on how it actually sees graduate students.

When I first started reading the letter, it sounded innocuous. It was unsurprising, given the August Colombia decision, that Cornell would be sending this letter to inform Graduate students of their rights and the process of collecting authorization cards, holding an election, and collective bargaining. Yet, as I kept reading, I happened across a rather strange anecdote: In 2002, Graduate students were organizing at Cornell and unionization lost by a significant matter. Yet why even mention that? That was over a decade ago, none of the graduate students were here, the labor law was somewhat different, and it’s completely out of context. I realized then, this was not an informational letter, but part of an anti-union campaign to influence graduate students at Cornell and the professors, students, and staff they interact with to spread anti-union animus.

The reason for mentioning the 2002 election was to make those in support of the union feel as though they are on the “losing side” before a single vote has been cast. This would also potentially put them between against a significant amount of their peers and therefore is a pretty divisive and isolating tactic, which does not seem at all very open-minded to the process. Yet this anecdote was only the tip of the iceberg on the anti-union rhetoric. There were many more arguments made in the letter that leave out key details about unions, which President Rawlings did not share, because of the university’s clear attention to rally students and faculty against unionization.

The main point throughout the letter was that unionization will change the academic relationship between graduate students and professor, since “federal labor law does not define the boundary between academics and employment.” Without knowing the entire history of NLRB rulings on this case, it is difficult to know how this might apply to Cornell, especially since the law was just changed a couple of months ago. That being said, employers such as Cornell can usually refuse to collectively bargain over issues that are not related to the terms and conditions of employment, such as academics. In this case, if it is an issue that relates to academics which students wish to bargain over, it’s also probably an issue that relates to the lives of graduate students as well, and therefore, graduate students should probably have a say in what happens. This idea of academic relations is a significant point of interest, but it is important to note that graduate students have no real power at all right now to collectively assert their complaints. The issue of potential conflicts does not outweigh their desire to assert themselves, since these conflicts may be decided by outside organizations such as the NLRB, and therefore be independent.

President Rawlings also stated that this will hurt the current system of shared governance, yet in the current system, the university holds all the real power, and it can simply ignore the graduate students. A union would most likely share more power with students. That is true “shared governance,” not advisory committees that can be overruled by the board of trustees at any point. President Rawlings brings up a number of organizations in his letter that represent graduate students. Yet none of these bodies actual has university-wide decision-making power or the legal power to enforce their decisions.

President Rawlings also argues that individual students specialized needs and desires will be ignored, yet in reality, the union has a legal duty to fairly represent each of its student’s needs. It is also a much more powerful entity to advocate on behalf of a student, and would create a formal grievance procedure that would be a legal process for complaints. In this way, student’s individual voices probably have a much more likelihood of being addressed than relying on the whims of the university, or at worst, the individualized legal proceedings under New York state law. President Rawlings also talks about the fact that graduate students in the union would have to pay dues, but neglects to mention that dues are often 20-50 dollars per month, which union members will easily make back in the added benefits and salary they will achieve under collective bargaining, not to mention the other advantages of unionization. In addition, teaching assistants not in the union may only pay a union agency fee, which covers the cost of bargaining and representation. President Rawlings notes that national and state unions, such as AFT and NYSUT, may be involved in collective bargaining, interfering with Cornell. Yet it is important to remember that ultimately, it is Cornell’s graduate students that will control the process, and these national unions may provide expertise and organizing support, but will not be the most empowered members of any bargaining team. Bargaining comes from the members, not the national organizations.   

It is also important to emphasize that unions do not preclude academic pursuit or creativity in any way, but they are organizations that allow teaching assistants to voice their concerns in a collective manner. That does not mean union are inherently restrictive if they want to foster academic and creative enterprise, which graduate student’s unions will ultimately do.

Finally, I think it is important to note how important graduate students are to us undergraduates at Cornell. This university could not function without graduate assistants and their commitment to enhancing the education of others. Most of the graduate students I have met have tremendously improved my understanding of different subjects and have been extremely compassionate when teaching.  Since they are often just out of college, they are most understanding when I voice my concerns, whether it be helping me work on a paper, or taking time to discuss what future academic pursuits I might be interested in. I appreciate the work they put into helping undergraduates and it is only fair and moral to give them a real avenue to voice their concerns and help them achieve their goals. The truth is that without a union, there is no real way that all graduate students have the opportunity to do this, and supporting their endeavors is the best way to make sure this occurs.

In his letter, President Rawlings writes that Cornell, “has demonstrated its commitment to workers’ rights and its respect for organized labor.”  This letter demonstrates the exact opposite. Along with complaints from Cornell staff members of low wages and Cornell’s lack of response for an investigation into some pretty awful possible labor violations on its of its Qatar campus, Cornell has shown that it really does not support workers’ rights to any large extent and is actively working against organized labor. I hope that Cornell will see the how it has been mistaken in this regard, yet I am pretty confident it will not. In that regards, I believe it is important to dispel the myths surrounding unionization and to support those who want to have their voices heard and their lives improved. Collective action will only help them reach this goal.