The prospect of graduate student unionization at Cornell University is becoming a serious possibility. There has been much debate about the relative merits of this decision from the perspective of graduate students. In fact, Interim President Rawlings laid out his argument for why he feels it is not in their best interests to do so. But lost in this discussion is how a unionization of graduate students might adversely impact the undergraduate student body.
Graduate student unionization may hurt undergraduate education
Graduate student teachers play a vital role in the education of undergraduates; they often offer the most direct and accessible source of academic assistance. Given the well-documented negative effects of teacher unionization, such as decreased teaching quality and lack of teacher accountability, on K-12 education in the U.S., there is serious reason to believe that a graduate student union may damage undergraduate instruction at Cornell. Allowing the union to meddle in the affairs of the educational process may yield graduate educators who may not be able to help students to their full capacity. Many students have experienced the frustration of being taught by an unmotivated tenured professor who isn’t held responsible for the quality of their instruction. It would be a shame if a similar situation were to develop with graduate student teachers, many of whom play a critical role in the education of undergraduates. Furthermore, President Rawlings made no mention of how he can assure undergraduates that these unintended consequences will not occur.
Graduate student unionization may increase tuition, especially for undergraduates
Graduate student unionization also has the potential to increase tuition for both undergraduate and graduate students. It is naive to assume that Cornell will be able to raise wages for all graduate students without a substantial increase in tuition. According to research conducted by the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell, unionized graduate student workers at several U.S. universities reported a 15.4 percent higher average stipend than their nonunionized counterparts. Moreover, graduate student workers at Cornell reported an average stipend of around $30,000 (which happens to be in the top-25% nationally). Multiplying these together, we see that Cornell would be spending around $4,620 more on paying each graduate student in stipend costs along.
Cornell Graduate Students United, the student group spearheading the effort to unionize Cornell graduate workers, reported that there would be approximately 2,240 students who would be covered under a prospective collective bargaining agreement. Thus, Cornell would be spending over $10.3 million annually to finance increased student wages (this figure could be even higher if other worker’s benefits are factored in). In order to pay for this expense, Cornell would likely have to hike tuition rates by 1.2 percent for all students. This is not trivial; undergraduates, in particular, would have to pay an additional $2,500 more for their education on top of a tuition that is among the most expensive in the country. Since undergraduate students far outnumber graduate students and undergraduate tuition is almost double that of graduate student tuition, undergraduate students would be primarily subsidizing work benefits for graduate employees. President Rawlings did nothing to assure undergraduates that they would not bear the financial burden of increased university operating costs.
Graduate student unionization may disadvantage undergraduate employees
In the event that graduate student unionization does occur, undergraduate workers will be unfairly compensated compared to graduate workers. Many undergraduate students, including myself, work for the university. Undergraduates get paid by the university to be residential advisors, research assistants, teaching assistants, tour guides, clerical workers and engage in numerous other important campus jobs. Since undergraduates wouldn’t enjoy union membership, the university would legally be able to underpay them compared to graduate students who may perform similar work. The natural outcome of this inequity would be the push by undergraduate students to unionize themselves, which carries with it the same bevy of problems associated with graduate student unions. It would be better to avoid such a situation from ever developing, and simply compensate workers based on the free-market value for performing their services. This is indeed the fairest option.
The decision to unionize graduate students should be approached in a holistic manner. Graduate students should be aware of all the stakeholders in establishing a union, and the far-reaching ramifications unionization would have on our community.