October 23, 2017

OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM | The Time to Support Cornell’s Graduate Students Is Now

Print More

 Last spring’s union election campaign may have ended with a disappointing result for the collective rights of Cornell’s graduate students, but Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) has continued to fight. In the past weeks, members of CGSU have been asking fellow graduate students at Cornell to vote about the future of their organizing strategy and the possibility of another election attempt. A secondary election attempt could make sense in this case. It is certainly not unprecedented; many unions, in all manner of industries, have had numerous elections before achieving recognition. In addition, graduate student turnover and the slim margin of defeat of the union in the election could mean a stronger possibility of a different outcome if a re-vote occurs.

This past year, there has been a strong sense of urgency to organizing efforts by Cornell’s graduate students. In August 2016, a case from Columbia University came before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal body which decides disputes between unions and employers. The NLRB ruled that graduate students shared a “community of interest” and could be considered employees, overturning a 2004 ruling from Brown University. This set off a wave of graduate organization movements across the country. As the Columbia case indicates, the NLRB is an entirely political body. With each new administration, the board shifts from one party’s control to the other’s. The newest round of appointees lean more conservative, which means that, undoubtedly the Columbia decision will be overturned under the current board. A case from Harvard University is making its way through the labor board right now that could serve as the impetus for such a reversal.

In this way, the pressure remains on CGSU to gain recognition before the political climate turns even more hostile. Organizing in an era where the government does not legally recognize the validity of a union poses enormous challenges to organizations like CGSU. From taking away threats of legal recourses to deterring ties with local community organizations, there are a host of ways that a negative legal environment can hamper negotiatory leverage and organizing tactics.  This has put extraordinary pressure on CGSU, which must weigh the need to organize slowly and effectively against the threat of an ever-changing political climate. Of course, this does not mean that organizing outside of the legal framework is impossible. Unions in recent years have relied on this approach, often organizing more campaigns outside the NLRB than within the system. It gives them some enhanced flexibility in organizing and allows them to target the needs of the most vulnerable workers who would not typically qualify for protection anyway.

Yet Cornell has disappointed again on ensuring that a graduate union could be viable during these challenging times. After the election, CGSU and Cornell’s administration engaged in various bargaining discussions over next steps that have all ended in a stalemate, as Cornell has apparently refused to give any protections to CGSU if the Columbia decision becomes overturned. Of course, this follows in the pattern of Cornell’s anti-union stance. In the fall of last year, President Rawlings sent out a campus wide letter to discourage unionization at the beginning of the campaign. The letter read like an embarrassing tirade of anti-union propaganda. During other negotiations, Cornell decided to reject union neutrality, directly opposing  graduate students’ ability to assert their collective rights. Most damaging, right before the election, Cornell published a number of questions to the “Ask the Dean” forum. These questions, supposedly submitted by students, seemed either entirely fabricated or hilariously convenient for Cornell’s anti-union cause.

Yet even with pessimism around campus and open hostility from the administration, hope still exists for better wages, benefits, and workplace influence for graduate students at Cornell. Recent graduate union campaigns at the University of Chicago, George Washington University, University of Pennsylvania, and many other schools demonstrate that union activity and labor activism has not died at campuses around the country in 2017.  As undergraduates, we may seem removed from the situation, but we are not. This issue should matter to us, because it directly impacts our education and how we benefit from the institution of Cornell. Graduate students teach us in the classrooms with great compassion and patience. In many classes, it is the TA’s, and not the professors, who provide undergraduates with the primary contact to their education. This is real work and it that takes time and understanding. Graduate students are our teachers, mentors, friends, and fellow community members. They deserve respect and just treatment.

I urge my fellow undergraduates to support graduate students in their attempts to form a union. Our campus does not have any real outlets that guarantee a better life for research and teaching assistants, and unionization provides this channel for actual change. We should not rely on the unfair treatment of graduate students as the basis for our education. With the changing climate, the time is now for Cornell to change its stance towards graduate student unionization. Undergraduate support can be effective in allowing CGSU to assert its collective rights. We have significant leverage over the administration’s decision on a variety of matters if we take action. Graduate students should have a voice in the future of their livelihoods and workplace, and all undergraduates should support them in their endeavor.