Cornell Graduate Student Assistants Seek Unionization

By Samantha Torre

An August 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision involving Columbia University categorized graduate students at private universities as employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), granting them the right to unionize and collectively bargain with their employers. The decision reversed a previous case at Brown University which stated that graduate assistants were primarily students rather than economic laborers and were not protected by the NLRA. Anticipating this reversal, Cornell’s administration signed a “code of conduct” agreement with Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) in May of 2016, agreeing to, among other things, a fair process in the event of a union recognition election.

Above other concerns, CGSU seeks recognition as valuable employees from the administration and demands a voice in the arguably unilateral decision-making process. The American Arbitration Association (AAA) authorized a recognition election on March 27, 2017; the bargaining unit, or those eligible to vote, consisted of current teaching assistants and research assistants at the graduate level. Of the 1,856 votes cast, neither side earned a majority. According to a letter written by several graduate students on CGSU’s website, a vote of “yes” received 49.5 percent of the votes, a vote of “no” received 46.1 percent of the votes, and the remaining 4.4 percent are either “challenged ballots, unresolved marking-related challenges, or absentee ballots that need to be verified.” AAA is expected to make a final determination about the ballots within the next several weeks.

The results prompted questions of misconduct. As the election neared, it became increasingly apparent that Cornell did not exactly welcome the idea of a union. In a press release dated March 29, Andrew Cook of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), CGSU’s national union affiliate, briefed their frustrations. Cook stated that prior to voting, Cornell’s administration issued an unprompted email warning grads that unionizing could result in fewer graduate assistants hired the following year. Cook continued and stated that hours before voting began on the day of the election, Cornell distributed another email alleging that members of CGSU and its affiliates made attempts to coerce skeptical grads into refraining from voting–a claim yet to be substantiated. Additionally, Cook emphasized the convenient timing of Cornell’s announcement to lower health care costs for the 2017-2018 school year; while concerns surrounding health care remain at the fore of CGSU’s platform, Cornell’s rather timely concessions suggested underlying anti-union sentiments. AFT President, Randi Weingarten, stated, “As an alumna of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, I want to say how deeply disappointed I am with the egregious conduct of the university. Cornell flagrantly violated the spirit of both the code of conduct we negotiated and federal labor law.”

The narrow voting margins only provoke further accusations of Cornell’s misconduct. Concerns that Cornell’s actions produced “chilling” effects on voters and interfered with the free election continue to arise. Whether or not CGSU will file charges of unfair labor practice against Cornell, however, remains uncertain.