November 11, 2015

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A response to Dean Knuth

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To the Editor:

Re: “Graduate Student Workers’ Compensation,’” Opinion, Nov. 5.

As a direct response to Dean Knuth’s article, we feel it is necessary to make two points: i) the Dean’s article contains several significant inaccuracies, and ii) it is clear that the only long-term solution to injury coverage for Cornell graduate students is to win a collective bargaining agreement. Until graduate workers are unionized, thousands of us will continue to work in hazardous environments with substandard labor protections each day.   

First, a bit of history: Workers’ Compensation coverage has been mandatory for virtually every type of employee in any industry in the United States since 1948. And yet, before 2014, Cornell did not have any formal, codified policy for addressing graduate student injuries. In 2014, in the aftermath of a serious injury to Chemical Engineering grad Rick Pampuro grad, leaders of the GPSA Student Advocacy Committee started asking questions about the University’s policy regarding injuries to T.A. and R.A. workers. The University, quite simply, refused to answer. There was no formal policy for compensating injured graduate employees.

Why is it that the University was so resistant to providing this coverage? Workers Comp simply fulfills one of the most basic rights of any employee — to be compensated with wages and medical care in the event of a workplace injury. The reason the Graduate School steadfastly refused our initial demands for this basic right can be found in their unwavering — and incorrect — insistence that ‘graduate students’ are students only. In fact, graduate workers perform skilled labor each day, publish and present at conferences to the University’s benefit and teach and mentor undergraduate researchers. We do much of the academic labor that makes Cornell successful.

And yet, as recently as September 2015, Joel M. Malina, Cornell’s vice president for university relations, said in a statement to Bloomberg: “Currently, graduate students at private universities are not considered employees under federal labor law, since their relationship with the university is primarily educational.” The federal law Malina refers to — a G.W. Bush-era politically motivated ruling by the National Labor Relations Board in 2004 — will soon be reversed. Currently, grads at public universities can and do negotiate union contracts, but this is not legal at a private universities. Graduate workers at public universities are, simply, our colleagues; their work is indistinguishable from ours.  This arbitrary double standard has gone on for too long already.

Returning to Dean Knuth’s article, it’s important to point out that the NYS Workers’ Compensation Board launched an investigation into Cornell in 2014, in response to our claim that the University’s current (lack of) policy violated the law. In fact, the codified system of procedures we have in place today is entirely the result of this external inquiry. Dean Knuth’s claim that “with input from students and several offices across campus, the graduate school responded by creating clear, easy-to-follow procedures”  white washes the labor struggle that spurred these changes.

More insidiously, the Dean’s article conceals the severity of the situation which led Cornell graduate workers to need Workers’ Compensation to begin with. Dean Knuth points out that Cornell did not contest the four Workers’ Compensation claims filed by grads in the 2014-15 academic year. However, the University absolutely did contest the claim filed by Rick Pampuro in 2013-14. Mr. Pampuro almost died in a laboratory accident in August 2013. He recovered, and then, instead of resuming his studies, spent most of the following year fighting the University for his right to adequate compensation and payment of medical bills. The University’s treatment of Mr. Pampuro is unacceptable and, in our opinion, ought to be subject to an external investigation.

Finally, the situation is far from resolved. The codified system of formal protections for graduate workers celebrated by Dean Knuth is a step in the right direction, but it hardly solves the problem. Conspicuously absent are students who are funded by external sources. Graduate employees supported by fellowships, under the current policy, are left with no guarantee of injury coverage because they are not on an “assistantship”  or  “an hourly paid appointment.”

There are complexities to the employment situation of graduate workers which our graduate union, CGSU, is uniquely capable of solving. Specifically, the legal rights of grads funded by fellowships or researchers employed as teaching assistants, and visa issues for international students, need to be negotiated and written into a collective bargaining contract. That’s what we’re working for: a situation where all graduate workers are insured against the risks involved in working in a hazardous environment at all times. Graduate employees across the nation are demanding this basic protection — but that’s not what we have, not yet.

Paul Berry grad

James Ingoldsby grad

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