June 1, 2016

Cornell Graduate Students Reach Agreement With Administration to Hold Vote to Unionize

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Clarification appended

Cornell Graduate Students United reached an agreement with Cornell’s administration Wednesday that would allow graduate students to campaign and host an election to recognize CGSU as the graduate student union and representative in collective bargaining.

The agreement will allow graduate assistants to make decisions about whether or not to join the union should federal policy change, according to Mary Opperman, Cornell vice president and chief human resources officer.

The National Labor Relations Board — which previously sided with universities in its definition of graduate students — is likely to reverse its decision on the matter in the coming months, according to an American Federation of Teachers press release.

The agreement states that the AFT and New York State United Teachers will partner with CGSU and could lead Cornell to become one of the few private universities where graduate students boast collective bargaining rights, according to the release.

The agreement follows controversy over the role of graduate students at universities across the country.

Many believe that because graduate students teach many classes and aid professors in labs that they should be classified as employees. However, in March, Cornell administrators signed an amicus brief written by lawyers at Harvard University and signed by nine other universities that said that graduate research and teaching positions are part of “a fully integrated educational experience,” and “the market value of any teaching services provided by doctoral candidates is not taken into consideration when determining stipends provided to students teaching during their graduate programs.”

According to CGSU member and negotiating team leader Michaela Brangan grad, reaching the current agreement was difficult but will be worthwhile.

“It will provide our members with needed clarity and protections, and has the added benefit of fostering a mutually respectful relationship between Cornell and CGSU in the months and years to come,” she said in the release.

Karen Magee — NYSUT President and AFT vice president — agreed, adding that the work graduate students contribute to assist Cornell earns them recognition as employees.

“Without the valuable labor of its graduate employees, Cornell would struggle to fulfill its obligations to its students, the community and New York State,” she said in the release. “By setting out a clear and transparent election process, graduate employees are well on the way to being treated as higher education professionals.”

AFT president Randi Weingarten ’80 said that as a graduate of the ILR school she understands “the huge benefits that positive employee-employer relationships can bring to the academic and broader community.”

“I am confident CGSU and Cornell can work together to achieve mutual gains and that the agreement can serve as a guiding light for higher education institutions across the Ivy league and around the country,” she said.

A former version of this article incorrectly stated that the agreement would be for an upcoming election. In fact the agreement is contingent upon the reversal of the National Labor Relations Board’s decision that graduate assistants are classified as students and not employees.

17 thoughts on “Cornell Graduate Students Reach Agreement With Administration to Hold Vote to Unionize

  1. This article seems skewed towards CGSU. Was there any effort to get input from the management side?

    I find it hard to believe that the subject agreement would authorize CGSU to “host an election to recognize CGSU.” Representation elections are typically held under NLRB procedures; is that the case in the CU-CGSU situation?

  2. What do they really hope to accomplish with this? To create nontrivial change, they need to push for a national union. If any one university by itself stops pretending that PhD students are students rather than the employees that do all the real work (at many schools even more so than at Cornell) they will dramatically lose competitiveness without completely overhauling the university structure.

    Just look at who are in PhD programs (not specific to Cornell) and what the outcomes are. In STEM, it’s overwhelmingly foreign labor from poor countries mixed with a few naive idealists. Not many people are willing to be a martyr for the cause when there are good jobs in industry combined with the environment of academia that makes it difficult to produce truly valuable work in the first place. Most day to day PhD work isn’t really developing advanced skills even though they work really hard on complicated problems. Then once you get your PhD, most in the humanities are stuck with either endless adjunct positions or something that could be done with just a high school diploma. STEM is better, but even there it’s unlikely you’ll be able to put your degree to full use in industry and postdocs are not suited to a long term career. Academia needs to make itself a place for smart people again, but those kinds of changes need organization between universities, not just departments.

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