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Courtesy of At What Cost

October 25, 2016

‘At What Cost’ Group Challenges Unilateral Actions, Exclusivity of Grad Student Union Campaign

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Amidst an intense unionization campaign by Cornell Graduate Students United — that could make history if the group forms one of the first labor unions at a private university — a new group called At What Cost has emerged to present workers with a more nuanced analysis of the cost of forming a union.

The group’s name, At What Cost, is derived from the struggle for unionization advanced by Cornell graduate students in 2002. Ultimately, a vote to form a union failed in 2002, but the issue resurfaced with renewed rigor after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that graduate students can be considered employees, as well as students of universities.

The meaning of this name is drawn from “the fact that these union members are going around trying to gain support without telling graduate students the implications of forming a union — At What Cost? That’s what we’re trying to do,” said Mark Obstalecki grad.

While At What Cost takes no stance on the question of unionization at Cornell, it does raise concerns about what members view as a lack of transparency in information provided by CGSU.

Nicole Wiles grad said she helped start At What Cost in response to confusion from graduate students regarding unionization.

“We have a lot of unanswered questions and we feel that there are a lot of students that don’t have the information that they need to be educated voters,” Wiles said.

Obstalecki became involved with At What Cost after a member of the American Federation of Teachers — the trade union that is affiliated with CGSU — visited him at this office.

“First off, he did not introduce himself as a union staff member,” Obstalecki said of the visit. “These are people going around that are actually paid by the union that are not necessarily introducing themselves as such.”

These types of one-on-one meetings have become common for graduate students, after graduate students’ personal information was subpoenaed to CGSU through an agreement with the University, according to CGSU’s website.

After asking Obstalecki questions such as, “Do you want more rights? Do you want larger raises? And do you want better benefits?,” the AFT member encouraged Obstalecki to sign a card stipulating his support for CGSU.

“All they say is that by signing this card, you’re going to get all these things,” Obstalecki said. “Really what they’re doing is going around making promises and asking people, “Do you agree?”, “If so, Sign this card.”

At What Cost is working to ensure that graduate students understand what these cards mean. Once 30 percent of eligible voters sign these cards, CGSU can hold a vote for unionization, according to Obstalecki. However, Obstalecki said he was not informed of this provision when he was approached.

Wiles added that the group is trying to educate graduate students on the purpose of the cards to “make sure that everyone has the information that they need and want to make the best decision that they can.”

Without signing the card and thereby becoming a member, graduate students are barred from attending CGSU meetings. Because of this limitation, non-members can struggle to understand the group’s objectives and plan for negotiations, according to Obstalecki.

“I don’t understand how an organization that wants to represent all the graduate students can deny access to a meeting like this,” Obstalecki said. “To me that’s not right.”

In response to this concern, CGSU member Benjamin Cohen grad explained that because only members are allowed to vote, the meetings must be exclusively for members.

“Our meetings are designed primarily for discussing and potentially deciding on union decisions,” Cohen said. “In order to vote on these issues, you need to be a member of the union. We want everyone to be a member of the union.”

At What Cost has intentionally framed its organization to combat the issues of obscurity they identify within CGSU, according to Wiles.

“We’re trying to have the most open, publicly accessible information. Anyone at all can go to our website and see everything on our website,” Wiles said. “It’s an easy way for people to learn information without having to seek it out or have a one-on-one meeting with another person.”

By actively reaching out to students in person and through presentations to departments, Cohen said that CSGU is “trying to encourage transparency and encourage student participation.”

Another concern that At What Cost aims to address is the lack of clarity about the cost of local union dues. On its website, CGSU has released a projection of expected dues to be paid to New York State United Teachers and the AFT.

“We don’t know how much they would be charging us and more importantly, we don’t know what that money is going to be used for,” Wiles said. “We don’t know who is going to decide how that money is used.”

According to Cohen, the reason a number has not been given for local dues is because the amount has not been decided.

“The due structure, including our local dues, is part of the contract that we bargain,” Cohen said. “The people that are currently in CGSU don’t get to make that decision unilaterally.”

At What Cost members say they are concerned that CGSU has not provided either a convincing argument for why graduate students need a union or a clear outline of their objectives.

“There really is nothing on paper. It’s all just verbal promises and lofty statements from what I’ve experienced,” Obstalecki said.

Cohen explained that CGSU’s lack of a formal outline is due to a desire to incorporate member feedback as the groups receives it.

“While we can reference the contracts of other unionized graduate students as a guide, we want to be sure that whatever contract we agree upon reflects the needs of graduate students across a wide variety of fields,” Cohen said.

Wiles said she believes an organization that represents the entire graduate and student body — such as the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly — could better convey opinions and concerns to the administration, rather than the bargaining unit of CGSU.

On the issue of unionization, GPSA has assumed a neutral stance.

“The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly represents all graduate students at Cornell University, including those that have taken a pro-union and those that have taken an anti-union stance,” said Nate Rogers, president. “As a result, the GPSA has taken a neutral stance, focusing instead on preparing to motivate students to vote if CGSU moves forward.”

8 thoughts on “‘At What Cost’ Group Challenges Unilateral Actions, Exclusivity of Grad Student Union Campaign

  1. There are multiple problems with what is being said by the At What Cost? campaign.
    Firstly, it’s about as neutral as APAC. It’s a pro-management organization resurrected by a few departments who want to pay their students less.
    Secondly, it constantly implies that the terms of employment under a union contract are secret and already established. In reality, they can only be negotiated AFTER the union is recognized by a popular vote. The contract will be both negotiated by graduate workers and ultimately VOTED on (i.e. everyone will know in detail what the terms might be and can reject them if they don’t like them). This includes dues.
    Lastly, Obstalecki is right, office visits have been occurring. While individuals might feel too busy for this and decline to converse, labor unions affect (and will improve) how we WORK. The office is exactly where these discussions need to happen. Organizers aren’t after your money nor are they there to manufacture consent. They want to have a dialog and talk about what working at Cornell is like.

  2. “organizers aren’t after your money nor are they there to manufacture consent” is disingenuous. Like any organization with costs labor unions seek to grow their revenues. Union dues will be real fees paid to outside parties, and it’s entirely reasonable and fair to ask how much those dues might be. It’s not like there are no precedents to point to; AFT has lots of members paying dues and those data could be easily used to provide an example to educate a potential member, should educating that potential member be the objective. To say that soliciting grad students in their office is somehow not about getting as many signed cards as possible is also a highly questionable assertion.

    This group’s desires are reasonable and fair: give people the information and transparency they need to make an informed decision.

  3. Dues will likely be 1% of wages and the negotiations will undoubtedly included at least a 1% raise above the cost of living increase that the grad school adds to the base TA/RA stipend each year. The insinuation that unionized workers make less $ than the non-unionized is nearly unsupportable based on evidence even just from other universities.
    CGSU has had to correct the At What Cost? website with actual data after that group initially published unrealistic numbers on their website.

    • CGSU has posted a dues table for NYSUT/AFT dues. The dues account for more than 1% of TA/RA stipends. The numbers in their table do NOT include local dues, so I’m not sure where your unsubstantiated 1% figure is coming from. As a member of At What Cost, I can say that CGSU has not “corrected” any data on our website. Don’t believe everything that the paid AFT employees visiting your home/office tell you. They have their own agenda.

      • Yes, they unquestionably do, but it’s largely one in common with the CGSU rank and file and certainly more transparent than the agenda of At What Cost? They’re advocating for specific collective bargaining recognition rather than muddying waters and trying to scare people.

  4. This sounds like a top-down manufactured group that is working in coordination with the administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were being fed information from the administration. Whatever…You want to see the RESEARCH on unions rather than just hear speculation and rhetoric? See below:

    Effects of unionization–research from Cornell: http://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1731&context=articles

    How unions benefit workers in general–research from the EPI: http://www.epi.org/publication/briefingpapers_bp143/

    Challenge EVERYBODY who tells you a graduate unions will hurt you to show empirical, scholarly research. I promise you…the pros far outweigh the cons.

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