Interim President Hunter Rawlings announced Cornell's position on graduate student unionization in a statement emailed to students in October.

Michael Li / Sun Staff Photographer

Interim President Hunter Rawlings announced Cornell's position on graduate student unionization in a statement emailed to students in October.

October 27, 2016

Rawlings: Unionization Would ‘Weaken’ Graduate Education at Cornell

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Interim President Hunter Rawlings revealed his posture on graduate student unionization today, saying he believes representation by a collective labor union could undermine shared governance and individualized learning, and so is “not in the best interests of graduate education at Cornell.”

Rawling’s announcement on unionization comes months after the National Labor Relation Board’s August decision that graduate students are characterized as workers, in addition to students, opening the door for labor movements at private universities across the country.

In a statement emailed to students Thursday, Rawlings voiced concern that the Cornell Graduate Student Union would change the working relationship between faculty and graduate students by creating an artificial divide between workers and “management.”

“While the full impact of a recognized graduate labor union on shared governance bodies … is unknown, it could very well preclude these existing groups from interacting with ‘management’ — including faculty, department chairs and university leadership — on issues that could be considered potential topics for collective bargaining,” he said.

The interim president also said the nature of a union would interfere with the “flexibility, individuality and inventiveness” of graduate education, making students responsible to a larger collective labor group, rather than able to cater their educational experiences individually.

“I am concerned [about] a collective bargaining agreement that is, by definition, designed to meet the interests of a collective, rather than tailored to each individual’s educational pursuits,” Rawlings said.

He also expressed doubts about the ability of the American Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers — two unions affiliated with CGSU — to adequately represent students’ interests in dealing with the administration. In contrast, Rawlings stressed that graduate students have more influence and greater flexibility in shared governance bodies that already exist.

Saying that graduate students already have a “significant voice” in the administration, Rawlings cited the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the General Committee of the Graduate School as examples of bodies that endow graduate students with a voice and are specifically Cornell-centered.

“We have not been able to solve every issue raised by students, but I believe we are better able to work through differences of opinion in a collegial atmosphere than in a potentially adversarial collective bargaining setting,” he said of these groups.

Praising Cornell’s structure of graduate education, which he described as both academically strong and centered on individualized learning, Rawlings warned that unionization could “weaken this system.”

Predicting that a vote on unionization could occur in the next few weeks, Rawlings urged students to consider “what value a graduate labor union would add to the Cornell community and to your academic degree.”

Despite assuming an anti-union position, Rawlings encouraged graduate students on all sides of the issue to participate in the vote on unionization, saying the decision will “likely stand for many years to come.”

“The election outcome … will be binding on all current and future graduate school students who hold an assistantship appointment, regardless of whether they voted in the election or not,” he said.

9 thoughts on “Rawlings: Unionization Would ‘Weaken’ Graduate Education at Cornell

  1. Here’s the text of CGSU’s response since the Sun doesn’t seem to want to do due diligence and ask anyone from the organization – or any graduate student- for their take.

    Links in the original email are not accepted so check out the FAQ on cornellgsu.org :

    Dear Cornell Graduate Worker,

    As you’re likely aware, the Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) unionization campaign is in full swing, and we’d like to touch base with you to ensure that you have access to adequate information about our union so when the time comes to vote you can make an informed decision. Earlier this morning, Cornell President Hunter Rawlings III sent an email explaining why he thinks graduate student unionization is a bad idea for our campus. On this point, CGSU respectfully disagrees with President Rawlings and other Cornell executives.

    CGSU is a democratically-driven, student-led union, and we have been organizing graduate workers for two years. We now have members in every field of study at Cornell, and are gearing up for a recognition election. As a graduate student worker, you have the federally recognized right to join a labor union of your choice, and any administrator or faculty member who attempts to hinder that right is in violation of U.S. labor law, as well as our agreement with Cornell.

    Graduate workers have been organizing in labor unions in the U.S. ever since 1966, when the nation’s first graduate worker union, the Teaching Assistants Association, was formed at the University of Wisconsin. CGSU is proud to follow this legacy of improving working conditions and educational standards, and we want to clear up any misinformation surrounding finances, shared governance, and student-faculty relationships on campus.

    Administrators have indicated that having a labor union for grads will somehow negate the work of Cornell’s GPSA (Graduate and Professional Student Assembly). It is actually standard practice for graduate workers to be part of both labor unions as well as shared governance structures. Our affiliate union, the American Federation of Teachers, already represents 25,000 graduate workers on 22 campuses across nine states at more than 20 public colleges and universities, all of which have functional student government associations.

    But CGSU, as a labor union, can focus specifically on graduate students’ needs as workers, and bargain a legally enforceable contract with Cornell, something that no organization has the power to do right now. We look forward to being partners with GPSA to collectively serve the needs of graduate students as workers and as academics.

    As for the question on how our relationship will be affected with faculty members and Cornell as a whole, research published by Cornell shows that graduate workers either report that the quality of their relationships with faculty members remains the same, or improves after unionization. They also report that they receive higher levels of personal and professional support, better pay, and experience no negative effects on academic freedom. CGSU firmly believes that any concerns about negative effects on our relationship with GPSA or faculty members are empirically unfounded, and we challenge anybody who disagrees to supply evidence to the contrary.

    We’re proud of our affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers. As a strong union of over 1.6 million members, they’ve supported us as we have continued to grow our union with the goal of winning recognition and beginning to negotiate a contract. And as graduate workers here at Cornell, this will be OUR contract–our affiliation agreement with AFT guarantees that while we will have AFT’s support, CGSU will retain full and complete control over the bargaining process, the resulting contract and over our union’s governance.

    Lastly, we have seen emails going out stating that Cornell University already offers graduate workers a variety of benefits and protections such as parental leave, health insurance, and workers’ compensation. However, without a union, we are unable to enforce these policies, and they are commonly applied inconsistently in a manner that benefits the Administration’s interests over those of graduate workers.

    We have heard horrible stories from parents who have been shamed for taking parental leave, workers who have had to pay thousands of dollars to get dependents covered under Cornell’s health insurance, and injuries where workers’ compensation claims have been dragged out in court and required government intervention by the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board. (Click here for more information on CGSU’s stance on workers’ compensation.) This is unacceptable. All of these policies are supposed to protect us. However, without a union, decisions are made unilaterally by the administration, with little input from grad workers, but with a union contract, we can implement grievance procedures that ensure a fair outcome.

    In hundreds of conversations across campus, CGSU members and organizers have heard loud and clear that we can do better for ourselves at Cornell. Whether it’s comprehensive health care including vision and dental insurance, the possibility of workable family leave policies, or a grievance process that does not hand all power to Cornell administrators, many issues faced by graduate students can be solved when graduate workers come together in unity and bargain better working conditions for us all.

    We greatly appreciate the time you took reading this email. Please reach out to us if you have any questions about unionization and check out our website for more information, our FAQs, and how to join CGSU.

    And if you’ve already joined CGSU, please be sure to sign our statement of solidarity!

    Cornell works because we do!

  2. This is a nice first step, but unless Cornell wants to fall behind the competition, they really need to get all of top schools to form unions. Or better yet, have a single large union represent all the top schools. Remember, there are real reasons grad students get treated like shit and the underlying game theoretic structure needs to change to improve their situation in a big way.

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