Cornell Graduate Students United organizes in support of graduate student Martha Jean-Charles at Caldwell Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Cornell Graduate Students United organizes in support of graduate student Martha Jean-Charles at Caldwell Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

November 1, 2016

Graduate Students ‘Torn,’ Debating Necessity of Union

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Unionization has quickly become a hot topic among Cornell graduate students. Within the past week, an email discouraging unionization from Interim President Hunter Rawlings and the formation of At What Cost to counter information disseminated by Cornell Graduate Students United have spurred the debate about whether unionization is in graduate students’ best interest.

Many graduate students — some confused about the issue, some near experts — are scattered somewhere along the spectrum from pro- to anti-unionization.

“I’m pretty torn about the union because Cornell’s been pretty good to me and I have no complaints,” said Hoa Duong grad.

Some graduate students value the formation of a union not because of “a specific benefit that we’re looking for, but rather an ability to be represented,” according to Gregory Booth grad.

For Duong, Rawlings’s recent email is a source of “potential conflict,” particularly because it was sent to undergraduate as well as graduate students. Duong said this demonstrated that the University “get[s] to shape the debate.”

“The administrators have an institutional bargaining stance that grad students don’t have and that’s clearly indicated in their ability to send out mass emails,” he said. “It’s an implication of the asymmetries or the divide between the powers of grad students and the power of administrators.”

However, strong relationships between graduate students and their advisors — particularly principal investigators in research laboratories — have also made students cautious about unionization. Okan Köksal grad expressed concern that the presence of a union could “override such a strong connection.”

“By negotiating on student pay, CGSU will possibly thwart the business strategy of the [principal investigators],” Köksal said. “This might force PIs to let go of newer and less active graduate students.”

It is just this relationship between one faculty member and graduate student, however, that has caused other students to come out in support of unionization. Without the official work policy or accountability that a union could provide, some graduate students end up working up to 80 hours a week, according to Xanda Schofield grad.

“The University relies on us to provide value to a lot of people here and if we’re doing that kind of work, then the idea that we can be in a situation where one person, our advisor, can decide what work we do, how much we work and how long our degree takes is terrifying,” she said. “My interactions with my advisor and professors in the department has been great, but I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from other graduate students.”

Schofield added that without graduate students, “the University would not be functional.”

A union could therefore provide “an actual legal backing” to address these kinds of issues, Booth said.

Jordan Jochim grad agreed, arguing that a union would provide a “guaranteed institutional space” for shared governance between graduate students and faculty.

“The issue is that [pre-existing organizations are] an outlet that they can feel free more or less to neglect,” Jochim said. “The union, in having a legally secured space, offers graduate students a voice in their own institutions.”

Other graduate students have placed their faith in the ability of groups such as the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly to provide this space. They argue that GPSA — which has taken a neutral stance on unionization — provides ample leverage to the University, calling the addition of a union superfluous.

“GPSA is our voice. To say that we don’t have one, that is totally false,” said Christopher Budrow grad. “GPSA has been fighting for the same things the union is fighting for and it has had success.”

Rawlings cited the same reason in his email, writing that GPSA has “a demonstrated record of effective advocacy and action to improve the lives of graduate and professional students.”

However, Schofield said the administration’s reasoning is further proof of why a union if necessary.

“The information that gets relayed by the administration appears to be incorrect or misleading about what the graduate and professional students have been able to negotiate with the administration without a union,” Schofield said.

Resentment by graduate students towards CSGU has grown over time, according to a graduate student who wished to remain anonymous due to concerns about being confronted by his peers. Several other graduate students also accused CGSU of persistently badgering students who have publicly opposed unionization.

The student was originally in support of unionization, but has had a change of opinion, uncertain as to whether the union would adequately provide a voice for students.

“We do not need the risk of Cornell shutting down when so much of our careers hinge on making deadlines that will not care if we missed out because the union held a strike,” the student said. “And we do not need a chant of empty promises stirring up a fervor among students who may have been trapped by emotional appeal over reasoned judgement.”

Ultimately, graduate students are grappling with significant confusion on this issue, according to Duong. Discourse among students — increasingly prolific in the past weeks — has fueled debate, especially as CSGU continues to collect the signatures it needs to put the unionization to vote.

“When we meet up, we flesh out a lot of ideas … just to see what each one of us understands,” said Duong. “Talking about it helps to clarify what the actual goals are of the unionization.”

27 thoughts on “Graduate Students ‘Torn,’ Debating Necessity of Union

  1. I was once a graduate and law student. I would not support unionization but I would like to see teaching assistants being paid a decent salary albeit their role in teaching is part of their training.

  2. You have President and football coaches paid over several million. Graduate students are paid less than minimum wages. How do you reconcile such discrepancies working in the same institution? Show some respect to intellect. Graduate students who are teaching assistants are teaching students who pay $60,ooo a year to attend class.

  3. @ Frankie Leung: It seems to me that there is no way to guarantee teaching assistant salaries without the exercise of our legal right to collective bargaining and the full protection of labor laws. See the debate around the university’s decision to unilaterally halt cost-of-living increases for RAs (but not TAs) in 2014-15 and then their unilateral decision to return to bi-annual cost-of-living increases for RAs in 2015. Sure things are well and good now, but this just demonstrates the administration’s absolute authority in the absence of a legally sanctioned negotiator for grad compensation and benefits.

    @A deplorable: The goals are many and they would be democratically determined by graduate students in consultation with CGSU. Some goals include:

    1. a raise in wages to more than offset any union dues (which could be as low as the student activity fee that is levied on every graduate student each year, again, depending on the will of grad students).

    2. a guaranteed sixth year of funding

    3. guaranteed child care beyond the child care grant that barely covers 1/4 day per week at Cornell’s child care center (that was the experience of a good friend of mine.; also note that the childcare grant was halved by the administration a few years ago for grad students, while it remained the same for faculty [ who are far better compensated than we are).

    4. guaranteed subsidized housing

    5. guaranteed dental and optical (how many years have so many grads gone without either?) and reasonably priced spousal coverage.

  4. Is it possible for both sides to resolve the issues without formally using union bargaining techniques. Graduate students are not long term employees. May be they are more susceptible to exploitation because of their transient status. Also, bearing in mind that more graduate students now do not find employment in the academia after graduation, their training in teaching may not be as important. I would urge universities to be more generous. I don’t see academia as a confrontational battlefield between management and labor in the pedestrian sense.

    • It is not true that public universities pay their football coaches and Presidents millions. I have seen private universities doing that. May be not Cornell. I would like to read the report of the Labor Relations Institute’s report. Many professor-research student relationship evolves from a mentor-apprentice origin. How to evaluate that kind of mentorship in the context of labor relations, I do not know.

  5. For anyone curious, the research done by Cornell Labor Relations faculty shows that the presumed negative effects of unionization of graduate students do not occur, and that there are positive effects. Quote from the abstract: “These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.”

    See: http://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1731&context=articles. If the link fails, the title of the article is ‘Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay’, written by Sean Rogers et al.

  6. I want to reiterate the comment by Colin above. Not a single anti-union sentiment above offers any empirical evidence to support the claims, and overall, there is not much scholarly research to support the notion that unions are bad anyway. There is, however, an abundance of research that shows how unions help all workers in all sectors of the economy (http://www.epi.org/publication/briefingpapers_bp143/ — See “How Union Help All Workers” by the EPI). I challenge those of you who oppose unionization to provide EVIDENCE for your opinions. Or please understand that you hold unfounded beliefs.

    As a union supporter, I do want to push back against the claims of Frankie Leung above. I think it is important we keep this debate fact-based and empirical, not rhetorical or mythological. Now, every school at Cornell and every university is a bit different, but I can say that in MY experience, I make far above minimum wage, and my tuition is paid for as part of my teaching assistantship package. Thus, I don’t want to act like I have it harder than a worker at McDonald’s; that’s untrue and it’s unfair to workers who really do make minimum wage (or less).

    What I CAN say is that I do work extremely hard as a TA, and there are aspects of my job that I do not feel are fair. I often feel as if my voice goes unheard and I’m unable to get adequate representation, even through official channels and shared governance structures. I’m a non-traditional student, and before I re-entered into the university setting, I worked in factory-settings and the restaurant industry. I have a variety of experience and perspective on what it’s like to work–third shift on a machine, or early in the morning grading papers. What I can say is that graduate students experience many of the same difficulties with a lack of voice and unfairness that factory workers do. We also have problems with adequate healthcare packages, affordable dependent insurance, and effective grievance channels for sexual harassment and discrimination. We make much better money, and our job prospects for the future are likely much better than a minimum wage earner, but we are ALL workers, and ALL workers deserve to have the right to join a labor union.

    • Hi Jason,

      I hope I can provide some rationale for why I disagree with the union, though I’m not certain whether this will meet your definition of “evidence”. Since I find observations to be important, I have included quantitative and anecdotal evidence below.

      RE: Rogers et. al study.
      I glanced over the tables in the results sections. Those that are not in a union mostly reported fairly high total domain scores, indicating positive opinions. I’m also not completely sold on the clinical significance of the results, considering no SE were reported. When looking at the regression models, I find it much easier to decipher unstandardized beta since the units are familiar to the readers for clinical relevance. The R2 of the models are fairly low as well.

      RE: Stipends.
      Our stipend at Cornell on average is already pretty substantial, considering the cost of living. This is not only what I observed when I applied to different graduate schools, but atwhatcost.org also found that we were in the top 25%. Feel free to debate that with them if you would like if that is untrue; however, I wasn’t expecting to begin saving a large nest egg in graduate school.

      RE: Benefits.
      I find the healthcare package to be satisfactory. The vision and dental insurance cost and coverage surpass my family members who work full time. Not to mention that our health insurance is covered. Unless there are exigent circumstances, this seems sufficient for a majority of graduate students of average age and health. Also, the Student Child Care Grant program increased 1.5 fold this year to $250,000. This would allow grants for 50 student families (if we were to allot a max of $5K to each household, same as what is proposed for faculty and staff). More households may be covered with a smaller stipend, but loans can also be taken out if needed. From my experience, graduate student hours are also more flexible than faculty and staff.

      RE: Hard work.
      Yes, I feel like grad students work hard. And so do undergraduates. They pay to help lighten our workload for TA and/or RA experience. Although we shoulder more work, I often see a parallel between the two. Also, we benefit indirectly from their tuition as well.

      I have seen what a graduate student union can do with strikes and I don’t find it fair to support any chance of disrupting the undergraduates’ education. I’m not a fan of “If I’m not being treated fairly, then I won’t treat others fairly until the situation changes.” Especially in a temporary situation. Maybe if it were more permanent, I would understand strikes but I find uninterrupted education to be one of my sacred tenets.

      Also, if there are issues with the TA class, it may be important to take a step back and realize that the course is not your course. Since undergraduate feedback is often solicited by the college, poor feedback are given to the head of the department. If not, one does what one can and chalk the experience as a learning opportunity of what to do (or not do) in the future. This too shall pass.

      RE: CGSU.
      From what I’ve observed, the practices conducted by some CGSU members are aggressive. I understand passion, but openness and respect are important as well. Even after stating I was uninterested in joining the union, I was asked if I planned to vote in the union election. This made me uncomfortable and begin questioning the organization’s motives. However, I was lucky not to have been vocally “judged” as other students have been. The lack of clarity on the union process and AFT/NYSUT is also questionable.

      Overall, I find that the benefits are not enough to warrant paying a middle man to muddy waters. For the select individuals with horrible experiences, it seems to be more local than institutional. We’ll see if that’s the case in the upcoming union election (TBD).

      Happy to hear other perspectives.

      • Sorry, I mispoke. The last known figures for the child care grant for students was for 2015 to 2016. I was unable to find the funding amount for this year.

      • I appreciate your concerns, and your critical analysis of the evidence given. Obviously, your comments do not qualify as evidence from any perspective, because you do not cite any data verifying that unionization can actually HARM the educational experience for any of the parties involved. You merely state what you perceive as methodological weaknesses in the Rogers et al study (which I will address shortly), you give anecdotal stories and hypothetical situations, and you state that you are happy with your experience at Cornell. No scholar of any sorts would consider that evidence as to why unionization should be opposed. But you are absolutely correct that your observations are important, and should be addressed. I will now attempt to do that.

        RESEARCH:
        First off, the Rogers et al. study is not the only study on unionization, in general. In my comment above, I cited research from the EPI, and there is much, much more. If you do a quick literature review, you will see an abundance of research supporting the notion that unionization is beneficial to workers. Of course, there can be drawbacks depending on the sector: increased labor costs, reduced administrative efficiency (though this needs to be qualified, since it really depends on how you define efficiency, and in which situation you’re referring to–there are plenty of scenarios where unions actually INCREASE efficiency), and work stoppages due to strikes. However, I firmly believe that the benefits far outweigh the costs, and most of the doomsday predictions heard from politicians, business leaders, and media pundits are empirically and historically unfounded. I urge you to look into the other research and reconsider your position. I can help point you in the right direction if needed.

        Also, though research on graduate worker unionization is sparse, there is NONE showing that grad unions harm the educational or assistantship experience. This must not be overlooked.

        STIPENDS:
        Your are correct that Cornell offers plentiful stipends. This is actually reflected in our union discussions. The issue of raising stipends comes up rarely, if ever, and nobody has seriously proposed trying to increase stipends. We are pretty happy with them. What we want improved is accountability, grievance procedures, protections from sexual harassment and discrimination, better dependent health insurance coverage, and transparency (where applicable).

        BENEFITS:
        It is truly wonderful (I am not being sarcastic) that your experiences with the allotted benefits have been good. We want to create that experience for as many people as possible. However, those experiences are not representative of everybody. We have heard, from many workers, that they have struggled with dependent coverage, and this can sometimes be exacerbated for international students. It has been made clear to CGSU that this is a problem we need to address. The problem can get even worse when families only receive one income, because Cornell graduate workers must pay several thousands of dollars each year to get coverage (see: http://studenthealthbenefits.cornell.edu/cms/benefits/plans/health/SHP/rates.cfm for specific data). Most workers with families we have spoken to do not get those grants you speak of, and taking out loans in today’s economy is not a real solution. Personally, I come from a working class family, and my wife and I together have $100K of student debt racked up. The last thing I want to do is add on to that. Fortunately, she works, so we have two incomes, and her job provides health coverage (better than Cornell’s).

        STRIKES:
        Before CGSU would ever go on strike, it would have to be democratically approved of by its members (i.e., graduate TAs, RAs, and GRAs). This is standard protocol for most (all?) unions around the country. In fact, most unions PROHIBIT their unions from going on “wildcat strikes” without the approval of the members/leadership in question.

        CGSU AGGRESSION:
        I am uncertain what you refer to as “aggressive behavior” by our members. You state that you were asked if you planned to vote in an election and that question made you uncomfortable. I’m uncertain how that is interpreted as “aggressive” though. You state that you were not vocally judged, and then state that other students have been judged. Because I have personally done office walkthroughs to talk to graduate workers from a variety of fields, and I have NEVER heard the “vocal judging” you speak of (I myself would not allow that kind of treatment of graduate workers to go unscrutinized), I must push back against your notion that CGSU is aggressive. This is not aggression by any standards. It is vague hearsay, and a slight emotional discomfort with being asked a question about voting. I apologize if asking about the vote made you uncomfortable, but it is something we must do to be effective at organizing, and it does not qualify as aggression to the vast majority of people. People have different levels of comfort with different interactions.

        MIDDLE MAN UNION:
        This is a common myth about unions: that they are “middle men” or “third parties.” This is an untrue statement. Yes, we have national staff from AFT, the national union we democratically chose to affiliate with. However, every substantial decision is made by a democratic vote from CGSU graduate worker members, and we democratically elect all committee chairs. CGSU is not synonymous with AFT, and we retain a good deal of autonomy in our operations. We, the graduate workers, are the union. The union does not exist outside of us. We do not gain our power from an outside entity. We gain power by collectively organizing, engaging in cross-disciplinary discourse, and acting in unison with one another. When we vote in favor of having union representation, we then will get legal protections under the NLRA which adds to our power. This is something not afforded to workers acting as isolated individuals. If follows the old saying “power in numbers.” I always correct that by stating “there is actually only power in ORGANIZED numbers.”

        LOCAL VS. INSTITUTIONAL PROBLEMS:
        Cornell is one university. If there are “local” problems, that means Cornell, as an institution, is enabling or allowing the problems to occur in some way, shape, or form. The local problems are only microcosms of the whole. However, I disagree with the notion that all the problems are merely local, as you portray. The issues I’ve stated above are largely institutional, but you are absolutely right that they can be exacerbated by lower-level organizational structures.

        I appreciate the critical response, because your concerns likely reflect the concerns of other graduate workers. I also urge you to review the literature I was talking about. You still may not be in favor of unionization, but I hope you will realize it is out of philosophical principles, and not scientific ones.

        • Hi Jason,

          Thanks for your response. However, you asked for evidence for why I disagree with the union, rather than evidence that it is harmful. It seems like we also disagree on the definition of evidence. I had included some evidence that supports the advantages that Cornell offers which you generalized as anecdotal. But in fact, aren’t you doing the same with your support of benefits, etc?

          To me, evidence does not only include quantitative data (which I believe you are supporting?). Qualitative studies often use interviews to assess participant perspectives and beliefs. Those can be anecdotal but are considered as support to drive the development of research questions. Again, is this also not what the union is doing? To gather the experiences of the students as evidence to argue for the CSGU?

          Admittedly, some of my facts are collected informally from me (and other’s around me) and are not coded or statistically tested, but this is still evidence since it is a body of facts that verifies a belief or hypothesis. Yes, I have obviously included philosophical arguments as I continued to write. However, since this wasn’t a manuscript, I did not go back to the beginning sentence to alter the sentence at the beginning. Hopefully that is a forgivable offense.

          I discussed the Rogers et al. study since that often seems most cited by the union. But I wanted to clarify, I have no issues with unions. My question is whether this union should speak for all graduate students. However, thank you for the resources.

          For stipends and benefits, I’m not clear what is going happening with the union discussions since the meetings are exclusively for members. However, if you consider this, the cost of the yearly payment for the union is not that much different than paying for dental, vision health insurance (which was a talking point for the CSGU). I’m assuming the cost for the union would be at least $400 yearly. Also, I’ve been following news on campus for awhile and I haven’t heard of many sexual harassment and discrimination events (despite the one that occurred recently). However, the details surrounding that event are still unclear in the Cornell Sun article and by the CSGU. Also, for those who have to support a spouse’s health insurance, if you have evidence that Cornell’s insurance policy is worse than those policies in union supported universities that are similar to Cornell- please send my way.

          For the child grant: If families only receive one income due to only one being employed, couldn’t the partner take care of the children? I apologize if this sounds ignorant, but I don’t see the necessity of paying for long term child care if one partner is not working. Am I missing an event that I should consider? If they are actively seeking jobs, there is temporary childcare which does not require as much payment. The only situation I can consider is a single caretaker who is a graduate student, which the grant should cover. I would believe this is more of a problem if you provide the prevalence of graduate students who fall in this category who are uncovered at Cornell.

          For strikes, I knew that it had to be approved by it’s members. Who have to be present at the meeting to vote. If we apply scientific reasoning here: those who typically attend meetings tend to have more investment so self-selection bias can rear its ugly head here. Additionally, I also have no idea if this particular union has that prohibition. If you have information about this, happy to hear more about this.

          Aggression: After I voiced that I was busy with a deadline so did not have time to talk, the member continued to speak to me about the union. I apologize for not writing that within my testimony. Could you please explain to me why whether my vote would matter since I already informed the member that I was not interested in joining? Does that not sound strange? And also somewhat uncomfortable for me to invite her out of my office since I had a deadline? Though you have not heard vocal judging, other graduate students have. So please keep in mind that your experiences are not the experiences of others. Though this is probably not your intention, I feel that you are minimizing my experience and to be honest, I find it condescending. I find the apology to be a non-apology.

          I stand by the middle man statement because they are involved in the process. I understand the union does not exist outside of the graduate student body. I am bringing a philosophical argument again. I tend to think of individual relationships between the student and advisor. Due to the regulations that the union could impose, the union is the middleman in my relationship. Again, my perspective.

          I keep applying the arguments to Cornell rather than to other institutions and I still find a union to be unnecessary.

          On a research-related note: I find philosophy and science to go hand in hand. Most of our hypothesis are based on assumptions and personal logic that we aren’t even aware of at the moment. To separate the two is difficult.

          • Apologies in advance for the grammatical errors; hopefully, the main points come across despite their presence.

  7. I can well understand the contented grad students who are not prone to rocking the institutional boat. They are largely those with good advisors and those in the less-bleak fields. Bonnie for them. They, however, have little if anything to lose from unionization, while the students with less reasonable bosses have everything to gain. Jason and Colin’s links above materially support the financial and academic aspects of this claim, as does the mere existence of the At What Cost? campaign, which is nothing but blatant (look at the name as indication of the rhetoric) top-down fear mongering aimed at those who fall into neither camp and who will likely decide the election.

  8. For the record, Cornell’s IRS form 990 for FY 2009 shows David Skorton’s total compensation as $1.6 million. Also, all 15-20 hour/week assistantships provide free tuition in addition to the stipend, which hasn’t been cited in this story or comments. Finally, the $60K list-price tuition mentioned should be cut by about 50% to reflect the average scholarship/grant coverage offsetting the list price.

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