Graduate students say that members of CGSU frequently visit their offices, attempting to gain signatures needed for a unionization vote.

Lily Croskey-Englert / Sun Staff Photographer

Graduate students say that members of CGSU frequently visit their offices, attempting to gain signatures needed for a unionization vote.

November 13, 2016

Graduate Students: CGSU Coerces Members With ‘Emotional Blackmail’

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Graduate students say they are being harassed and “emotionally blackmailed” by members of Cornell Graduate Students United, as the group fights to gain the signatures it needs to put unionization to a vote.

According to CGSU’s code of conduct agreement with Cornell, the union must obtain authorization cards from 30 percent of the bargaining unit — which consists of students like teaching assistants, who are employed directly by the University — in accordance with guidelines provided by the National Labor Relations Board.

Critics of CGSU say representatives’ visits feel like solicitations by salesmen, as though “someone [is] trying to sell you something that you’re not really prepared or interested in at the time,” according to Juan Guzman grad.

Students said union members have frequently spoken to them at their offices and over the phone. Some, like Ruidong Chen grad, were even visited at their homes.

“I was going home and as I was going in the door, there was two people asking if you are Ruidong — because I guess they have a list of people’s pictures and names and addresses,” Chen said. “I was surprised that they’re actually going to people’s [houses], going door to door.”

Other graduate students worry that CGSU members adopt an intentionally negative tone during these in-person visits, by initiating encounters with questions such as “Do you have a problem with your advisor?”, according to Siddarth Chandrasekaran grad.

These questions are a result of the way Chandrasekaran says CGSU implies that there is a divide between students and the administration on campus.

“I think CGSU has a way of presenting their story in a way where they can potentially be polarizing the campus,” he said.

Maggie Gustafson, a member of CGSU, defended these in-person solicitations as a normal part of the unionization process, although she acknowledged that requests may feel uncomfortable to graduate students on both sides of the table.

“Organizing campaigns put people out of their comfort zone, both organizers and the people they’re trying to reach,” Gustafson said. “I think that discomfort is normal, but it doesn’t mean that the cause and the campaign aren’t good and aren’t worth it.”

Following their initial meetings with the union, some graduate students have said they feel that opposition or hesitation is not accepted by CGSU members. For Teja Bollu grad, raising concerns about the effectiveness of a union has “always been mischaracterized” by CGSU, which equates it to disdain for the welfare of fellow students.

“Characterizing the whole population who has opposition to the union as unconsidered with welfare of their fellow students and very narrowly focused on their own self-interests — I think [this] is unacceptable,” Bollu said.

He added that the process through which union members attempt to gather membership cards is an additional point of critique by graduate students has also involved what he calls “emotional blackmail.”

“The idea [is] that if you are not signing this, you don’t care enough about other students,” he said. “Just because you have it good and other people are suffering, you are selfish and that’s why you do not want it.”

When Guzman and a fellow graduate student resisted signing membership cards, the union members “were pretty forceful about asking us the reasons, the discrete reasons why we didn’t want to,” Guzman said.

Ultimately, some students said they signed membership cards so CGSU would leave them alone.

Addressing the pressure students may feel during their interactions with the union, Gustafson argued that the decision-making process comes down to the individual.

“I don’t think there’s any intent to shame people. I think there’s more of an intent to make people aware of what’s happening around them,” she said. “It’s up to individuals to decide how much of a part they would like to play or not in our approach to changing that.”

Not all graduate students share this view of their encounters with CGSU. Jordan Jochim grad said that he has “found that [CGSU and AFT members] are genuinely invested in the wellbeing of the graduate students here and are really motivated by ensuring adequate working conditions and outlets for shared governance.”

The number of graduate students who have signed membership cards is currently unknown. Because of what she referred to as “strategic” decision, Gustafson, on behalf of the union, declined to comment on the number of membership cards CGSU has collected.

Although the agreement requires this minimum amount of support, “the kind of union we’re trying to build, the kind of community we’re trying to build, we’re not going to vote at 30 percent,” Gustafson said.

She explained that CGSU will initiate the vote at a currently undetermined time, when it feels it has involved the entire community in the process and the movement “really has groundswell support.”

“A big part of our campaign is making sure that everybody has a say and has a voice and gets to participate. And we can’t do that if we can’t talk to people,” Gustafson said. “We are trying to build a community and that requires frequent and or constant outreach.”

36 thoughts on “Graduate Students: CGSU Coerces Members With ‘Emotional Blackmail’

  1. This story illustrates the importance of having the representation election by secret ballot. It won’t be necessary for those who sign cards to reach the 30% level to vote subsequently to certify the union.

    • Grad students are being repeatedly harassed in their dept offices by uninvited CGSU representatives.

      In the case of our dept, we had to directly tell them that they were unwelcome, but the point is we shouldn’t have had to do that in the first place– our academic offices are not supposed to be free-for-alls where anyone can walk in and solicit for their group, whoever it may be. At the very least, they should ask for permission before waltzing in and wandering around our desks.

      Many of us support the union, but there are more professional and less invasive ways for them to do their outreach.

  2. This is a bizarre ‘article’. The title is extremely inappropriate given the handful of quotes which feature milquetoast criticisms of the unionization campaign. Coercion? Ridiculous. And how can this story credibly claim that this is a representative opinion after talking to 4 people, one of which is an aggressive anti-union campaigner? Siddarth Chandrasekaran is one of the leading members of the anti-union group At What Cost (http://atwhatcost.org/about-us/). He is obviously biased and this fact should have been mentioned by the author.

  3. I am an active member organizer with CGSU and I have never used “emotional blackmail.” I have brought up instances in which grads have been treated with extreme indifference without any support, and would have certainly benefitted from a union to back them up. That is important information to share with people, especially given that those shared–and disturbingly common–stories from grads are what sparked the union to form in the first place.

    I thought what grads, such as those behind At What Cost (not mentioned in this article: Siddhartha is a member of that group) were looking for was information about why we need a union. If you want to call the reasons why having a union might be more protective for others than for yourself, and asking people to look outside their own privilege for a moment, “emotional blackmail,” that’s your choice. Disappointing choice. Especially since a union would benefit all grad assistants in concrete ways.

    I have had the pleasure of talking to both Teju and Sid in the past, and from what I can recall, neither of them have given any substantial reasons why we shouldn’t have a union at Cornell to protect our rights and have a real say in what dictates our conditions of labor–except that we have GPSA already (both of them are/were involved). Maybe they should read this?

    http://cornellsun.com/2016/11/09/letter-to-the-editor-on-unions-and-shared-governance/

    • I completely support the union and would like to hear your suggestions for more “professional” alternatives to lab visits, Ian. I’m sorry the above commenter had such an unpleasant experience with union organizers. As union organizers, we keep track of who is willing to talk to us at a later time, and who is disagreeable about unionizing conversations. There may be other students in your office area who want to have this discussion.

      The anti-union grad students interviewed are absolutely not representative of the grad student population. They are all male and I believe all from STEM fields. I’m a woman in a STEM field and believe you me, there are problems across graduate programs. If we unionize, we can democratically solve them.

      Please don’t use the word harassment lightly. It’s a serious accusation.

      • While the goals are commendable, I completely disagree with the union’s tactics and I won’t hesitate to call it harassment based on my experience + the stories I heard…

  4. I have never heard of or experienced an encounter initiated by a union member as less than pushy. They ask you if you support the union, they start ranting about how students don’t support other graduate students. Or, if you say you don’t have time for a discussion they get even more pushy and repeatedly hassle until they get their way.

    I know plenty of graduate students who wanted to learn about the union, visited the union website, and asked any other unanswered questions through email or setting up a meeting. These meetings have always been 100% positive from what I have heard and experienced.

    The fact of the matter is that springing a load of information on graduate students when they are not expecting does not facilitate a pleasant encounter. If people want to learn more, they will seek out the union.

  5. I am so glad to see this topic being addressed. I often feel like I cannot verbalize my true feelings about the union, as there is this ridiculous idea that if you are anti-CGSU you are anti-graduate students. I think there are many graduate students who are too nervous to truly express the fact that they are anti-CGSU, and thus have remained silent. After this article was published, I have been part of conversations where other graduate students have expressed the same sentiment. The reality of the situation is that many graduate students ARE getting frustrated with CGSU. They’re tired of union organizers showing up in their work spaces, pressuring them to verbalize their stance on the issue, and pissed as hell that they’re showing up at their homes.

    As someone who is pro-union but anti-CGSU, I wish another group would form as an alternate choice for grad student unionization.

    Also, on a side note, the At What Cost organizers are not all males. Also, the people listed on their website are only those who are putting together articles and pulling information. There are quite a few graduate students signed up to their list-serv who are not represented on that page. At What Cost & anti-CGSU grad students are some tiny little minority of graduate students. They’re a solid chunk of students, and, as CGSU keeps bothering graduate students, their numbers will only grow.

  6. Glad to have someone actually brought up this concern about CGSU! As a PhD student, I have heard stories of friends getting a surprise visit from CGSU representative with a typically very negative experience. While most people have been a bit hesitant about saying it out loud, the push from CGSU can be characterized as harassment – they will force you to explain your reasoning, lie about the fine details behind joining the union, and push you to sign the card. Don’t give Cornell graduate students a bad name!

  7. Cornell Sun – please can you show us both sides of this issue? This reporting feels like the election campaign all over again: Sensationalist headlines, inflammatory, one sided and inaccurate. I have never received any visits from union members or unsolicited emails. However, I have received four emails in just the last few days from a group called “At What Cost” . I DID NOT sign up to receive emails from this group. It is annoying and an invasion of privacy. This group is spreading a lot of claims about how bad the union will be, and I have not seen any responses from the union addressing these claims. Please Cornell Sun – can you please, for the sake of balanced information and good reporting, please give us a double page spread feature where you have the ‘at what cost’ group lay out their complaints that they have been sending around to grad students (you obviously already know their leader as he was your main source of information for your article above) and then a second page where the union explains their point of view (point by point to each claim). I really do want to have accurate information so I can make an informed choice. This kind of sensationalist reporting does not help us at all.

  8. The CGSU has visited my home a total of 4 times. I can definitely understand why some students feel that they were forced into signing. The representatives that I spoke to tended to frame the argument in a way that made decision seem trivial. Aside from the solicitations, there are several problems with this whole thing. My biggest problem with it is that I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why it is needed, and even if it was needed, how it would fix the problem.

    The most common argument (that I have heard) is that students in certain fields are not being paid enough. I encourage every grad student to consider how much they would be paid elsewhere as a grad student. On average, Cornell is very competitive in terms of compensation. There also seems to be undertones signaling that this union, if approved, would push for equal pay across the disciplines. The notion of equal pay for equal work is great, and something that in a perfect world we all should hope would come true. Unfortunately we live in a capitalist society in which economic forces determine pay. In order for Cornell to be competitive, they need to enroll the best students. In order to enroll the best students across all disciplines, they need to offer competitive pay packages to prospective students across all disciplines. Equalizing pay across fields seems incompatible with Cornell maintaining its competitive edge. Also consider the deliberation that would be required not only between Cornell and the union, but between each of the respective colleges; it seems like it would create quite a bit of internal conflict, none of which would be constructive to Cornell as a whole.

    The second argument that I have heard is complaints about healthcare costs, especially for those students with dependents. Having worked in industry in the past, I can tell you that ~$2500/year/dependent is par for the course. Healthcare costs is a systemic problem in this country and not specific to grad students at Cornell, so the argument that Cornell should shield its graduate population from that reality makes no sense.

    The third argument that I hear is a very general one: Cornell students are “workers” and should be treated as such. This is true, Cornell students are workers and deserve to be protected with basic rights such as workplace safety and full coverage in the case of on-the-job injuries. There has been anecdotes about graduate students being injured on the job and being denied coverage because the insurance company did not recognize them as Cornell employees. My argument here isn’t that Cornell shouldn’t fight hand-in-hand with its students in cases where a insurance company denies coverage, it is that a labor union isn’t the solution to isolated problems such as this one.

    Along a similar vein, a fourth argument that I have heard is that grad students should either be paid hourly (where minimum wage applies) or salaried (where a minimum salary would be enforced). People seem to be missing the point here. In the context of a graduate education, cash compensation isn’t the yardstick by which economic gain should be measured. Graduate school, first and foremost, is an apprenticeship, and with it comes access to way more opportunity than we would have had otherwise. The purpose of minimum wage is to ensure that the people with low socioeconomic status/mobility aren’t being taken advantage of, not to enable a bunch of ivy leaguers to make a few extra bucks during their studies.

    I may have trivialized some of these arguments, and if so I apologize for that. If that is the case, though, it means that the proponents of this union are effectively conveying the problem, nor how a union would fix it.

    Parting thought. If we do choose to unionize, it is important to realize the impact that this will have on future generations of grad students. Namely, they will not have a choice. No matter which side you take on this matter, I think it is important that every graduate student get out and vote when the time comes so that should the union be enacted, it is done so with the full voice of the grad population.

    • Hello Fellow Grad,

      I hope I am not bothering you with additional contact from union people, but I would like to clarify a couple of things you mentioned.

      CGSU does Not plan to push for equal pay across the disciplines. As you mentioned, the difference between compensations across fields is in the first place way out of our hands, and is related, for example, to how much NSF allocates funds to different fields of research. So this is not on the agenda. I would like to also emphasize here that “our agenda” is dictated by grads — we Are grads and we are organizing to improve our collective working conditions, and the conversations we have with grads across campus aim to update and inform the goals we set out for ourselves in any future negotiations with the administration.

      With regards to pay more generally, there a couple of issues. The increase does not always follows cost of living adjustments, and there has been instances where grads have seen decreases in their payments. There are also cases, especially in humanities, in which the university does not fulfill its promise to fund a grad as long as they make satisfactory academic progress (as promised in the admission letter), and it’s left up to the grads to find funding on their own.

      Also, denying of coverage for grads injured on the job was not just an issue of Cornell not fighting hand-in-hand with us against the insurance companies. Rather, at the time, the Administration argued that we are Not eligible for workers’ compensation, because we are not employees. The pushback was from the administration first. We were granted workers’ compensation only after such case became widely publicized.
      Having a union would make issues such as guaranteeing a pay increase that at least follows cost of living adjustments, and clarifying and implementing policies of workers’ comp, maternity leave, vacation, etc. these issues would be included in a legally-binding contract.

      All the best

  9. I feel bad for any student who has been, or currently is being, mistreated by the university. In the case of the injury, it sounds like Cornell finally did the right thing despite the questionable circumstances under which it was (apparently) forced to do so. As for unjust cessation of funding, it sounds like that might even be a legal matter depending on the terms and conditions of our contracts with Cornell. It is unquestionable that Cornell (as an entity) has power to make unilateral decisions that might not be in the interest of individual students under certain circumstances. There seems to be a few examples of this.

    With that said, my observation is that the graduate population is having a hard time reconciling these (seemingly isolated) examples, in which Cornell has wielded its power unjustly, with their own graduate experience and with the experiences of their peers. That is based on my interaction with (mostly) opponents of the union, and even some proponents who admit that they don’t feel as though Cornell has mistreated them but generally support the union because it gives us bargaining power. Without making a blanket statement, I’ll just say that nearly everyone that I have spoken to about this issue (1) doesn’t think that a union will make their graduate experience better, (2) doesn’t want to pay dues to the union, and (3) would opt out of the union if given the option. This might just be a reflection of the bias in my particular social circle, but I honestly don’t think that is the case.

    Again, most important thing here is that everyone votes!

    • Glad that your experience at Cornell, and that of your social circle, has been good! Of course that’s the goal. Many of us (including me) have also had good experiences at Cornell, but we also think that there is plenty of room for improvement. For example, it seems unreasonable (to me at least) in principle to have in, a democratic institution, such a power differential between the grads and the administration (which you correctly referred to as the the administration’s power to make important decisions unilaterally). And not all the issues we mentioned are isolated examples, such as issues of pay or health insurance. Of course, we also want a system that doesn’t let anyone “slip through the cracks” , and I don’t think the current system — that doesn’t have a legal body on the grads’ side — can do that. I think it’s also worth mentioning that some issues only come to light when we actually talk to grads. They don’t bring them forth to the administration, because –the way things are– they feel that they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.

      Having talked to many grads myself, I humbly contest the conclusion that your observation (of grads unable to reconcile Cornell’s instances of unjust wielding of power with their experiences or the experiences of their peers) extends to the “graduate population”.

      I echo your point strongly that everyone should voice their opinion and vote!

      • I respect your opinion. My goal in taking time to voice my opinion was to offer perspective on some of the issues that people are having with the CGSU and it’s practices. While this article is definitely one-sided, I don’t believe that it should come as a surprise. It’s based on actual events that happened, and in my experience, it reflects much of the negative sentiment pertaining to the CGSU. You can disagree with me on which of our opinions is more aligned with the overall graduate population, but the fact that an article like this was even published is a strong indication that many people not only oppose the union, but feel slighted by some of the CGSU’s practices.
        Respectfully

    • I have talked to many grads, as well, on both sides of the issue, and the reason that you list are ones that are typical of the anti- side. In fact, in a meeting with an administrator resulted in her asking me, “What do you think is going to CHANGE?” She, too, was invested in convincing me that a union was just a waste of money and passion. (Why would this be so?)

      Of course, I had already made up my mind. What I want to change is the way that graduate students are currently completely on their own, as far as legal and economic help goes, when facing an administrative apparatus that is designed to favor the most powerful parties and minimize the needs of the lowest-paid academic workers on campus, while all the time expecting them to do more with less as Ithaca prices are skyrocketing. With a union, grads can demand fair compensation and protection, instead of just praying nothing bad happens to them.

      Whether it be the grad who had to teach three sections the semester before she was due to graduate; the dozens of grad families who can’t afford childcare while they teach; the RA thrown out of her program because of the incompetence of her supervisor; the lab assistant who was told to try to switch labs instead of filing a grievance against her sexual harasser (and she was able to, against all odds); the grads in the lab where they understand to leave town before announcing they are on vacation or they won’t be able to go at all; the grads who were told by admin that “they weren’t supposed to find out” that they were being paid a wildly divergent amount for the same exact position; the students whose jobs require them to be in-field outside, but their summer funding is a yearly crapshoot; EVERYONE who has the utterly inadequate dental plan; international students whose statuses are threatened if they dare to breathe a word of complaint against their advisor…

      Those may not be your problems, exactly, but they aren’t isolated. And they aren’t even getting into the most mundane of difficulties–like when we get our TA assignments or whether we have a sick leave policy, even class sizes and grading loads–that we just think are the ways things are, but can in fact be brought to the bargaining table. Contract provisions–decided on and voted on by union members–provide guaranteed, workable policies as well as improvements in the material lives of grads. What we have now is whatever bottom line the University decides on. This doesn’t mean that everything is going to become standardized, it means that WE get to decide a new bottom line.

      • Yes! This:

        “Whether it be the grad who had to teach three sections the semester before she was due to graduate; the dozens of grad families who can’t afford childcare while they teach; the RA thrown out of her program because of the incompetence of her supervisor; the lab assistant who was told to try to switch labs instead of filing a grievance against her sexual harasser (and she was able to, against all odds); the grads in the lab where they understand to leave town before announcing they are on vacation or they won’t be able to go at all; the grads who were told by admin that “they weren’t supposed to find out” that they were being paid a wildly divergent amount for the same exact position; the students whose jobs require them to be in-field outside, but their summer funding is a yearly crapshoot; EVERYONE who has the utterly inadequate dental plan; international students whose statuses are threatened if they dare to breathe a word of complaint against their advisor…

        Those may not be your problems, exactly, but they aren’t isolated. And they aren’t even getting into the most mundane of difficulties–like when we get our TA assignments or whether we have a sick leave policy, even class sizes and grading loads–that we just think are the ways things are, but can in fact be brought to the bargaining table. Contract provisions–decided on and voted on by union members–provide guaranteed, workable policies as well as improvements in the material lives of grads. What we have now is whatever bottom line the University decides on. This doesn’t mean that everything is going to become standardized, it means that WE get to decide a new bottom line.”

        • The point I would make here is that (for me) the decision isn’t about these issues fundamentally, it is about how you go about handling them. In my mind, the formation of a union to obtain legal power to force the university to do anything is distasteful. It is by definition an adversarial relationship, which I am very uncomfortable with (and I believe actually makes results more difficult to achieve).

          I would absolutely and gladly go stand with other graduate students and talk through these problems with the university in other circumstances, because the university would undoubtedly be better as a result of addressing them. However, the mechanism by which this would be accomplished through the union is what I am not comfortable with. I would much rather achieve our goals through a positive and healthy relationship with the university than a fundamentally adversarial one, where we apply legal pressure simply because there are a large number of us.

          I am sure that the university would wish to work through these issues too, outside of the context of union negotiations. This would build their reputation as a compassionate school, which could factor into the decisions of future prospective students. If, when deciding which grad school to attend, I knew I was coming into an environment with a caring school that does all that it can to help students, not because they are forced to, but because they believe it is the right thing to do, it would likely have weighed into my decision.

          Before the union came to campus and sought out stories of students having difficulties, and made them more publicly known, I had not heard of more than the most dramatic of these issues. It is very possible Cornell’s administration was not aware either, as the union has stated. Now that these issues are more well known, would it not be possible to discuss them with Cornell and see if “peaceful” resolutions can be achieved, before we take more drastic measures (go to war)? I would say it is absolutely worth the try, before we decide to do something that is essentially permanent (I asked a union representative if future generations of students could vote to dissolve the union, and she said she believed they could vote to unaffiliate with the AFT, but that this “never happens”). If we start working on these issues (possibly through the existing GPSA, which I know very little about) it may be possible that the union did help graduate students and Cornell, without even being established!

          I am always thinking: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (wouldn’t you rather people talk to you honestly about their problems than immediately seek legal action to force you to change things?)! This applies to everyone. For my fellow graduate students, and for the administration at Cornell. I give them the benefit of the doubt, and would much rather work through issues in a friendly manner.

        • This is a comment on the comment by M, in reply to his naive belief that problems can be solved through magical friendliness.

          The real issue here is precisely the balance of power and the fact that it currently favors keeping things under-addressed and off the record. When a grad has a serious issue, they are often afraid to push it–because of fear of retaliation, because they don’t know how, because the grievance policies seem too onerous, or because they’ve heard enough stories about how, if you organize to go through the process with administrators, grads are repeatedly discouraged from going through with it. An administrator will literally refuse to look at email evidence of harassment when it lies on their desk, as the grad sits there and asks for their help in dealing with a problem that could mean whether they stay or leave Cornell. It certainly isn’t a matter of friendliness.

          To clarify, administrators told GRADS that they (the grads) weren’t supposed to have found out about the pay disparity! Administrators of course know; they are the ones making these (often nearly arbitrary) decisions. Not even the faculty know about this stuff half the time.

          A grievance policy isn’t *legal* action, like in a court. We supposedly have a grievance policy now–one that the first grad in NINETEEN years successfully received a recent hearing from–after seeking aid from the union–and should be receiving back the Provost’s decision any time now. Actually, right now, a grad often only has an individual lawsuit available to them to receive justice, at the extreme end, because the grievance policy is so broken. A lawsuit is a process that no one wants to go through, obviously.

          With a union, together we could shape university policies to shift the balance of power, so that grads can receive a just hearing and resolution more often than they currently do, if they even need to take that route in the first place. What a union can provide is both the raised policy standards that will prevent abuses that would require action, as well as get timely and worthwhile engagement when abuses do occur.

          • See- the first sentence of this comment by Grad Worker is condescending, especially with the use of “naive” and “magical friendliness”. We’re all adults here. Would you use these terms when discussing research with a colleague? If so, then I strongly suggest you alter your language because there’s a distinct lack of respect with your tone.

            Maybe if I were to say, “This is a comment on the comment by Grad Worker, in reply to his jaded belief that problems can only resolved with the magic waving of hands by the union “, you’d understand.

            Why not frame it as, “… in reply to his comments regarding the administrative and student relationship”? I mean, doesn’t that get the point across? Instead, the CGSU workers are saying they are not being condescending and then BEING condescending. Just because I say I exercise every day doesn’t make it true.

            We also still have NO EVIDENCE that the graduate student who filed a grievance policy fulfilled or did not fulfill her professional responsibilities. Maybe if you begin providing support that she did, more would be inclined to believe her. Right now, we’re taking the word of people close to her and we’re nothing if not a skeptical breed of people, especially in the research field.

            I am also being less than respectful because I’m hoping that if I were to speak like this, maybe it would finally permeate.

  10. I know it has been pointed out that only a few people’s comments were included in the article, but I have to say, I related very strongly to what was being said as I read it. The experiences I have had with the union representatives (and grad students they bring with them) have been very similar to what the article describes. I have been visited three times unannounced, and have tried to voice my concerns, only to have them downplayed or made to seem unimportant compared to the greater issue of caring for my fellow grad student “workers” (which the union representatives automatically assume is only possible through allowing a union affiliated with a larger nationwide union onto our campus).

    The answers given to questions I asked, which I believe are very valid and need to be addressed, were generally answered in a generic (uninformed) manner, or dismissed as much less important than compassion for the multitude of other grad students who have it far worse than I do. After each visit, the representative will write some notes about our conversation, and it may be a coincidence, but the last time I was visited the pair knew exactly who they were looking for (me), and tried a much more aggressive (uncomfortably so) approach and attitude, directly attempting to make my feel guilty for caring about the issues I was trying to discuss (dues and finances, how much influence the AFT will have on campus, etc.), and even acting a little intimidating (I also feel that I need to mention for the sake of describing the tone they were setting, that at one point something about “white privilege” was even muttered, and I have no idea how that was supposed contribute positively to the conversation). To be fair though, the first two pairs tried a much softer approach, while still (in a much milder manner) attempting to downplay the significance of any issues besides consideration for fellow students and the need to have a say in how our university is run.

    My last conversation with them ended with me saying, “Well, I’m sure my opinions don’t matter, because you will get enough votes to win anyway”. The representative simply responded with something along the lines of “Yep, that’s right” (with attitude), and left.

    One thing the article mentioned not knowing though, which I was told during my last visit, was that the number of cards the union had signed. During my last visit (at least a few weeks ago) I was told the union had 50 percent of grad students signatures on cards, but that it was specifically waiting for what she called a “supermajority,” signatures of 65% of students, before they call the vote, to ensure they win.

    Finally, I absolutely agree with what Alice said about writing a full article about the issues at stake, on both sides. If some of the claims from both sides could be verified (and sources posted), that would also be very helpful. Receiving information directly from either source, I can’t trust what I hear. An unbiased description about the definite changes for every student affected (dues, etc.), the potential benefits of the union, and the potential negatives of unionizing, would very useful to a lot of people.

  11. I’m a graduate student, and my stance at the moment is anti-union. I agree with Alice that the Cornell Sun should show both sides of the issue, but weighted, in the sense that context and relative weights are given. To elaborate on what I mean by this, and using a non-election example ; one can easily write essays for and against vaccination (or global warming) to be ‘balanced’. But one side has proportionately more weight than the other.

    In any case, I’ll list down why I think the union might not be a good idea, and what I would like to see before I’m convinced to shift my stance – I think one can’t be fairer than this.

    1. (generic) claims have been given on both sides. I would like to see evidence that the union will make a difference – for a university like Cornell. I do not want to see evidence that says: “On average, unions will …..”. I want to see evidence that focuses on how the union benefits grad students in research universities like Cornell.

    I don’t like how the union is presenting their claims, only because I can make a similar analogy, which goes like this. Several low performing colleges hire TAs that don’t give a shit. Students resort to tutors, and you can see that their grades increases. Ergo, tutoring is better than TAs. A group that advocates tutoring over TAs claims: “Tutoring is always better than TAs, let’s fire the TAs”, and comes to Cornell. Grad students in Cornell who do give a shit and give exemplary tutoring are annoyed.

    Show me evidence that a union is beneficial for a university like Cornell, rather than evidence that a union is beneficial “on average”, and I’ll shift my stance slightly towards pro-union.

    2. We have a GPSA. Now, I agree that *legally*, the GPSA has no bargaining power. And *legally*, Cornell could tell the GPSA to sod off. But you know what? We have something called social media now. Do you honestly think Cornell can get away with anything unfair to grad students, when a post can destroy Cornell’s reputation?

    But even if there’s no social media, does anyone honestly think the union can get all of its requests satisfied from Cornell? There has to be compromise at times.

    I’m reminded between a person saying: “We should get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something else”, and then deciding: “We’ll keep the popular part of Obamacare but tweak the rest.” I also remember another person saying: “Obamacare has flaws, but we should keep the good part of it and improve the rest.” I suppose people who elected the former hoping to get Obamacare repealed might be a bit unhappy.

    Is the GPSA weak? It’s only as strong as the students that make up the GPSA. And I suspect, the same holds for the union (unless we have non Cornell students being part of the union – and I think that would be ridiculous).

    Show me evidence that a union can keep all its promises without resorting to any compromise (else we have a GPSA that does the same) and I’ll shift my stance slightly towards pro-union.

    I’ve actually given this argument before, and was told: “Realistically, the union can’t expect to keep all its promises to students.” You can see why I’m *very* uncomfortable with this, even more so after the US election.

    3. A voice in the union. You get a voice in the GPSA, even if you are not a voting member. It’s free.

    If we have a union, you have to pay extra and above the union dues to have a voice.

    Show me evidence that I will still have a voice to influence what happens in Cornell, *even without becoming a union member* and I’ll shift my stance slightly towards pro-union.

    4. I’ll quote Alice here: ” I DID NOT sign up to receive emails from this group. It is annoying and an invasion of privacy.” She’s talking about the group At What Cost. Let me modify her sentence. “I DID NOT sign up to have the union people coming to my office persuading me to join the union, nor for them finding me at where I live.” Spam can be sent to junk mail. People can’t be sent to the recycling dump.

    Disclaimer: I’m not part of this group, and I suspect my reasons for being anti-union are slightly different from theirs. But I appreciate being told both sides of the argument, were I a neutral party.

    To go on, there seems to be a movement to actually suppress the voices of those anti-union, and it’s not limited to Cornell. For example, some undergraduates seemed to have jumped on the bandwagon (look at Overheard at Cornell for example), and they remind me of comments / voices on alt-right media (surprisingly) – working on rhetoric and name calling instead of evidence. Another example: This happened at Harvard (who is also experiencing something similar) – https://www.facebook.com/againsthgsu/posts/220554901683402?pnref=story

    And well – it might be the rebel in me, but the more I see such type of things happening, I will fight more against the union. Motivation: If people can’t be civil when facts are stated politely, then the other side probably doesn’t have facts that stand up to scrutiny.

    PS. I’m keeping my union card instead of returning it – and I strongly encourage all of you who are anti-union to do so, because this guarantees us a vote. It would be unfortunate if – as mentioned above – the union people badgered others at their offices and homes just to get people to sign a card ; and further badger them to vote yes for a union.

    • The union can’t call the vote without a certain number of signed cards though, so a large number of people keeping it might allow them to hold the vote (which at least allows the possibility that they would win), where otherwise it might not even be able to take place. You are guaranteed a vote when (and if) it happens, regardless of whether you have a card signed.

    • To the best of our knowledge, CGSU has about 1300 signed membership cards out of an eligible voting population of about 2400 students. This puts them well over the 30% required to hold a vote. Even though over 50% of the voting population has signed these cards, this does not guarantee that everyone that has signed a card will vote “Yes” for the union, as pointed out above. As students become educated on the issues related to the unionization of Cornell specifically, it seems that common sentiment is shifting. It is not a bad idea to keep your card, attend the next general assembly meeting, and voice your concerns. It sounds like the vote will be postponed to the spring semester as the union argument is no longer one-sided. Interact with your graduate student peers, ask specific questions to union employees. At What Cost does not have an unlimited budget, nor does it have any paid staff going door to door to convey a one-sided argument. At What Cost’s mission is to promote union discussions, using the resources they have available. They are pinned as anti-union by CGSU, because At What Cost is forced by CGSU to promote the opposite side of their one-sided argument. We as graduate students have the ability to voice our concerns to the Cornell administration without the intervention of a non-academic third party. If you have an issue, make it known!

      Also, we should not hide behind the veil of the internet. I know that CGSU members, AFT staff, and graduate students are voicing their concerns in this thread. My name is Mark Obstalecki. I’m a graduate student at Cornell and member of At What Cost. Nice to meet all of you! 🙂

      • Thank you for raising these issues. I am a grad student and plan on voting “yes” in a recognition election when it comes in large part because I am convinced of the quality of CGSU’s responses to the questions you bring up.

        I want to start with your third point, *having to pay extra dues to have a voice in the union*, because it is a misconception that I came across on At What Cost’s website and can be dismissed pretty easily. CGSU’s constitution (https://cornellgsu.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/cgsu-constitution-as-of-8-11-16.pdf Article VI C(1)) explicitly states that, “All CGSU members may participate in general meetings, run for elected office, vote in all elections and referenda, and join committees and working groups.” To my mind, this is one of the strongest sections of a pretty iron clad constitution in terms of protecting member rights and representation within the union itself.

        Now, you might argue that the dues structure hasn’t been determined yet and that anything can happen once those discussions happen (which will only occur after graduate students negotiate a first contract with Cornell). That seems like a bogus hypothetical to me that goes against not only the spirit of the values enshrined in CGSU’s constitution, but also against the tenor of the conversations I have been having with friends and colleagues who are active in the union and serve on one or several of its committees.

        To your first point, I think it is a valid one and something that needs to be firmly addressed. Instead of making general claims about what a union can do, union organizers should be making a point of showing us concrete examples of what real graduate student unions at other universities have in actuality already accomplished. Graduate students at research universities such as Michigan and Wisconsin have been unionized for decades. The entire University of California system is covered by collective bargaining in which graduate students have negotiated and won things such as nondiscrimination regarding immigrant status in addition to more generous childcare subsidies and early posting of appointment opportunities. At Michigan, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) has secured summer stipend guarantees for students holding positions for consecutive fall and spring terms. In nearly every case, graduate student unions have worked with university administration to craft grievance procedures that provide basic employment protections to graduate student workers. This is a useful website. http://www.thecgeu.org

        I am actually pretty skeptical about your unbridled faith in the power of social media to hold Cornell accountable in the event that a graduate student is treated in a discriminatory or unfair manner. While social media is certainly an important tool for spreading information and can be used to mobilize people when injustice is being done, it is an altogether simplistic view of how society works to say that “a post can destroy Cornell’s reputation.” Social media is no substitute for the painstaking work of organizing. One of the primary reasons why people were so shocked about the presidential election results as I see it is because of an overreliance on social media and being so isolated within personal circles online so as to lose touch in a way with the voices of people outside these insulated spaces.

        That’s to say that, yes, we have a GPSA. It does extremely important and valuable work. But we don’t have a legally binding voice in the decisions that affect our lives as graduate student workers. That’s what a union can provide.

        Finally, I can sympathize with your feelings about not wanting to be bothered in your office when you are trying to get work done. But I hope that you will understand and excuse union organizers for being passionate in their belief that they are doing something positive for the Cornell community.

      • I don’t think you need to enforce a policy of transparency on CGSU members, Mark. If your own numbers are correct, more than half of grads at Cornell are members of CGSU so if something says “grad” it’s more likely than not they are a member of CGSU. They are under no obligation to reveal themselves to you, but I believe one can tell from their posts that they are either members or are in favor of having a union. That’s what matters.

        However, your group is headed by a self-selected cadre of four including you (CGSU officers are democratically elected), so I would question whether you could call what you’ve got going on a membership-based organization, but rather a strangely motivated clutch of grad meanies, who may or may not be under the creepy guidance of an anti-union faculty meanie, who may or may not be the chair of Chemistry, and has a very cranky Twitter account.

        So, the more you’d like to be honest about how truly “un-veiled” your organization is, the more everyone would love to hear it!

        • As mentioned elsewhere in the comments, the website only lists 4 members as heads because the majority of people do not want to be recognized as At What Cost members due to reasons brought up in this article.

          • Lara, I’d be happy to meet and chat, since you are already being publicly “accused” of being an At What Cost member. My netID is mo362. Feel free to reach out if you so choose.

          • Wait, I don’t get it, what does being accused have to do with talking to you? No offense but I am confused.

            Also, in reply to the person that said I was in AWC (I am too lazy to look up at the comments), I just get their emails like the rest of the grad students have who haven’t unsubscribed. I’m not a member of either AWC or CGSU.

          • Excuse the double post, but after rereading the comment I believe it was just meant that if I didn’t want to talk to union members just tell them I’m in AWC and they’ll give up immediately. I don’t think the intention was to accuse me of anything.

        • Responses like these (on either side) delegitimize the real arguments being made here. Please don’t continue to pollute the real issues being discussed here with your twitter sentiment analysis.

          • In his comment, Mark shifted the stakes to “the veil of the internet,” and one of the main anti-union arguments promoted by AWC is around some fear that the union isn’t being clear or revealing enough about various items of concern. It is also one of the arguments made in above comments. Where conversations go, you can’t know.

            I am personally concerned, though expressed in a lighthearted fashion, about the very real possibility of faculty coercion among grads. Thankfully, most faculty are reasonable people, respect grads’ agency, and abide by the rules.

            I have had long conversations with my colleagues about, for instance, why the union decided to affiliate with AFT instead of another union or remain independent, how dues actually work, and various other things, and have referred well-intentioned people to resources that further explain. If it becomes clear that no answer I give matters, because the person is simply anti-union, I respectfully leave them alone. Lara, just say you are in At What Cost and it will save you some trouble.

            The fact is that At What Cost is inventing obscurity concerns where little exist, except that which is inherent in the unknowability of the future (eg, exactly how much dues are going to cost, which is largely a democratic decision for grads to make along with the contract). To support their arguments, anti-union folks throw out decontextualized figures, write alarmist emails, and bandy meaningless hot-button terms like “emotional blackmail.” It is perfectly common.

            A grad above complained about the email (see “Alice”). At What Cost’s tactics, and their real motivations, are just as up for debate as those supposedly conducted by CGSU, I think.

      • Just wondering: how is AFT “non-academic”? If you mean, independent from Cornell, and not exclusively representative of university academics, then OK. But it’s a bit of a narrow definition.

        Randi Weingarten, the current president of AFT, has a JD and has taught courses at my law school (as well as being a teacher in a high school).

        AFT is affiliated with grad and faculty unions across the country, and has been for decades.

        University of Michigan grads have been affiliated with AFT since the 70s.

        When Albert Einstein taught at Princeton, he belonged to AFT (founded his local chapter actually).

        Ralph Bunche, a professor and activist in the Civil Rights Movement (as well as a Nobel Peace Prize winner), was an AFT member.

        That’s all I have time for as far as lists go, but you might also be interested in reading this letter from the extremely academic American Association of University Professors in support of the grad unionization efforts here at Cornell:

        https://www.aaup.org/news/support-cornell-grad-employees#.WC49LOErLsk

  12. Thank you for raising these issues. I am a grad student and plan on voting “yes” in a recognition election when it comes, in large part because I am convinced of the quality of CGSU’s responses to the questions you bring up.

    I want to start with your third point, *having to pay extra dues to have a voice in the union*, because it is a misconception that I came across on At What Cost’s website and can be dismissed pretty easily. CGSU’s constitution (https://cornellgsu.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/cgsu-constitution-as-of-8-11-16.pdf see VI C(1)) explicitly states that, “All CGSU members may participate in general meetings, run for elected office, vote in all elections and referenda, and join committees and working groups.” To my mind, this is one of the strongest sections of a pretty iron clad constitution in terms of protecting member rights and representation within the union itself.

    Now, you might argue that the dues structure hasn’t been determined yet and that anything can happen once those discussions happen (which will only occur after graduate students negotiate a first contract with Cornell). That seems like a bogus hypothetical to me that goes against not only the spirit of the values enshrined in CGSU’s constitution, but also against the tenor of the conversations I have been having with friends and colleagues who are active in the union and serve on one or several of its committees.

    To your first point, I think it is a valid one and something that needs to be firmly addressed. Instead of making general claims about what a union can do, union organizers should be pointing to concrete examples of what real graduate student unions at other universities have in actuality already accomplished. Here is a bit of what I have gathered. Graduate students at research universities such as Michigan and Wisconsin have been unionized for decades. The entire University of California system is covered by collective bargaining in which graduate students have negotiated and won things such as nondiscrimination regarding immigrant status in addition to more generous childcare subsidies and early posting of appointment opportunities. At Michigan, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) has secured summer stipend guarantees for students holding positions for consecutive fall and spring terms. In nearly every case, graduate student unions have worked with university administration to craft grievance procedures that provide basic employment protections to graduate student workers. This is a useful website. http://www.thecgeu.org

    I am actually pretty skeptical about your unbridled faith in the power of social media to hold Cornell accountable in the event that a graduate student is treated in a discriminatory or unfair manner. While social media is certainly an important tool for spreading information and can be used to mobilize people when injustice is being done, it is an altogether simplistic view of how society works to say that “a post can destroy Cornell’s reputation.” Social media is no substitute for the painstaking work of organizing. One of the primary reasons why people were so shocked about the presidential election results as I see it is because of an overreliance on social media and being so isolated within personal circles online so as to lose touch in a way with the voices of people outside these insulated spaces.

    That’s to say that, yes, we have a GPSA. It does extremely important and valuable work. But we don’t have a legally binding voice in the decisions that affect our lives as graduate student workers. That’s what a union can provide.

    Finally, I can sympathize with your feelings about not wanting to be bothered in your office when you are trying to get work done. But I hope that you will understand and excuse union organizers for being passionate in their belief that they are doing something positive for the Cornell community.

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