Lily Croskey-Englert / Sun Staff Photographer

November 20, 2016

ILR Profs: CGSU Fight Mirrors National Union Trend

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The turmoil of student and administrative support and resistance surrounding Cornell Graduate Students United follows general patterns of unionization in American history, according to Cornell experts.

Prof. Alexander Colvin, industrial and labor relations, and Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, provided their expertise on unionization processes.

Opposing unionization — a response that typically stems from a fear of losing control of workers — is often a reflexive response from management, particularly in America, according to Colvin and Ehrenberg.

“Why might employers not want unions?” Ehrenberg said. “It’s because they, through the collective bargaining process, may lose some freedom on how they’re running their business.”

The same is true for a university’s administration — which, much like a business, “would like to have as much freedom as it can in running the university,” Ehrenberg said.

“If a union vote passes, they are obligated to bargain with it. They would like to be able to do things that make sense just for them,” he said. “Not necessarily to do things that make sense from the graduate student’s’ perspective.”

Solicitations and Subpoenas

CGSU’s frequent solicitations of students, as the body attempts to spread information and gain the number of members it needs to put unionization to vote, have caused some concerns among the graduate community. After acquiring a subpoena that allowed the union access to graduate student contact information, union representatives have frequently visited potential members at their offices, and even homes.

These types of solicitations are “one of the biggest challenges in union-organizing drives,” according to Colvin. Because union members do not have the same workplace access as management, they are compelled to take more persistent measures.

“Unions somehow have to contact the workers. So how do they do it?” Colvin said. “They’ll often try and do things like home visits … They’ll go to bars where workers hang out — other settings like that.”

Requesting the release of workplace information, as in the subpoena, ensures a fair election under American labor laws, he added.

“Management has all that information and can directly contact all the workers,” he said. “For fairness, if there’s going to be a fair election, union members should have all that contact information.”


Colvin also noted that union communications and organization are often “built around feelings of being treated unfairly.”

“[Unions] tend to succeed more where there is that sort of justice issue,” he said.å

Union campaigns tend to focus around three central arguments: economic, voice and justice, according to Colvin.

Generally, economic arguments are more tenuous, because there is no guarantee that management will increase wages during collective bargaining. Voice and justice arguments — which say the union can more powerfully communicate grievances than individual students — are stronger because they are “not dependent on management,” he said.

Even though unions insist on their desire to give a voice to the voiceless, they often face questions about ulterior motives, especially because of the dues unions require, according to Colvin. Ehrenberg agreed that there is an economic incentive for unions to gain members, as the union strengthens and collects more dues the larger it grows.

The divides between graduate students can also dampen the effect of a union’s arguments, according to Ehrenberg.

Recalling Cornell graduate students’ failed attempt at unionization in 2002, Ehrenberg said choosing to include research assistants in the bargaining unit — the portion of graduate students employed directly by the University — reduced the probability that the union would succeed.

Research assistants add more students from STEM fields to the bargaining unit, and these students “see pots of gold for themselves as soon as they leave, because the job opportunities for the STEM fields are particularly good,” he said.

Their future job prospects typically differ from the students who comprise the teaching assistants within the bargaining unit, Ehrenberg said.

“The graduate students who were often the most forceful advocates of the union are the people in the humanities and the non-quantitative social sciences, who may not see a great future ahead of them,” he said. “So their work conditions, while they’re [at Cornell], are very important.”

A Letter from Management

Colvin explained that to suppress unionization drives, management will often issue statements that follow the lines of “standard management arguments.”

This argument includes doubts about the economic benefits a union may promise, cites past fair treatment as evidence to combat the need for unionization and points to the union as the outsider, according to Colvin.

All of these concerns were raised in Interim President Hunter Rawlings’ Oct. 27 statement denouncing the unionization initiative.

To establish the union as the outsider, management will often say groups established by management itself are a more effective voice for employees, according to Colvin. For graduate student unionization, this is the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, which Rawlings said in his statement has a “has a demonstrated record” of solving student-administration disputes.

Although groups like these have the ability to represent a larger group of employees, “employer-established bodies are more limited in effectiveness because you don’t have the ability to structure your own voice the way you want to,” Colvin said.

Management also typically claims that a union “interferes with the relationship between the workers and the managers, which is a close relationship,” according to Colvin. Rawlings claimed something similar in his statement, raising concerns about how interactions with CGSU would change the interaction between individual students and their faculty advisors.

Distinct Nature of Union Contracts

Colvin said this worry stems from a common misunderstanding of union procedures: the assumption that “all union contracts look the same — which they don’t,” he said.

In reality, union contracts follow different structures and push for different benefits. The contract negotiated during collective bargaining can be catered to the workplace, according to Colvin. While an industrial contract may ensure equal pay procedures for all workers, a contract for the NFL or Hollywood actors allows for individual bargaining.

Colvin said if he were a university president, he would negotiate a contract similar to that of the NFL, which would “set up certain rules and structures to govern that individual negotiation, but individuals still get to negotiate their own contract.”

The presence of a union may be very important in these individual relationships because “if the faculty member behaves badly in that type of relationship, then it could have tremendous adverse effects on the student,” according to Ehrenberg.

For example, faculty might attempt to keep students at Cornell “longer than what is educationally necessary,” Ehrenberg said.

“If there currently is not protection for graduate students in that situation, then hopefully one of the things that a union would do would be to try to negotiate some arrangements that do provide that protection,” he said.

University Limits Faculty Perspectives

Colvin refrained from speaking specifically about CGSU and the unionization effort at Cornell, citing personal beliefs about the role management — which includes faculty members in this situation — should have in the process.

“Generally I don’t think I should or any other person in a management position should have a role in the worker’s decision,” he said. “Any management shouldn’t be in a position of being able to communicate during organizing campaigns.”

Following these guidelines, the University’s Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Faculty sent a notice to faculty on Aug. 25, cautioning faculty members about speaking with students on CGSU.

“You can listen to graduate students if they voluntarily express their personal views or other information, and you may share your personal views, in a non-threatening, non-coercive manner,” the notice reads.

Several professors, when contacted by The Sun for their perspectives on unionization, declined to be interviewed for this reason.

  • Grad

    “The graduate students who were often the most forceful advocates of the union are the people in the humanities and the non-quantitative social sciences, who may not see a great future ahead of them.” Kind of insulting to a large portion of the graduate student body…

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      I agree with grad. I am not sure whether the “pots of gold” argument is proved, or just speculative. It seems like it might entail a little bit of mind-reading.

      I aver that the reason RAs are harder to organize is because faculty influence is higher–precisely because their relationship may be much more like that of employer-employee (in labs) with a strong dose of mentorship/aspiration, unlike a TA’s relationship with their advisor, which is usually only supervisory in regard to the dissertation and therefore would be for the most part unaffected by a contract. Ironically, that a union would benefit RAs more concretely in some ways, could also explain why they are more fearful of what might happen if they sense that their advisor isn’t supportive of the idea.

      • Grad Student

        Science RAship work is completely used towards our dissertation, and RA payment is just a scholarship of sorts that pays our living stipend. In short, STEM RA’s are likely to view themselves more as students than employees. This fine point seems to have been lost in this discussion. As an RA, I believe that my advisor and I are co-explorers, we write project, grants, and papers together. He/she might be an authority figure for me just because of his experience in the field of study (not because he is my advisor/mentor).

        Finally, most union studies do not seem to include RA’s, and the affect of unionization on RAship has not been quantified. So I dont know how we have arrived at a conclusion about it being beneficial for RA’s.

        • Grad Worker at Cornell

          “STEM RA’s are likely to view themselves more as students than employees” “co-explorers”

          The NLRB decision from a few months ago notes that the two categories are not mutually exclusive, and the work that an RA does, while it may be applicable to her research, is often directed in a manner not unlike those of a employer and employee.

          The student’s time to degree and quality of her working life often takes a far backseat to a faculty’s grant needs, sabbatical schedules, temperament, politics and the like, and the RA is in a position of relative powerlessness to alter that dynamic. This is not to say that the “co-explor[atory]” aspect isn’t there–just that there are certain factors that are undeniably more employment-like than education-like and ought to be dealt with as such.

          “He/she might be an authority figure for me just because of his experience in the field of study”

          Maybe; it’s also true that this person (much like an employer) has a tremendous amount of power over your future. Again, this is a matter of fact, not of feeling.

          “Most union studies”

          The 2013 study that is recently cited in the NLRB decision includes RAs. Further, in many STEM programs TA-ing is not an insignificant portion of funding, even when RA-ing is also available.

  • Grad Observer at Cornell

    Actually, the 2103 study that Grad Worker at Cornell refers to DID NOT include significant participation by RAs — the vast majority of respondents were TAs (and the overall response rate for the whole study was very low — 22%).

    Even the authors of the 2013 study noted the deficiency of lack of RA representation in their results, stating “the most troubling questions about the potential impact of union representation … have concerned RAs in the physical and biological sciences.”

    In addition, the authors themselves pointed out another limitation of their study, that it included only public institutions not private one, stating the “scope of bargaining is often more constrained in the public sector than in the private sector” — and thus their study should be interpreted with this limitation (i.e., the study results don’t necessarily apply to private institutions).

    And, the study included only a small set of disciplines, nowhere near the breadth we have at Cornell. Find a more complete analysis of the 2013 study here: