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March 20, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Administrative interference and the union

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To the Editor:

We are Cornell graduate students concerned with the way some Cornell administrators have conducted themselves during the grad unionization campaign. In our view, administrators have undercut the election agreement between CGSU and Cornell, and have even subverted their own policies to boost explicitly anti-union messages. We are also disturbed that the “Ask a Dean” forum seems little more than a way to disseminate anti-union propaganda and pit graduate students against one another.

The university and CGSU agreed in May that there would be one formal statement “setting forth the University’s official position” from Cornell; that lengthy statement, from President Rawlings, was issued in the fall. The agreement also permits certain administrators to “communicate the University’s official position (collectively ‘the issues’),” while refraining from using such communications to coerce grads. Accordingly, our expectations were that university officials would leave the choice on whether to unionize up to us, honoring the guidelines set out and agreed to last spring.

In the fall, grads began to receive unsolicited emails from the anti-union group At What Cost? using a “cornell.edu” listserv. According to the university’s IT policy, e-lists should only be used in support of “instruction, research, outreach, administration or other recognized university activities.” We do not believe that this group fits these criteria, and according to email inquiries from grads, AWC thought the same. Given its focus, AWC did not expect a cornell.edu listserv, but nonetheless received one from administrators, seemingly by surprise.

To be clear, this is not an attack on At What Cost. Any group has the right to find legitimate, effective ways to reach out with their message. But the university should not support unsolicited anti-union messaging on its official channels. We, and several other colleagues, independently filed complaints about this. To ameliorate the violation, we later proposed that Cornell could simply ask AWC to send a message with its next email, requiring people to reply “STAY” to continue receiving their communications. In its refusal of our request, Cornell framed cornell.edu spam as “bad manners” and told us that we could just unsubscribe.

We find this recommendation unsatisfactory. (At this time, AWC’s emails no longer have a link to “unsubscribe.”) The university is here, as in so many instances, the sole arbiter of its own policies, leaving little recourse for those affected by the breaching of them. Such unilateral, self-serving judgments are precisely why a union is essential for grads to advocate for themselves against institutional power.

Further, allowing unsolicited emails from a cornell.edu listserv transmits tacit approval of those emails’ contents. We don’t expect anyone to refuse gifts, and AWC are not restricted from seeking them (though on their honor, they claim they “do not have any affiliation with Cornell University”). To our dismay, we have reason to think Cornell is providing more than tacit approval. AWC’s uncannily-timed emails to the grad body, containing previously unreleased information about the election, suggest that they are being contacted with information, which they then disseminate to supplement university communications. In its best light, such actions by Cornell would be extremely unseemly.

Finally, with the use of the “Ask a Dean” forum, Cornell is blatantly skirting the “official position” stipulation. At first glance, “Ask a Dean” appears to be a step towards transparency. But by directly responding to individual graduate student questions, then forwarded to the entire graduate student community, Cornell promotes a range of anti-union views that diverge wildly from Rawlings’s “official position.” One particularly vitriolic question accuses CGSU of perpetuating “lies” to attract new members, and “Ask A Dean” has even provided links to the AWC website in response to such questions. Even if we grant that the questions are genuine, it still appears that deans, with their unfettered access to Cornell grads’ inboxes, are consciously using this forum to subvert the agreement and disseminate anti-union propaganda.

The administration espouses the view that the unionization debate should be a free and open exchange of ideas, but uses its powerful platform to undercut the debate, and grads’ expectations that they can make their decisions free of institutional interference. This is highly disappointing, but it points to why we want a union: to even the playing field between grad workers and the institution. We thus call on all grads to support unionization and vote yes, so we can have a real voice in the policies that affect us in many areas of our lives, and have real recourse when the university falls short.

 

Vera Khovanskaya, Information Science grad

Edward Tremel, Computer Science grad

Tom Davidson, Sociology grad

Ethan Ritz, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering grad

Robert Escriva, Computer Science grad

  • Alex

    The pro-union side is getting more and more worried about grads being better informed. And honestly the Ask a Dean series is not in any way “coercing grad students.” There are many comments that are strongly for and against. In fact, the union has representatives going around trying to convince grads how to vote. I haven’t seen the university doing that.

    The main problem is that, while it is fine if a group of students want to form a union like CGSU has to supplement student advocates (like the GPSA or trustees), they are now trying to gain complete control over 100% of grad students, whether they like it or not, indefinitely, with possibly only 51% support. I should be able to negotiate with my adviser and department (I have done so with both sides being happy) without having a union dictate contract conditions.

    I won’t list all of the downsides here, but the increases in pay they are promising are highly doubtful, and they will be forcing us to pay $1000 or more in mandatory union dues.

    • bn

      Once again: we will not pay dues until we have a contract in place.
      For a contract to be in place, the union as a whole must vote on whether to accept that contract.
      WHY WOULD WE VOTE TO MAKE LESS MONEY??????

      • Alex

        1. The contract will be voted on, yes. But again, the vote will be a majority and then many students who voted “no”, yet again, will be forced into it.

        2. It is not that we would “vote to make less money.” If Cornell is increasing stipends by around 2% for example per year already without the union, and union dues happen to be 2%, then we would need a more than 4% increase to just break even. If the union is asking for a 5% increase, they will need leverage (i.e. go on strike). If the there is no strike, then Cornell has no reason to go beyond the 2%, and students end up making less after dues. If they do strike, it will impact students doing research (not just teaching), cause delays in research, graduation, etc. Additionally, some departments may vote on the contract as it is an increase for them, while for other departments it may not be as good a deal (e.g. for departments in the sciences).

        • Hello Alex,

          I’m not sure where you got your numbers here, but we can take a look at the latest research to see how feasible this is! A recent study from the ILR Review found that average stipend rates at unionized universities were 15.4% higher than at comparable non-unionized ones [1]. Perhaps this number has been inflated by fluctuations, but anything on this order should be sufficient to more than compensate for the cost of dues. Most recent graduate unions have not had to strike to receive similar benefits—the implied threat of collective action is usually enough!

          Since universities keep their noncontractual payroll details under wraps, it’s difficult to directly compare stipends before and after a union contract at other schools. However, you can still check out their contracts, and see that they negotiate mandatory yearly stipend increases near those that you cite [2]. It is sensible to suppose that the yearly pay increases bargained in a contract are smaller than the initial raise it stipulates.

          [1] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001979391306600208
          [2] https://cornellgsu.org/faq/#other.unions

    • E

      CGSU has always planned to supplement, not replace, groups like the GPSA since day one. Saying otherwise is just plain wrong – this has never been a platform suggested by the union at any time, which has in fact explicitly stated the opposite (see here: https://cornellgsu.org/faq/#gpsa.coordination). The only person to insinuate otherwise has been, you guessed it, Barb Knuth, in the March 16th ask a dean (hence my disagreement that this series is doing anything close to making us “better informed”).

      I find it confusing for you to say that the union is trying to “gain complete control over graduate students.” The students working to put a union together want all students to have negotiating power on parity with the school. To claim we have control over our futures when none of our compensation is guaranteed legally, nor any warning or recourse if the university severs that agreement, is a stunning display of mental gymnastics. The students who bear the brunt of this, the ones forced out of the school by illness, sexual harassment, childbirth, negligent PIs, or any number of the many issues CGSU would work to protect us from, currently have no say in the matter. Without a labor union, these voices continue to be silenced, their lives and careers continue to be disrupted, out of their control. To claim that CGSU, a fully democratic body that accepts all students and hears their concerns with equal voice, that allows everyone to speak to the school on equal terms, is taking control away from any student is not just wrong, but obscene.

      • Alex

        I may not have been clear; I didn’t mean that the union would eliminate the GPSA or student trustees. I mean that ideally CGSU should advocate for students about the grievances you and others have mentioned, and stop at that. No contracts binding grad students to whatever terms might end up in there (just a guess: limits on working hours that could impede research).

        And while democracy may sound nice, it doesn’t work for everything. A majority has voted for many things that have been harmful to groups both large and small, but often minorities can suffer the most (see Proposition 8 with a majority voting to ban gay marriage).

        • E

          Well, being on contract is indeed how the grievances we’ve mentioned are advocated for. This is pragmatically and historically true, both in the many other graduate schools that have been unionized for decades, and in other industry across the country. The sole purpose of the union is to legally codify what we get in return for our work, and the grievance process for when that is denied. As we aren’t legally guaranteed anything by our admission letter, the only entity policing Cornell’s promise is Cornell, and you can imagine how that works out when the rubber hits the road.

          The terms that end up in the contract are there to protect us, and allow us to do our research. Since the content of the contract will be sourced by, negotiated by, and approved (or not) by students, it would be really strange if we voted to put hard limits on working hours – I haven’t heard a single person ask for that, and don’t understand why they would. While you’re right that democracy is hard, I’d remind you that it’s better than no say at all, which is currently where things stand. We have no real power, just polite requests, and if those were enough to get us dental and vision insurance, we would have them by now.

    • Hello Alex,

      You write CGSU “will be forcing us to pay $1000 or more in mandatory union dues,” and later write “union dues happen to be 2%.”

      Do you get paid $50,000 or more? In that case, please let me know what department you’re in—physics is giving us a bum deal!

      Sincerely,
      Jaron Kent-Dobias
      Cornell Physics TA & PhD Candidate

      • Alex

        Including the “if”, the 2% was just an example to illustrate that any increases the union promises have to also account for dues. We do not know what it will actually be.

        • Grad Worker at Cornell

          We will get to decide what dues will actually be.

          We won’t pay any dues until after we finalize and approve a contract as a local union.

          We won’t negotiate or approve any contract in which we will take a pay/benefits cut–including any average pay increases at the beginning/over the course of the contract accounting for whatever dues–because that would defeat its whole purpose.

          We won’t, in any case, pay 2% in dues–no AFT-affiliated grad local pays that. University of Michigan’s total member dues are 1.65% and that’s at the higher end. Again, we get to decide what our final dues figure will be, depending (you guessed it!) on what we win in the contract and what we decide we want our local to look like, budget-wise.

          These scare tactics of throwing out decontextualized figures ($800; $1000, $1.1 million) that purposely don’t account for the logic of collective bargaining are so weird. We know much more certainly that we will gain with a legal contract than we know whether the Board won’t just decide to drastically cut the budget for grads next spending cycle.

          In other words, “union promises” about gains are simply practices integral to collective bargaining: we (CGSU members on the bargaining team) find out what the membership wants, and we try to get it for them with legal power on our side and the guarantee that Cornell has to deal in good faith.

          We are a huge, important bargaining unit, and therefore have the power to negotiate. That’s why the university REALLY doesn’t want us to win recognition.

  • a.

    “…they are now trying to gain complete control over 100% of grad students, whether they like it or not, indefinitely, with possibly only 51% support. I should be able to negotiate with my adviser and department (I have done so with both sides being happy) without having a union dictate contract conditions.”

    This. Thank you.

    I did not come to Cornell to be an employee, nor do I have any desire now to be managed under a broad contract that cannot account for the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of individual fields and departments. My committee did not pursue professorships because they have a passion for managing graduate “workers”. I am a student; I am here to learn and be mentored, not managed.

    • Hello a,

      A recent study from the ILR review found that “almost all (88%) of faculty agreed that the graduate student collective bargaining did not inhibit the mentoring relationships they had with graduate students; the evidence from graduate students themselves supports the same conclusion” [1]. Many of the faculty who study labor relations at our own university expressed similar views in a letter to the deans last year, writing that “President Rawlings’ statement [..] relies on speculative and unsubstantiated fears that unionization of graduate assistants will interfere with graduate education, the faculty-graduate student academic relationship, and shared governance. These assertions are belied by the evidence and the best available empirical research on higher education practice” [2].

      Rest assured that the academics who study these things believe that the relationship with your professor will not be changed for the worse!

      Sincerely,
      Jaron Kent-Dobias
      Cornell Physics TA & PhD Candidate

      [1] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/001979391306600208
      [2] https://cornellgsu.org/news/2017/2/7/ilr-faculty-respond-to-president-rawlings-on-grad-unionization

      • Hello again a,

        Here’s one more quote from the first study I just found and really like: “Once program, region, and other controls are introduced, unionization becomes a significant positive predictor of both the personal support and professional support dimensions of student-teacher relationships”.

        Sorry for the double post! I couldn’t help myself.

        Sincerely,
        Jaron Kent-Dobias
        Cornell Physics TA & PhD Candidate

    • Hello a,

      A recent study from the ILR review found that “almost all (88%) of faculty agreed that the graduate student collective bargaining did not inhibit the mentoring relationships they had with graduate students; the evidence from graduate students themselves supports the same conclusion” [1]. This article also says “[o]nce program, region, and other controls are introduced, unionization becomes a significant positive predictor of both the personal support and professional support dimensions of student-teacher relationships.”

      Many of the faculty who study labor relations at our own university expressed similar views in a letter to the deans last year, writing that “President Rawlings’ statement [..] relies on speculative and unsubstantiated fears that unionization of graduate assistants will interfere with graduate education, the faculty-graduate student academic relationship, and shared governance. These assertions are belied by the evidence and the best available empirical research on higher education practice” [2].

      Rest assured that the academics who study these things believe that the relationship with your professor will not be changed for the worse!

      Sincerely,
      Jaron Kent-Dobias
      Cornell Physics TA & PhD Candidate

      [1] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/001979391306600208
      [2] https://cornellgsu.org/news/2017/2/7/ilr-faculty-respond-to-president-rawlings-on-grad-unionization

  • Grad Worker at Cornell

    Control? People are in favor of unionization because it gives grads control over things that right now are solely within the purview of the Board or other officials of the university. Decisions are made about grads lives that only consider what grads think after the fact, if at all.

    Case in point: pay cuts or decisions to raise pay for some groups and not others, made with no input from grads. This has affected grads from the sciences more than once over the past several years. There are tons of other examples–on child care stipends, on pay differentials between grads teaching the same courses, on inadequate grievance policies re sexual and racial discrimination…

    No one is going to interfere in your relationship with your department, looking over your shoulder. A contract will only have what we want in it. I don’t want a contract that interferes in my academic life or my good relationship with my advisor. I do want one that ensures regular reasonable pay increases that aren’t can’t be decided against by the Board because that year they need more of something else. As well as a dental plan that isn’t the worst in the state.

    Cornell doesn’t want us to have a union because it will cost them money that they would rather spend on other things besides us, as we are currently some of the cheapest labor on campus, doing much of the most necessary work. If that weren’t the case, they wouldn’t be spending money on an expensive anti-union law firm that is tasked with helping them figure out ways to upset the union without appearing as though they’re doing so.

    The university Board already sets minimums for grads every year–unilaterally. Policy on work and benefits are set–unilaterally. Why is it ok for admin to make all these decisions without us at the table? That’s control! We want to be recognized as real decision-makers: that’s what this election is about. We want the ability to negotiate over our working conditions, and the ability to to do it with resources that match the institution’s. We can only do that through collective action.

    • Alex

      Pay cuts? My pay has has only gone up. Cornell has been good to me and I don’t think I’m an outlier. But honestly I and most of my peers do not seem to be in grad school for the money. It’s more than enough to live on, especially with Ithaca’s cost of living, and this is temporary. We’ll have jobs after graduation and can demand higher wages then.

      • Hello Alex,

        In 2014 Cornell management lowered the minimum stipend rate for RAs, as detailed in this document [1]. The change persisted until the 2015 academic year, at which point attention from outside media pushed the university to abandon it.

        You claim that Cornell increases stipends 2% a year [2]. In 2014, cost of rental housing in Ithaca increased 13% [3]. By your own estimate, our stipends won’t be “more than enough to live on” for long.

        Without a contract, any benefit Cornell extends can be removed on a whim. If Cornell wants to be good to us, they should guarantee that goodness and not hedge behind possible outs. One step in that direction is to fix stipend rates to Ithaca’s cost of living.

        You assert that “we’ll have jobs after graduation and can demand higher wages then.” You may be imagining the state of the academic job market somewhat optimistically! As universities grow to rely more and more heavily on contingent and adjunct faculty to carry the bulk of research and teaching responsibilities, more academics find themselves treated like they were in grad school despite having their PhD. You don’t have to look farther than our neighbors at Ithaca College to see this for yourself.

        The most sure way to push for better postgraduate academic positions is to raise the quality of graduate ones. How our labor is treated sets the baseline for those above us. If you’d really like a secure and high-wage job after graduation, I suggest you consider structurally improving the job you have.

        Sincerely,
        Jaron Kent-Dobias
        Cornell Physics TA & PhD Candidate

        [1] https://cornellgsu.org/s/Stipend-Rate-Proposal-for-Varying-Stipend-Rates-by-Assistantship-Type-FOR-GC-102813.docx
        [2] http://cornellsun.com/2017/03/20/letter-to-the-editor-administrative-interference-and-the-union/#comment-368318
        [3] http://www.ithaca.com/news/why-is-ithaca-one-of-the-least-affordable-us-cities/article_e67f68f4-cb0e-11e3-9571-001a4bcf887a.html

      • Grad Worker at Cornell

        Many engineering grads had their summer pay cut in 2016. Unwarned. By almost 1k.

        In 2014, TAs received a cost of living increase, RAs did not. It was almost $600 and was only fixed when Beth Garrett became president–pretty much because she felt like it.

        My pay goes up every year, too. Although some years it barely covers what I pay in regular rent increases and my crappy dental plan.

        Summer funding for grads who work with plants and animals outdoors is always precarious. Unclear why, since this is when they do most of their work.

        Ithaca is actually quite expensive, especially for renters who need to live within a reasonable distance from Cornell and who would like to live like post-collegiate adults, but can’t afford to buy homes (ie, grad students). I pay over $900 for an apartment that is ok and people think I have a great deal. It will go up near $1000 next year.

        No one is asking for luxury. A voice, security, not depending on who’s the president to get fair wages that aren’t just changed whenever, basic minimums for health care and family care that are provided at a lot of other schools with unions…that covers some of it.

        We generate a lot of value for Cornell; we do a ton of the work that keeps this place running and able to call itself a university–an education and research institution. We deserve a substantial say in how the policies that affect us get made. That’s most effective through collective bargaining, hands down. Vote Yes!

        • Alex

          Okay, if you pay $900 in rent, then that is about $10k per year. Stipends are quite a bit higher than that. Sounds like you could put thousands per year into savings, or pay off undergrad loans.

          • Former CU grad

            It turns out that our pesky human bodies need things like food, water, clothing, heat, and light to exist. We pay taxes for basic government services like police, fire protection, and road maintenance. We cannot transport ourselves over large distances without tiring so we must pay for bus passes or cars. Our society has monetized these commodities, so this is why there is such thing as a living wage. http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/36109
            In Tompkins county, the living wage for 1 adult is roughly $25K. So if you have no outstanding debts, you could potentially save around $5K per year if you lived extremely frugally. However, this calculation changes if you have a child, skyrocketing to $54K per year. Please don’t assume that all grad students are in the same life situation.

          • Grad Worker at Cornell

            $900 ($920, actually, soon to go up even more) for a one-bedroom apartment is the average for Austin TX–one of the “coolest” biggish cities in America. Nationwide, the average for a one-bedroom is $850. Ithaca is rapidly becoming one of the most absurdly expensive “college towns” relative to amenities and common sense.

            Alex, it seems like you’ve forgotten your own common sense in your quest to make collective bargaining sound like a bad idea. People who make 25k/year can save thousands while spending almost 1k in rent every month. I guess grad students’ real talents lie in their ability to starve and wear nothing, all while charging miles up and down hills, happily saving thousands for the future.

            Come to think of it, not being able to afford to eat might even prevent cavities, so we can save on dental too!

          • E

            This argument rests on the assumption that you are paid your stipend – as of now, there’s no legally binding agreement that Cornell extends you this. This is exactly what we’ve been talking about, that people’s financial support and academic careers are cut short at the convenience of the school due to illness, childbirth, coming out about sexual harassment, or advisors who decide to abandon students without warning. I personally know people without guaranteed summer funding, or with variable funding contingent on the number of students who take their summer class, a number they cannot know until class actually starts and it’s too late to change plans.

            I guess if you’re wealthy enough to think $10k is no big deal, then maybe this doesn’t seem like a problem, but if a student is forced to take a semester off for one of these reasons, with reduced pay or without any at all, then Ithaca’s cost of living is actually of critical importance. Our support is not guaranteed, and when retracted, no workable grievance process exists. Being on contract ensures we get what we’ve been promised, and is exactly why we need a union.

      • E

        To further respond about having jobs after graduation and “can demand higher wages then” – this requires that we graduate, and is missing the biggest point of a union contract entirely. Many people cannot graduate because the school forces them out due to circumstances decoupled from their ability to do research. Perhaps you don’t feel like an outlier because, for the cases where Cornell behaved most unfairly, those people aren’t students anymore! They’re gone, and will never receive the benefits of a Cornell PhD in a later career despite years of research work and TAing! You’ve lost focus on what the union really works for (stability, making sure we get what we are owed) and are ignoring all the other parts of what makes our lives livable as PhD students.

        Plus, just because things might be better for you in a few years, why not make them better today if you have the ability? How does it make any sense that we, as adults with years of highly specialized training, should work precarious, off-contract jobs with weak benefits just because we hope someone else down the line will recognize our value and pay us what we deserve for the same work we do here every day?