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March 21, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Why STEM graduate students support CGSU

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To the Editor:

On March 27 and 28, graduate students will vote to recognize CGSU as a graduate student labor union. If this vote passes, the Cornell administration will be legally required to acknowledge our needs by collaboratively drafting a contract with us that will protect and improve our working conditions. Understanding how our union’s contract could benefit grad students requires acknowledging the minimal influence we currently have on our working conditions, and also requires creative thinking about how our lives could improve. Thankfully, we can look to any of the more than 30 universities with existing grad student unions for examples of why working under a union contract will benefit our Principal Investigators, our labs and ourselves.

A union contract does not impose limitations, but rather enables protections. It is a myth that a union contract would limit the hours a graduate student can work. In fact, many contracts explicitly state that grads can work as many hours as they choose. For example, Article 33 Section 8 the University of Washington contract states: “Workload assigned to a [graduate employee] should not in any way be construed as imposing a limit on the amount of academic work necessary for a student to make satisfactory academic progress toward their degree.” A union contract does not limit our work, but will protect students who feel they are overworked or in need of support. In the 14 years since University of Washington established their union, not only has it admitted more PhD students, it rose to second for federal research grants awarded to a university.1

A union does not limit STEM stipends, but protects them. A union will not negatively impact students who receive the best stipends. Instead, it protects and guarantees increases to the highest stipends, and also increases the minimum. Currently graduate students have no say in minimum stipends and no guarantee that individual stipends will increase from year to year. Summer appointment letters decreased by up to $780 in engineering departments in 2016 compared with 2015. It is unclear how widespread this cut was within the school of engineering since the administration does not inform us of pay cuts, who they affect, or why they occurred. The Board of Trustees currently determines both minimum and maximum graduate stipends unilaterally. We will draft our contract with language that protects graduates from decreasing stipends, which is exactly what NYU’s contract Article XIX protects against: “No provision of this agreement shall be construed as to lower the compensation rate of any graduate employee.” The NYU grad union contract, like many others, explicitly rebuts the misconception that stipends will decrease for the best-paid students. We will include an equivalent statement in our contract that ensures stipends won’t decrease, and instead have guaranteed yearly net gains. No CGSU member would vote to ratify a contract that had more dues than gains to salary and benefits.

A union contract establishes a floor, not a ceiling. We will write protections into our contract, not limitations. Expanding healthcare coverage to include dental and vision limits no one. Expanding graduate childcare grants limits no one. Establishing clear leave policies for bereavement or illness limits no one. Establishing protections for the most vulnerable, such as international students and victims of sexual assault limits abuse. A union does not limit working conditions for graduates who are well supported; it protects everyone.

Given that there are clear advantages to unionization, it is unsurprising that advisor/student relationships can improve when graduates unionize. According to a study published in the ILR Review on precisely this subject, “the potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as a basis for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.” A union contract establishes baselines and expectations for everyone, so graduate workers spend less time anxiously asking advisors for bureaucratic or procedural guidance.

Our union contract will enable more flexibility for graduate students. In several STEM departments, the graduate school already provides training assistantships for new students during their first semester, giving them time and flexibility to decide on a group. Why not expand upon the support the graduate school can provide? As a unionized graduate student body, we can put pressure on the graduate school to provide assistantships that help decouple a P.I.’s funding situation from their graduate students’ stipends. How about assistance for students whose P.I.s are leaving Cornell? How about assistance for students who wish to change their advisor due to a lack of clear expectations or mentorship? A union provides a means to address the problems we know exist in graduate school.

When we go to the polls on March 27, we will be voting to establish a democratic community of graduate students who will collectively work to improve our working conditions and benefits. Every step of the process, from union recognition, to selecting a bargaining committee, to ratifying a contract is democratic. Our union and the contract we develop together will reflect our interests. If you don’t believe us, read any of the more than 30 contracts ratified across the country. We think you’ll find them compelling enough to vote.


Ethan Susca grad
Maria Sapar grad
Ethan Ritz grad
Jackie Bubnell grad
Ibrahim Issa grad

  • h.b.

    I’m an engineering student, and my first advisor left the school with barely weeks of notice, leaving anyone not on fellowship without a lab or funding. “Homeless” PhD students are a common occurrence across STEM fields, especially those who knowingly admit more students than they have lab openings for in order to fill teaching needs in large service courses. A union contract that guarantees our financial needs be met for as long as we do productive work, and for fair grievance processes to be followed before a student’s degree program is terminated, would prevent us and our colleagues from being taken advantage of. It would also provide the financial support, health insurance, and community required to link students who’ve left an old advisor to a new one during the gap where they’d otherwise be unemployed. STEM students need a union contract too!

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      This is absolutely the case. Not something that people openly talk about because there is some shame attached to that condition, but it happens even to grads who are made to believe they are made in the shade with their PI.

      Something else that happens more frequently than Cornell cares to admit is the extreme risk a STEM grad takes if they experience workplace discrimination or harassment by a PI and tries to report it. Not only will admin try to get the grad to avoid going through the complaint procedure, but will often openly admit that they don’t want to piss off a “valuable faculty member.”

      If the grad does go through with the painful and in no way adequate complaint process, they might be better off leaving Cornell, because a grad who has scorned a PI by daring to exercise her rights might well be considered an untouchable by the rest of the field. Those faculty don’t want to further piss off a “valuable” colleague.

      STEM folks should really know that the bottom line is this: you will get more power to control your life with a collective bargaining agreement, not less. That can’t be a bad thing. And anyone who tries to tell you that isn’t the case is willfully ignoring data.

    • Teja Bollu

      I would like to start this conversation by acknowledging that changes to the committee takes both a psychological and a professional toll on the graduate student. And it is likely that if the Union passes, changes to this process might be part of the negotiations.

      However, it is incorrect that there no protections or provisions to protect graduate students from situations like the special committee chair resigning. No matter what happens on March 27 and 28. I think it might be important for graduate students to be aware of current protections in order to utilize them.

      As a point of information:

      As a part of the Graduate School’s code of legislation under Article VI.8


      Any member may resign at any time from a special committee, except when a student is in
      approved Health Leave of Absence status. When a chair resigns, in order for the student to have
      the opportunity to reconstitute his or her committee, the student may be registered without a chair:

      a. through the end of the semester in which the resignation occurs if the resignation
      occurs before the end of the fifth week of the semester; or

      b. through the end of the semester following the semester of the resignation if the
      resignation occurs after the end of the fifth week of the semester.

      This means that the graduate student is covered for a minimum of (in terms of registration) ~20 weeks and a maximum of two semesters less 5 weeks. The Financial Aid considerations here critically are left to the Director of Graduate Studies, and depending on the field this is likely going to be a source of variable treatment of graduate students, which is problematic.

      There certainly are challenges to finding a new committee chair. It has the potential to dictate the future course of your career and personal life. I also have to acknowledge that it is a deep cultural problem within academia. I am however skeptical of how the challenge of finding a new committee chair and the ability to continue to pursue a PhD without a special committee chair (which in my reading is an academic issue) will be met by a bargaining contract.

  • Ethan Susca

    Wow. The discussion above is on point 100%.

    I wanted to leave some citations that were included in the original submission that never made it to the letter (either online or in print):
    1. Retrieved March 19th, 2017
    2. Rogers, S., Eaton, A. E., & Voos, P. B. (2014). Effects of unionization on graduate student employees: Faculty-student relations, academic freedom, and pay. ILR Review, 66(2), 487-510. doi: 10.1177/001979391306600208 Retrieved March 19th, 2017, from Cornell University, School of Hospitality Administration site:
    3. Retrieved March 19th, 2017

  • C

    I think we should be skeptical of promises about what the contract will and will not include. We have not had time to observe the aftermath of other examples of private university grad unions since the NLRB ruling.

    But since the authors bring up NYU’s contract, the stipend for research assistants is listed as $26,000 per year, which is far below a living wage for New York City (rent near NYU is $2000+ for example). And the annual increases are about the same as what Cornell does anyway, 2.3%. Additionally they must pay dues, which the contract does not specify.

    • E

      Just take a look at how good things got for NYU when they won their first union contract:

      This included a 38% increase to the stipend minimum, fully paid health care, and a 3.5-4% ~yearly~ increase to the salary of ~all~ students for four years. Bringing it back to today, keep in mind that the rate you mention is a stipend minimum, which Cornell doesn’t have at all. And if you look at the current NYU contract, you’d note that all graduate students in the engineering department receive $1500 lump sum at the start of this contract. Combined with dues of 2% (which you can find on their website), smaller than the yearly increase (stipulated by the contract, I might add, not the whim of Cornell), I think it’s clear that NYU students come out ahead.

      • C

        I have not been able to find any source showing that NYU’s stipends are higher than Cornell’s, especially adjusted for cost of living. If the union helps so much, wouldn’t NYU’s stipends be much higher than Cornell’s?

        • Grad Worker at Cornell

          As E states above, contracts win decent minimums and other benefits that can’t be retracted unilaterally by the institution. Departments can, of course, choose to pay more than the minimum. They do here. That won’t change with a contract, unless the unlikely event occurs where a majority of grads decided they didn’t want that anymore (can’t really see that happening).

          Minimum stipends at Cornell for RAs/TAs are currently $25,152. At NYU, they started off their contract with a minimum stipend rate for 20hr/wk RAs (different than our bargaining unit) with a minimum of $26,200. Next year, the minimum stipend for these RAs will be $27,459.

          TAs stipends at NYU are also tied to adjunct faculty minimums in the contract, so currently grad TAs make around $37k per year.

          When I was considering NYU for grad school in 2011, the minimum rate for RAs/TAs was $22k. It’s clear that a contract helped NYU grads.

          • curious

            It would be interesting to know if the number of grad students (admitted an/or overall) decreased to allow NYU to increase the stipend that much…

          • Grad Worker at Cornell

            hi curious…why?

            The argument that fewer grads will be admitted to a program because of a union is one that has never been supported with actual data.

            The improvement in grad lives has, prolifically.