Cornell Graduate Student Union and At What Cost representatives present their platforms and address graduate students' concerns surrounding unionization at a question and answer session held in Olin Hall Thursday.

Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Cornell Graduate Student Union and At What Cost representatives present their platforms and address graduate students' concerns surrounding unionization at a question and answer session held in Olin Hall Thursday.

March 23, 2017

As Unionization Vote Approaches, Graduate Students Tackle Remaining Concerns

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With the unionization recognition vote just days away, members from At What Cost, Cornell Graduate Students United and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly discussed the the varying issues that surround the election in a town hall format on Thursday.

The Engineering Graduate Student Association held the town hall information session for graduate students, allowing members of CGSU, AWC and GPSA to give presentations and answer questions.

During the question and answer portion of the town hall, the three groups responded to both prepared questions sent by graduate students and fielded questions from audience members.

One audience member noted that the discussions both at the town hall and in the past have centered around the question of whether Cornell graduate students should unionize. He wanted to hear why graduate students should have CGSU specifically as their union.

That audience member was not alone in his concern.

Current GPSA members — Teja Bollu, grad, and Aravind Natarajan, grad — explained that while they support unionization in general, they were critical of CGSU’s constitution.

“I am not confident in [CGSU’s] ability to perform the duty that they’re saying that they’re going to do. A critical part of this is a clear problem with their constitution,” Bollu said. “The reason I keep pulling up the constitution because this is the only governing document that we have … we know how they’re going to function.”

A specific component of the constitution that worried Natarajan was the voting procedures currently outlined in the constitution. This structure bases voting on a set number of people rather than a percentage — the way GPSA votes.

“For anything except the [initial] referendum to be passed, you only need 20 people in quorum in a room out of which the majority has to vote. Which means leadership positions, which means amendments can be passed with 20 people in the room unless it’s a referendum,” Natarajan said.

In defense of this component of the contract, Jaron Kent-Dobias, grad, explained that an amendment to the constitution is “by no means a final product.”

Paul Berry, grad, added that as a new organization, their process is not exactly comparable to that of GPSA.

“I think that these types of issues — as opposed to looking at the GPSA which has existed for 40 some years and probably longer than that and has very clear established policies — these are things we’re working to clarify and to address as we move forward,” he said.

In working toward clarifying and addressing these issues, Berry said that CGSU aims to “embody the democratic process.”

“CGSU started in someone’s basement in 2014. The constitution came out initially of an organization that had very few people that has grown as we move towards our election,” Berry said. “The constitution is an evolving document. But the core idea is that we embody the democratic process within the organization, that we have an active participation of membership in creating, drafting and modifying the constitution.”

Another issue that both the prepared questions and audience members sought clarification on was that of paying dues.

Nicole Wiles, grad, focused much of her presentation on behalf of At What Cost on dues, the central critique At What Cost has levied against CGSU.

Michaela Brangan, grad, administrative liaison for CGSU, explained that dues are split under union fees — what she referred to as “servicing fee” — and local dues paid to CGSU.

Dues paid to American Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers would be required for members within the bargaining unit.

Because membership in unions is considered a choice under the National Labor Relations Act, local dues would be required for members only. However, in order to serve a leadership role within CGSU, a student would have to pay local dues in addition to union dues, according to Brangan.

“The contract itself is going to benefit everyone and there’s a large representation across the board but deciding what’s in the contract and all these structural things like electing who’s going to be bargaining committee — that’s members, that’s a member’s privilege,” Brangan said. “I would encourage people to pay the little amount extra to support the local dues.”

In response to the fundamental question of why unionization and why CGSU, Berry elaborated on his background as a GPSA member to encourage his fellow graduate students.

“Why this union? This union has power. Personally I spent years in the GPSA passing resolutions about dental coverage, workers’ compensation; and these things have not been resolved. I’ve added a year plus onto my degree program trying to improve policies for everyone here and have not gotten anywhere,” Berry said. “The union gives us the ability to create an organization to change those things, to work together and grow that over time.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Kent-Dobias stating that the CGSU constitution is not a final product. In fact, he said that an amendment to the constitution is not a final product.