CGSU held an information session for graduate students just days before they head to the polls to vote for the unionization recognition election.

Anna Delwiche / Sun News Editor

CGSU held an information session for graduate students just days before they head to the polls to vote for the unionization recognition election.

March 25, 2017

With Vote Approaching, CGSU Explains Relationship With National Union

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Despite the unionization election being only a few days away, many graduate students remain uncertain about some of the foundational components of Cornell Graduate Students United, particularly, its affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers.

At an information session CGSU hosted for graduate students, Michael Durney, grad, questioned the portrayal of the administration as a “rich, uncaring” group.

Instead, Durney pointed to AFT as the source of this behavior, referring to them as the “King George” in relation to graduate students.

“I’m a little concerned at some of the rhetoric of CGSU that we’re fighting against some rich, uncaring administration,” Durney said. “The rich, uncaring people in my mind is AFT. And so I support everything you guys are doing in terms of making sure I have a voice. But I don’t support that you’re doing it by bringing in a rich, uncaring person and so I don’t view the administration as rich or uncaring. I view King George — the AFT — as rich and uncaring.”

Sena Aydin, grad, clarified the relationship between CGSU and AFT to explain AFT’s presence on campus. Aydin admitted while she is critical of the relationship, she believes that early on in the campaign, “the affiliation with AFT was needed.”

“There is a large amount of graduate student body [at Cornell] and the union, starting as small as it was, didn’t have neither the financial nor the timewise needs to reach out to graduate students as a body,” she said. “So that is one point that we needed some support which means that people who are paid can actually do that.”

Similar to viewing AFT as a king-like figure, many graduate students worried that AFT will impose authority over CGSU.

However, Aydin argued that they hope CGSU will lead negotiations and processes afterward, giving AFT an “advising” role.

“When it comes to the negotiation with the University — with the hopes that we’re going to win the recognition election — I think anybody here would agree that we all want to be the ones negotiating at that table and have AFT and NYSUT representatives as an advising position,” she said. “Not in a position where they make the decisions or they do the negotiations.”

Katie Smith, grad, explained that that the current contract reflects an affiliation agreement. For that reason, the “agreement with AFT [is] about the campaign, the election and contract negotiating …that agreement is not about afterward,” she said.

After the election, should the graduate students vote in favor of unionization, CGSU aims to establish itself as a local that has representation in AFT.

After being chartered as a local union of AFT, CGSU will be governed by the AFT and NYSUT constitutions but still will be able to maintain independence and autonomy, according to Todd Dickey, grad, and one of the CGSU members who voted to affiliate with AFT.

“AFT and NYSUT both operate under constitutions and bylaws that guarantee local autonomy and independent decision-making. CGSU’s current constitution ultimately would need to be converted to local union bylaws as part of this structure,” Dickey said. “Under the AFT
and NYSUT constitutions, local autonomy is protected and CGSU’s participation in the unions’ representative assemblies and conventions at the state and national levels is welcomed, encouraged, and expected.”

In fact it was this democratic structure that attracted Paul Berry, grad, and other CGSU members to AFT.

“What we really needed was a lot of support to run a successful campaign,” he said. “However, the reason we chose AFT as opposed to UAW, for instance, was local autonomy within our organization.”

To emphasize this point of local autonomy, Berry, a former GPSA member, likened the power of a union to the GPSA’s advocacy committee.

“We want to be running our own union,” he said. “In a way, I really think the union is like the GPSA advocacy committee if it had teeth. The teeth that I wish it had and I wish it had been able to push through some of these things over the last several years. And it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.”

  • Frustrated grad student

    If there had been a need for a union there would have been no barriers to gaining support. Fact is, no one thought it was necessary until AFT began its push for membership.

    • Less frustrated graduate student

      Your logic assumes that all students have a positive, uncynical view of unions. How is that possible when, for a start, those who grew up in the United States have been saturated with anti-union messages for decades? We are taught that unions are corrupt, protect the lazy, and are greedy corporations that only want their member’s dues (see comment below as an example). How often do you hear about the good things unions do or the protections they provide? I’m not saying all unions or union executives are perfect. But I know enough Ph.D. students who feel taken advantage of by their advisor (not to mention having seen the University’s propensity to cut staff while hiring more administrators) to know that neither the faculty nor the Graduate School nor Cornell as an institution are either. And with the on-going rounds of budget cuts, I wouldn’t assume that we would be better off without a voice that speaks for all of us. Yet we aren’t taught to think as a community, we are taught to put our heads down and get our work done. All this is to say that isn’t as straightforward as you suggest.

  • CGSU/AFT undemocratic

    Lets be honest here – Does AFT/CGSU really want everybody to vote through a democratic process that relies on maximum information. Absolutely not. Why did CGSU gag the Cornell administration? Why did they refuse to debate with AWC? Why were they upset when Prof. Collum had a dissenting opinion? If CGSU members wanted a fair election where everybody voted through best information and their personal choice, they should have tried to ensure both sides of the story was made available.

  • Grad worker

    At the end of the day, AFT is a business. Do we need more administrators meddling in our affairs – I think not.

  • The fact that CGSU is affiliated to the AFT and NYSUT is one of my biggest concerns about unionization. Even if it’s true that CGSU will be run independently from the AFT and NYSUT after the election, which I don’t know, it’s very concerning that our dues will go to these particular organizations.

    If anyone is interested, I wrote a post on my blog where I argue that 1) CGSU is making the case in favor of unionization dishonestly by cherry-picking the evidence to support their claims that students would benefit from it, 2) the groups to which CGSU is affiliated and to which most of our dues would go if we vote in favor of unionization are deeply immoral organizations that have a negative effect on education in the US and we should not fund them with dues taken from our wages and 3) even if people disagree with me about that, it’s wrong to use the law to force your colleagues to pay dues to organizations they don’t want to be associated with. Please share it as widely as possible if you think it’s interesting.

  • AltFact

    it’s wrong to use the law to force your colleagues to pay dues to organizations they don’t want to be associated with…

    How is it any different from you using my taxpayer money to fund your graduate research into things I don’t want to be associated with?

    At some point, if you want the benefits of protection but aren’t willing to pay for it, why even bother trying for it to begin with?

    • Did you actually read my post? I anticipate this objection and address it. Also, you talk about paying to get benefits, but part of the problem is precisely that it’s not clear there will be any benefits in this case. As I argue in the first part of my post, there isn’t any particularly good reason to expect students would actually benefit from unionization, which would be clear if CGSU did not try to hide crucial information and misrepresent the evidence. Again, if you’re interested, this is discussed in details in my post.