lte norton
March 31, 2017

Letter to the Editor: On reckless ‘election conduct’

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To the Editor:

About 30 seconds before I went to vote in the union election on Monday, my phone lit up notifying me of an email entitled “Election conduct,” sent by Mary Opperman, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, and Barbara Knuth, Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School. The email made vague claims about CGSU/AFT/NYSUT representatives telling students not to vote. The student who reported this said he felt threatened. There was no more information given about the context of this very serious allegation.

I watched the ballots being counted on Tuesday night. The official totals at the time of writing are 856 for the union, 919 against. Some voters voided their ballots by checking both “yes” and “no”, while some did not check either box.

Today I think about others who received this email and wonder: how many voters, having had enough of visits by pro-union people to their offices or homes, having received seemingly endless ‘Ask a Dean’ emails that answer questions they didn’t even ask, and generally having grown weary of a long campaign, decided that this latest email was the last straw? Given that CGSU/AFT/NYSUT representatives had allegedly threatened someone, how many decided at that moment that they were going to vote “no” or purposely void their vote by either checking both/neither boxes. How about the nearly 400 graduate students that didn’t vote?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the email would have drastically changed the number of ballots cast each way, but this election (as it stands) was not won by a landslide.  As in every election, there will have been people who were undecided right up until the time they voted. If 32 people ended up changing their vote from “yes” to “no” due to that email, then that was enough to change the (provisional) outcome of the election.

Considering how we were all constantly reminded by the signatories of that email that the decision whether to unionize was for the graduate students to decide for themselves, alongside the Code of Conduct agreement they signed with CGSU and labor law more generally, I am utterly bewildered by the recklessness of Cornell for sending that email out, given how vague and unsubstantiated the claim made was.

As of the time of writing, we have received no update about the alleged incident. There was a PDF, signed and dated, by the individual who made the allegation — it was on the website of At What Cost? and posted in the comments section of an article on the Cornell Daily Sun, as well as on the CGSU Facebook page by Mark Obstalecki, grad. Both links were removed within 12 hours of being posted. Fortunately we have copies of said PDF.

The signed complaint details that he “was told something to the effect of ‘Of course, if you don’t like the union, we would prefer you don’t vote’.” Already there are questions about how Opperman and Knuth’s email presented this complaint. There is one continuity between the signed PDF and the email, though: neither contain any identifying information about who or where the alleged incidents took place.

We deserve to know more about this allegation and how the email came to be sent. If this alleged incident did take place we need to know — no-one should be threatened over whether they support the union or not, and I am sure that if these claims are proven correct then CGSU and Cornell will act accordingly.

However, if this incident did not happen, then there are serious questions that need to be asked about the conduct of the administration during this election.

I am not claiming one side or the other, but instead asking for transparency. An allegation so serious that an urgent email had to be sent out only hours after voting began deserves to be investigated, for there is no way that it did not impact the remainder of the election.

Thank you to everyone who voted.

Benjamin Norton, grad