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April 20, 2017

Letter to the Editor: ILR faculty object to Cornell’s coercive conduct prior to CGSU election

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To the editor:

As faculty members in the Cornell University ILR School, we are deeply concerned about the conduct of the Cornell administration on March 26, the eve of the Cornell Graduate Students United election and on March 27, the first day of voting in the election. On both days, Cornell’s Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth sent emails to thousands of Cornell graduate students with messages that interfered with graduate employees’ ability to freely exercise their rights to choose whether to be represented by the CGSU. In raising our concerns about Dean Knuth’s conduct, we draw on our expertise and experience in the field of labor law, labor relations and labor rights.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, it is unlawful for an employer to make statements that would have the tendency to “interfere with, restrain or coerce” employees in exercising their rights to choose whether to unionize.  Unlawful coercive statements by employer representatives include explicit or implicit threats that the employer may cut back on jobs if employees vote for a union. Such unlawful statements by an employer are particularly harmful when made close to an election, which the National Labor Relations Board recognizes as the “critical period” when employer coercion is most likely to affect the outcome of the election.

On Sunday, March 26, the day before the election, Dean Knuth emailed to graduate students a “Special Edition” of her “Ask the Dean” column, in which she states: “It is possible that significantly increased costs” due to wages and benefits negotiated by the CGSU “could lead to reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell, but faculty, departments and colleges would need to make those decisions.” By linking union negotiated benefits to the possibility of “reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell,” Dean Knuth’s statements constituted threats that a vote for the union could lead to future cutbacks in the graduate program. The attempt to camouflage those threats as “predictions” or “possibilities” does not change the fear-inducing nature and intent of the message. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the serious coercive nature of threats that unionization could lead to job loss. In finding that employers violate the NLRA by threatening to close a plant if employees unionize, the Court noted that the NLRB “has often found that employees, who are particularly sensitive to rumors of plant closings, take such hints as coercive threats rather than honest forecasts.”

On Monday, March 27, the first day of the election, Dean Knuth emailed “Graduate School Announcements” to the graduate students informing them that, “Starting in 2017-2018, Cornell SHP will reduce the cost for care received outside the Ithaca area for graduate and professional students who see Aetna participating providers. The cost will be reduced from 20 percent to 10 percent.  This enhancement is a direct response to concerns about how to improve access to care for students who are studying or performing research away from campus.”

What’s wrong with Dean Knuth announcing these benefits?  The announcement of new benefits close to the time of an election or as here, even during the election, is an abuse of Cornell’s economic power as an employer.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an employer violates the NLRA by announcing new benefits for the purpose of influencing employees to vote against union representation.  As the Court stated, “The danger inherent in well-timed increases in benefits is the suggestion of a fist inside the velvet glove.  Employees are not likely to miss the inference that the source of benefits now conferred is also the source from which future benefits must flow and which may dry up if it is not obliged.”

It is very disturbing that Dean Knuth chose to conduct herself in this way — and particularly disturbing that she sent these email messages at the moment that graduate employees were on their way to the election polls. Each message, by itself, was coercive.  But together, they delivered a “one-two punch” to remind the graduate students that Cornell holds the ultimate power to give and to take away. The first message threatened graduate employees with the possible loss of graduate student positions, followed by the second announcement of a new benefit that Cornell was giving them. In the words of the Supreme Court, “The beneficence of an employer is likely to be ephemeral if prompted by a threat of unionization which is subsequently removed.”

As faculty members in the ILR School, we expect Cornell to follow lawful and ethical standards that respect employees’ rights to decide for themselves whether to be represented by a union. It was wrong — and likely a violation of the NLRA and the Cornell-CGSU conduct agreement — for Dean Knuth to use Cornell’s economic power in an attempt to sway the vote. The international affirmation of the freedom of association as an essential human right makes Dean Knuth’s and the University’s unlawful resistance to the exercise of this human right by Cornell graduate students particularly shameful.


Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, ILR

Prof. James Gross, ILR

Prof. Shannon Gleeson, ILR

Prof. Sarosh Kuruvilla, ILR

Prof. David Lipsky, ILR

Prof. Virginia Doellgast, ILR

Prof. Eli Friedman, ILR

Prof. Rosemary Batt, ILR

Prof. Ileen DeVault, ILR

Prof. Rachel Aleks, ILR

Jeff Grabelsky
Associate Director, The Worker Institute

Lara Skinner
Associate Director, The Worker Institute

Prof. Tove Helland Hammer, ILR

Linda H. Donahue
Senior Extension Associate, The Worker Institute, ILR

Prof. Kate Griffith, ILR

Allison Weiner Heinemann
Lecturer, ILR

Jim DelRosso
Associate Librarian, Catherwood Library

Prof. Lowell Turner, ILR

Prof. Emeritus Lois Gray, ILR

Ronald Applegate
Lecturer, ILR

Aliqae Geraci
Assistant Director, Catherwood Library

Prof. William Sonnenstuhl, ILR

Kate Bronfenbrenner
Senior Lecturer, ILR

Debra Lamb
Assistant Director, Access and Administrative Services, Hospitality, Labor and Management Library

Prof. Ariel Avgar, ILR

Ian Greer
Senior Research Associate, ILR

Lee Adler
Senior Extension Associate, ILR

Sam Nelson
Senior Lecturer, ILR

Prof. Michael Evan Gold, ILR

Patricia Campos-Medina
Extension Associate, ILR

Sally Klingel
Director, Labor-Management Programs, Scheinman Institute

Prof. Ronald Seeber, ILR

  • Alex

    It doesn’t surprise that the union is complaining that they lost the election, even if that means twisting reality to make Cornell look like an evil dictator, a strategy which failed at the pools.

    We are graduate students. We are intelligent adults. An FAQ email is not “coercive”. We can and do make decisions for ourselves and have the ability to analyze different points of view and sort out the truth. Graduate students of all people can do that. Even so, the Ask a Dean answer was very mild (and people already know to take the answers with a grain of salt, as Cornell’s position on the union’s detriment was always clear). It is essentially an objective fact that if you increase the cost of something (labor for example), the demand will go down. She was trying to be fairly neutral in answering that it is only “possible”. In fact, my friend, a PhD student at a school that recently decided to unionize, told me that her advisor has already started hiring more post-docs and fewer PhD students.

    Further, it is wrong to interpret the FAQ as a “threat”. She wasn’t saying that Cornell would consider a policy of accepting fewer students. She specifically said that faculty would make those decisions. She didn’t even point out that basic economics suggests that, yes, there is a possibility that increased costs will decrease demand.

    Our rights to decide have not been violated. Stop treating us like children.

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      According to the National Labor Relations Board and the Supreme Court, such actions do constitute labor violations that hamper our rights. So you’re mistaken, I think. Having your rights violated isn’t like “I didn’t *feel* coerced, so it isn’t true that it was coercion.”

      This is not the union writing this, this is the view of dozens of professors in the best-respected labor center in the country. As a graduate student and intelligent adult, I would expect that you would have better reading skillz.

      Finally, it’s the Dean treating us like children with her ridiculous “Ask a Dean” charade which, for a student with no context, might think that the wacky “questions” were real concerns. Notice we haven’t gotten any Ask a Deans since the election ended? Hmmmm…there seemed to be like hundreds of out-of-left-field questions about the union, suddenly we know everything we need to know about pie and conference funding?

    • Kevin

      The letter literally starts with “As faculty members in the Cornell University ILR School.”

      They aren’t union members; they’re professors and faculty.

    • Sudha Laskhmi

      As the letter itself notes, the standard imposed by the National Labor Relations Act is: “interfere with, restrain OR coerce” (emphasis mine). In other words, the statements or actions by the employer don’t have to be coercive to violate the law; it’s sufficient if they can plausibly be thought to “interfere” with employees’ exercise of their right to choose a union. It seems to me the dean’s letter does at least constitute interference in the process, whether or not it’s a coercive threat.

      And if the authors are right about the Supreme Court treating mere “hints” of job loss as coercive in nature, then it seems the dean’s statement also counts as coercive, at least under the law.

  • Samuel

    Hey Alex, take note on the basic facts: the letter is from ILR Faculty, none of them are part of the union. The critiques are from experts in labor law & policy.

  • Nicole

    Yes, Alex actually doesn’t seem like much of an “intelligent adult” — apparently he/she’s more of an expert on labor laws than ILR Faculty, yet can’t even keep the subject of her comment straight.

    • Stoptheattacks

      So now the ILR faculty will teach you how you feel? If he/she didnt feel coerced, they didnt. Saying that you should feel coerced it utter nonsense. Please do not question the intelligence of other graduate students.

      • Ndl23

        It’s not a matter of “teaching how you feel” or “saying that you should feel coerced.” It’s long-established labor law. Plain and simple.

  • Graduate Student

    So Cornell sending a mild email outlining some facts about the consequences of unionization constitutes coercion? Then surely CGSU blasting us with pro-union propaganda emails, accosting us at our homes, and encouraging us not to vote if we plan to vote no is coercion, right?

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      Operative word: FACTS.

      Threatening jobs over unionization is not “some FACTS.” It is some bullshit.

      While we’re on the subject, the voter intimidation letter you obliquely refer to has been proved to have been written by an individual who was never eligible to vote and knew it–a fellow–who asked a student in his department what would happen if he DID vote, to which he received the reply that the AAA would challenge it on eligibility grounds. Not “some FACTS,” either. Some bullshit.

    • Dustin Unfeld

      Hey “Graduate Student” the subject here is law-breaking, Cornell’s done it. Lots of it. 30+ ILR Faculty sign a public letter saying it’s F’ed up.

      Any you don’t think this is a problem?

    • Sudha Laskhmi

      As the letter itself notes, the standard imposed by the National Labor Relations Act is: “interfere with, restrain OR coerce” (emphasis mine). In other words, the statements or actions by the employer don’t have to be coercive to violate the law; it’s sufficient if they can plausibly be thought to “interfere” with employees’ exercise of their right to choose a union. It seems to me the dean’s letter does at least constitute interference in the process, whether or not it’s a coercive threat.

      And if the authors are right about the Supreme Court treating mere “hints” of job loss as coercive in nature, then it seems the dean’s statement also counts as coercive, at least under the law.

  • grad

    I’m curious, what is the stipend for PhD students in ILR? Is their dental and vision covered? What about better child care? Since each department is pretty free to give whatever benefits they want to students after all. Do ILR faculty treat their students with respect? Grant reasonable vacation time? Reasonable work hours? How many ILR TAs are made to work in excess of the 20 hours per week allowed under policy 1.3?

    Never trust faculty to have student well being in mind. Their meddling in favor of the union did far more damage in my eyes than a million emails from administrators.

    • Kevin

      “Never trust faculty to have student well being in mind.”

      Sounds like a good argument for a union

      • grad

        Not if the union is affiliated to a national union that also represents faculty. It’s like hotel workers joining a union that also represents the Trump family.

        • Grad Worker at Cornell

          @grad your comment makes less sense each time I read it. If any faculty are affiliated with a national union, no grads should affiliate with same? Faculty here can’t unionize…what kind of connection are you proposing? That AFT has some grand deal with faculty to disadvantage grads so faculty can do…what? What about the grad unions with joint affiliations with AAUP? Are they like stupid or something?

          The conspiracy theories keep getting weirder.

          • Grad Worker at Cornell

            ps the idea that there are unions that bargain on behalf of oligarchs is hilarious

          • grad

            The issue is one of the things advertised by AFT is that they would lobby for change on behalf of their members. Well, if they represent faculty and students there will be times when those groups have opposing desires. For example, I’m sure faculty would love to see Title IX rolled back. And they would also prefer if no one told them how hard they can slave drive their students. I use the example of Trump because effectively faculty are the ones in charge at universities, so it doesn’t make sense for them to have a union (adjunct faculty are an exception here and are usually treated very unfairly by the tenured faculty).

            Faculty are the enemy here, not the administration. The faculty are the bosses, and the ones pushing for the right to abuse their students. They would all gladly pay us $10,000 a year, including the ILR faculty. So, any endorsement from faculty would ring hollow for me. Not saying the administration is really our friend either, but I see it as the enemy of my enemy is my friend type situation. I understood the opposition to the administrations tactics, and certain faculty, but was very turned off by how CGSU embraced the ILR faculty.

          • grad

            It sounds like you’ve had some bad experiences and could use collective support if you honestly believe that all faculty would “love to see Title IX rolled back” and “prefer if no one told them how hard they can slave drive their students.” Fortunately, I don’t think that holds true in every instance.

            From what I’ve observed of “shared governance” at Cornell, faculty has very little say in many of the policies affecting the university and can’t reasonably be considered management.

          • Grad Worker at Cornell

            @grad faculty writ large are not “the enemy”–are you serious? Law states they are management because of their relative positions in private universities (and in certain fields the supervisory role is much more concrete), but admin is practically much more in control of our shared and therefore bargainable working conditions and benefits (min stipends/health care plans/tuition waivers/fees/grievance procedures).

            My advisor is incredibly supportive of unionization for grads, and she has been shocked at the behavior of the administration and a few other idiot faculty who consider themselves manor lords over their grad vassals. She understands her position as one of silent support and non-interference.

            You clearly do not understand how unions actually work and it’s really strange that you believe that grads who belong to a union with faculty in it would be BAD for us. We benefit from greater resources and the ability to push for better conditions at universities for all academic employees across the board. Also there are thousands more grads in AFT than full time tenure track faculty…

  • Dustin Unfeld

    Hey “grad” the faculty aren’t unionized here, you dumb ass.

    I’d suggest you get your basic facts straight before going off on these tantrums. Unless you’re just trying to be misleading?

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      @Dustin Enfield I definitely think you’re right; @grad is attempting to create false dichotomies and manufacture “concerns” to make it seem as though affiliation with AFT (not unproblematic, mind you) is somehow “structurally” wrong. Pseudo-intellectual lazily invoked Marxism devoid of solidarity. Bahhhh

      • grad

        Who sets the actual stipends? Most of us are paid above minimum, how much above minimum is 100% a faculty decision. Who makes up the majority of voting seats on the general committee? You know, the ones who set the minimums. Who sets work expectations? Who make TAs work 40 hours a week because they are too lazy to teach their own class? Who shot down enforcement on the current policy on sexual relationships between advisers and advisees? My interaction with faculty has been about 30 70 teacher versus employer. My relationship with administration has been getting students to them to try and help out with difficult faculty members, and they do try. The way I see it, and I admit my experience may not be representative, is that the main role of admins is to do their best to reign in abusive faculty members who like to be lords of their little fiefdoms. My boss is not the dean, by boss is my adviser. And there is no way I would consider a union with a single faculty member appropriate for graduate students. If your faculty adviser is so great, why don’t they voluntarily pay you the prorated summer rate? Why don’t they voluntarily kick in dental and vision? They have the power to do it, no one is stopping them. Maybe it’s not true everywhere, but at this university faculty are the management when it comes to graduate assistants. Do the rules say management can’t comment on unionization, or they just can’t say anything bad about it?

        • Grad Worker at Cornell

          There is an advisory committee with some faculty admin and grads but the Board of Trustees sets stipends. Do some research! According to your logic here, faculty (who decide whether to pay over the minimum) are the allies because they give us a little extra sometimes….make up yr mind

          No one is saying the “boss” isn’t faculty. They are under law and when they direct paid research. But it is high-level admin that makes the calls on our benefits and most other things, like class size etc, because they are considered budgetary concerns–gotta count those pennies and keep that endowment rising.

          I’ve had faculty in my department ask me if the grad union can change the rules on class size! Faculty, who can’t unionize, hope grads unionizing will make things better for them as a collateral effect because they don’t really have much power left against corporate-minded admin. Hardly “the enemy.”

          Your claim that CGSU has embraced certain faculty….what are you referring to? To my knowledge CGSU has held the line on faculty and even published an FAQ asking supportive faculty to stand aside.

          • grad

            Are you kidding? Read the article were commenting on. And the one that came before in favor of unionizing from the same ilr faculty. I never said faculty were our friends because they pay us above minimum, I said it is faculty who decide how much to pay in the end, not the admin. The general committee recommendation is agreed to every time by the trustees, they don’t meddle in the day to day details. And class size is academic so the decision of faculty or dean’s elected by faculty. Faculty committees in individual departments decide their own stipend rate. And no comment on the excessive TA work load I see.

          • Grad Worker at Cornell

            You’re wrong about that. Class size has started to be considered a condition of work in some places, and therefore becoming available to collective bargaining more frequently. What is bargain-able is itself negotiable, you see. Literally nothing except wages and hours used to be considered subjects of collective bargaining. That’s obviously changed.

            What I don’t understand is why you think the opinion of ILR faculty–experts in the field, certainly–on the fact that the university broke labor law is somehow this terrible intervention. If the union had broken the law the faculty would be writing about that too–ULPs and disallowed conduct can happen on both sides.

            How is this at all connected to the fact that departments can decide to pay grads more than the minimum, when a union would only be able to negotiate minimums anyway? Are you saying that departments shouldn’t get to run themselves according to their needs/budgets? If TAs are being overworked then that’s fodder for a complaint against the supervisor/faculty. But the paranoid mentality it takes to connect this letter to “all faculty are ‘the enemy’ of grads” is exhausting. Peace

          • grad

            My issue is with the selective enforcement of this code of conduct. Union supporters cry foul at every mention of CGSU by the deans, or any negative view expressed by faculty even in private. But positive views expressed by faculty are somehow welcomed even though it still represents management weighing in on the unionization election and interfering with our ability to make a “free decision”. We clearly have had different experiences here, but in my experience the administration is the thin barrier between us and even worse abuse by faculty slave drivers. The right union for graduate students will see every faculty member opposed to it because it will herald the severe curtailing of their power.

          • Grad Worker at Cornell

            I thought your issue was with AFT also representing faculty, now its with enforcement of a speech code?

            Your last sentence, “herald the severe curtailing”…most faculty have been graduate students (some very recently) and wield their institutional power rather lightly. When their power is curtailed it would only be painful to the bad actors, as it should be. What are you envisioning: grads running the place? I will never be paid enough.

            There are two sides to this equation. If the university wants to come down on faculty for various acts it believes violate law or anything else, it can. However, what ILR faculty have done here–and when they responded to the Rawlings letter–is point out the failing of the administration to respect labor law and the code of conduct. These actions do not violate the code of conduct–that would be a twisted meta-violation, indeed, pretty Orwellian: speaking out that admin is in violation is itself a violation?

            When I jaywalk and a cop sees me, I don’t walk over to him and ask for a ticket. The level of policing your scenario requires–that I guess the union would be responsible for it?–is not plausible or desirable. Faculty know what they aren’t supposed to do and it’s worked well for the most part. My advisor isn’t in violation for talking to me about the union because she doesn’t tell me what to do and I’m certainly not going to turn her in for expressing her opinion on the bad behavior of the university.

          • grad

            So, criticizing a public letter published in a news paper is orwellian, but going after a professor for sending a private letter to other faculty is not? Don’t get me wrong, not defending that guy either, just pointing out the hypocrisy. And as far as I can tell, that statement from Rawlings was a part of the agreement between CGSU and the administration. One statement on unionization. Not going to argue with you on Dean Knuth’s subsequent behavior, that was at best stretching the letter of the agreement in an unethical way.

            To summarize my issue, it’s this:
            1) Faculty at Cornell are the bosses when it comes to graduate students. They set work hours in lab and the classroom. They set the stipend levels in a majority of cases. The administration sets maximums (ignored by most faculty) in the former and minimums (opposed by plenty of faculty I’m sure) in the latter. And, as I’m learning this semester they apparently have control over policies governing sexual relationships between themselves and their students.
            2) Unions cannot simultaneously represent the boss and the employee. I understand the faculty here aren’t unionized through AFT, but at the national level several colleges are. That in my mind is a reason to not affiliate with AFT, though I admit this is only tangentially related here.
            3) A union being endorsed by the boss is not to be trusted. This is a very grey area I admit, but your adviser took the correct approach and stayed quiet and allowed it to be a debate between students. The ILR faculty turned me off CGSU and are continuing to do so. ILR opinion isn’t needed since AFT is already talking about challenging the results, at least they have a stake in this as the potential union much as I wish they weren’t. If the ILR faculty want to issue a private statement they should go ahead. I take a hard line on this, no public comment by the faculty on the union is acceptable, and is potentially hypocritical.

  • michelangelo

    This will be a siiiiiiiiiiick case study in ilrob 1220 in a couple years