Just weeks after the graduate student union recognition election — in which results were deemed too close to call — Cornell Graduate Students United members have spent the time reflecting on what strategies worked, but more importantly, what methods failed in their organizing drive.
As part of this critical self-reflection, a caucus has formed among CGSU members to scrutinize its “lack of engagement with its membership” and “the nature of its relationship with its affiliate unions,” according to the caucus’ website.
In its third meeting on Thursday, the Rank and File Democracy Caucus drew 16 graduate students, huddled around tables at Big Red Barn, to discuss — and at points debate — with a view toward both the past and the future.
The caucus, established less than a month ago, has drawn attention from within and outside of CGSU, especially due to its critical evaluation of CGSU and list of demands moving forward posted on its website.
However, Chair of CGSU’s Communications and Outreach Committee Nomfundo Makhubo told The Sun that the caucus is not an official CGSU body within the organization. Instead she said it is best described as a “project by a small number of members.”
“[The Rank and File Caucus is] not a recognized group,” Makhubo said. “They are a group of members of the union, but the caucus itself as a body or as an organization or as a committee within CGSU is not recognized … It has to be a conversation within the whole CGSU or within the major structures of the union for it to be recognized.”
This emergence of this caucus comes at a moment where CGSU is currently in negotiations with the University as the two parties decide which steps to take moving forward. The results of the election remain inconclusive and the American Arbitration Association is yet to definitively announce the outcome.
Based on possible breaches in the contract negotiated between CGSU and the University, CGSU is considering filing objections to the arbitrator. Dependent on the decision of the arbitrator, these objections could spur another union recognition election should the arbitrator deem that the objections inhibited a fair election. The call for another election could also come from the current ongoing negotiations between CGSU and Cornell.
Based on this context, CGSU’s eminence on campus is in no way diminishing.
Reflecting on the campaigning prior to the election and the unionization drive as a whole, members of the caucus expressed that the CGSU’s focus had been the end goal of winning the recognition election. In doing so, they ignored the questions of specific issues and rather “instrumentaliz[ed]” graduate students as simply voting members.
“That’s our main problem, that CGSU has built a base on the basis of instrumentalizing people and seeing them as votes as opposed to making as many members as informed and empowered as possible,” said Sena Aydin, a member of the caucus and CGSU organizing committee chair.
Caucus members, though they recognize that there is a possibility for another election, stressed that they are focusing on understanding the aims of members in an inclusive process. This process to make the union member-driven, gains supports from “collective labor power,” not legal recognition status, Aydin said.
“Whether [a union is] legally recognized or not, that shouldn’t be the issue,” Aydin added. “The issue here is what’s the aim and what’s the purpose of the people who are trying to speak and who are trying to inform and empower members.”
In opening up a critical discussion among members within the union, the caucus aims to strengthen CGSU by pushing the organization to become more member-driven, democratic and transparent — aims that some say appear lacking in the current structures of CGSU.
To create a more member-driven union and achieve a greater degree of transparency, members of the caucus mused that they objected to the level of secrecy CGSU maintained during campaigning, even continuing in the present.
For this reason with a view toward transparency, the caucus has worked to make more information accessible on its website, according to Jeffrey Bergfalk, a member of the caucus and CGSU treasurer.
“One of the first things that the caucus hopes to do — and I would direct people to the website, which does have news about the union that union-members aren’t getting otherwise — one of the first roles and functions and concrete tasks of this caucus is simply to inform membership what their union is doing,” Bergfalk said.
Some CGSU members outside of the caucus were critical of the information posted on their website, indicating that it potentially released information meant to remain confidential.
“A lot of the things that are said on that website are actual CGSU-official information that we hadn’t agreed that we would openly speak about,” Makhubo said.
In response to this critique of the information shared on their website, caucus members noted that this highlighted the issue of transparency the caucus seeks to resolve.
“We will never derive power from secrecy. We will always derive power from openness, transparency and members and from members and even non-members talking. That’s where we will always base our power,” Bergfalk said. “How do we hold back the information that we have — that’s never going to be our question. Our impulse is always going to be the opposite.”
Moving forward in whatever action CGSU takes coming out of negotiations, CGSU hopes to use this sort of reflection, looking back on potential flaws in the organizing drive, to build a stronger union for the future.
Members of the caucus expressed that this goal could be achieved with a critical examination of the governance structure and constitution. Doing so would encourage more active membership across the board rather than a small portion of members. For Jaron Kent-Dobias, a caucus member, the lack of distributed involvement was one of the greatest issues in the election.
“One of the issues of our campaigns is that we had so few grad organizers,” Kent-Dobias said. “At the end of the day, we only had like 50 or 60 active organizers. That’s nearly a hundred bargaining unit members per organizer. You don’t get to build community. You don’t get a chance to connect with people.”
A potential restructuring of the constitution that Kent-Dobias proposed would be to make the constitution a “shop-model” type that would establish a “representative governance system that distributes organization across multiple bodies,” he said.
Ethan Ritz, a caucus member, also spoke to this point, arguing that the current structure of the union places much of the control into the hands of a few members, saying that “there’s an argument that the union has a structure that is very top-heavy” where “there are a few students who do a lot of the decision-making for the union,” Ritz said.
For Ritz, a potential solution to this, the aim of a more member-driven union, thus is to create a more “organic community” in organizing.
“I think the path forward, and what I hope can come out of this caucus, is for the union to become more of an organic community,” Ritz said. “There are a lot of valid critiques — and critiques that I have — of election campaign tactics. Many people were put off by unsolicited contact, by over-contact…A lot of those tactics, the reason why those tactics were used is because we lacked an organic community, of natural channels to help build and to communicate within the union.”
For both caucus members and CGSU members outside the caucus, these critiques do not serve to weaken the union. Rather, they argue that the formation of groups such as their own points to the health of the organization.
“Self-reflection shouldn’t necessarily imply weakness. There are always disagreements among organizers about how things are best done,” Kent-Dobias said. “I think if we are at all going to be ready, be worthy of another campaign, we need to seriously examine the mistakes we made in our election strategies and in our governance and work to correct them going forward.”