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Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

April 28, 2017

Amid Negotiations With University Following Union Election, Caucus Forms to Challenge CGSU Tactics

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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.”

  • GS

    “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.”

    Ummm, am I the only person who thinks this sounds a lot like GPSA? Regardless, as a non-union member, I’m actually very excited by what Rank&File are trying to do. It seems like the best next step to help win those of us over who felt like CGSU didn’t actually care about us.

    • NewLeadershipNeeded

      Agreed. I don’t know any caucus members personally but they seem to have a much better vision than the initial leadership. Not included in this article is that the current leadership buried a grievance against Makhubo (quoted in this article) because she was (and perhaps still is?) employed by and receiving money from AFT. It finally was brought to the entire union for a vote but the terrible leadership forced a binary choice between making Makhubo and anyone else employed by AFT step down immediately, or just letting it slide. The fact that the leadership is STILL behaving in this way gives me even less confidence in CGSU; hopefully these Rank and File people perform some sort of coup.

      • MJB

        Hi, I’m in the leadership (admin liaison) and the grievance wasn’t buried; it was decided, then appealed, and membership voted that should she wish, the grieving party could, either on her own or with others, write an amendment and propose it to the union herself as is her right, but that there would be no forced resignations or forced amendments as she wanted. The binary choice was actually a choice between her desired outcome for the grievance as she originally proposed it, and letting the Steering Committee decision stand. The decision to have a ballot constructed in that way was actually made by that meeting’s facilitator, Jaron, also mentioned above as a member of the caucus.

        There are no rules currently forbidding grads in leadership from obtaining funding from any source (in fact the constitution states quite the opposite), and having a few members doing “release organizing” and being paid by AFT was something the union wanted and negotiated for in our agreement (also voted on by the whole union) with them, so that more grads could justify doing the work and contribute. I did it for a few months last summer when I didn’t have summer funding and it is normal for campaigns to have this.

        The decision of the Steering Committee also asked that discussions about this issue going forward to refrain from mentioning Ms Makhubo by name, as she has already undergone tremendous personal grief in regard to this issue. It sounds like you are a member, since know details of that meeting. Please honor that request as it won the vote.

        • Fed-up

          The grieving party was treated terribly in the case. Her grievance was delayed for months and I have heard that members of the steering committee attempted to brand her as a racist and anti-union organizer closer to the election. AFT has been an awful addition to the union and to the Cornell community. By willfully ignoring the justified anxiety around AFT’s involvement, the union is sinking their own cause. The caucus seems like a good way to rectify the problems created by blindly following AFT under old leadership.

          • MJB

            If you care to find out more about this, rather making assumptions based on what you’ve “heard,” my name is Michaela Brangan, and you can find my netID in the usual place. You clearly have no idea what was going on or you do and are trying to cast a whisper campaign net via this *resolved* grievance.

          • Grad

            How is the steering committee still this clueless? People complain on the tendency of CGSU to shout down any opposition as scare tactics or whisper campaigns or administration conspiracies, CGSU loses the vote largely because of these tactics, and now it seems they are just doubling down. Why can’t they understand that it is possible to be pro union and anti AFT?

          • Fed-up

            You’re free to put your name out there, but I have little faith that the admin liaison is going to give a fair and accurate representation of what went on in the grievance proceedings, so I will not be contacting you and will refer my questions to other CGSU members. At the general assembly meeting, as I’m sure you remember, the grieving party proposed a third solution where members could opt to keep all current members paid by AFT on the steering committee for the remainder of their terms and then restrict them from leadership positions beginning in the next term. Why is it that the number of people who voted to forgo the inclusion of the third option was roughly equivalent to the number that voted against the grieving party? It’s because you successfully waged a campaign against the grieving party’s character. You in the leadership seem to like to do this – a professor is openly anti-union so he should be branded as a rape apologist, one of your members goes against your leadership so her integrity is called into question. The integrity of whoever is making these decisions and waging these campaigns is, in my opinion, the one that should be called into question. My suggestion for what it’s worth: get new leadership who cares about transparency.

          • MJB

            Hi Fed-Up. FWIW I thought letting people write in their own ideas about what to do was a fine idea…that didn’t make it past the proposal stage, though. I think people probably just didn’t think the third option added much.

            My position remains that repealing the clear rights of members–currently “All members may…run for elected office,” and grads can be members regardless of “funding source” or “work… status” (https://cornellgsu.org/our-constitution#VI.A, Sections A + C)–cannot be done by fiat “restriction” whether it’s now, next term or in five years from now. It takes an amendment.

            The grieving party has the right to make an amendment forbidding people from leadership based on their work status, and propose it to members and see if they’ll vote for it, absolutely she does. I certainly won’t stand in her way–I believe that’s the right thing to do. But I also won’t countenance a demand to fast-track anything in clear violation of current rules and the rights of others, just because someone has a deeply-held belief.

            It’s also an abuse of power to force another group to make an amendment written in a particular way. But she has the same member privileges as everyone else: she can take advantage of them and gather support for her position to alter that part of the bylaws.

          • Sena A

            Dear Fed-Up, I am a Steering Committee member who is part of the Rank and File Democracy caucus. It’s no secret at this point that Steering Committee members have different opinions and positions, and members will hear different stories regarding this grievance (and everything else) depending on whom they talk to on the Steering Committee and who talks back to them. I have no interest in talking at members and claiming “truth” because I have access to information that members do not. Instead, I would like to say: if any member would like to learn more of the details of this grievance, how the Steering Committee handled it, and how it was presented at the General Assembly, without being fed one or another selective version of its history, I would be happy to share all the Steering Committee communications regarding this grievance with them, so that they may form their own judgments.

          • NewLeadershipNeeded

            Sena, thank you for being one of the few (the only as far as I can tell?) Steering Committee member standing for transparency. MJB, while I understand the personal decency behind not naming people when talking about policies, I find it to be inappropriate for the Steering Committee to actually ask (or rather, strongly encourage) union members to abide by their speech codes. Unions are political organizations, and when special financial interests aren’t disclosed by leadership members (effectively politicians), politics will play out as politics does. You cannot have it both ways. You are correct that I am a union member who voted for CGSU recognition, but am now frankly thankful that we lost. Had the current leadership been given bargaining powers, I’m confident we’d be in a substantially worse place than we are now without representation. Maybe I’ll change my mind in the future, but that’s looking less and less likely.

  • Grad

    My suggestion: dump AFT. The union will win in a landslide if they do that and hold a new vote next year.

    • GSCU

      Who do you think CGSU should affiliate with?

      • Grad

        No one. I may have a view tainted by an aggressive media campaign from anarcho capitalist types, but I don’t trust the national unions very much. I think that a local, fully independent union, or a national union of graduate students, would be most appropriate. That national union of graduate students does not exist, but why can’t Cornell be the birthplace of it with our prestigious ILR program? Imagine what a local union with that $1,000,000 that was going to go to AFT could do? Or even half of that? Grad students already have a pretty good deal, the first contract can simply pursue a bite and hold strategy rather than promising grand things. Solidify the current situation with a contract, and collect $100 or $200 dues to get some good negotiators for round two. And a local union would be fully in control of Cornell grad students right down to every penny of dues.

        • GSCU

          I assume by “anarcho capitalist types” you mean the “aggressive media campaign” by At What Cost, especially since you write “in control OF Cornell grad students” at the end, maybe that was a slip…also not sure what ILR has to do with this? Hard to tell whether this is sincerely interested in grad organizing or anti- speculation based on third-partying the “big” union

          Anyway, it’s possible that some other structure could work. I suspect that’s what members of this Caucus might be after. I also agree re contract. But without the support of a national union CGSU would have to charge dues before recognition if they wanted to build an organization on their own, and charging dues just to support unrecognized amateur student governance isn’t really that appealing for me… For instance a bunch of people in this “rank and file” group were responsible for writing and forcing the circulation of that negotiating amendment that raised so much deserved criticism in the media, against a lot of advice, and I don’t want any money of mine going towards stuff like that no matter how well-intentioned people are. If I pay dues it had better be to support a contract and not experiments.

          • Grad

            No, AWC didn’t really change my mind so much as say out loud what I was thinking the whole time. And they aren’t anarcho capitalist, or really anti union, just anti cgsu from what I saw.

            To clarify, I meant a union grad students and only grad students control. This new caucus website gives pretty strong evidence that grad students do not control cgsu much at all. I am genuinely interested in seeing an independent union forming, and seeing this new grad only union spread to all other grad schools across the country. I think it would be the best possible outcome and start genuine change at the national level. I just threw out ILR because we do have that strong resource here of grad students who know labor law so why not use it for our own union.

            And you already pay $2 a year to support GPSA, this independent union could get by on that or a little more for the first year while they organize. Get a first time contract with minor concessions, say a $100 stipend increase to offset dues and guaranteed inflationary increases as well as guaranteed health care for all students in all departments, including ones paid above minimum. Take that money, save it for three years, and come back with a paid negotiating team to see what else can be gotten in the next contract. It can be done, it does require us to be willing to play the long game, but the end result is our own union with our own staff answerable to us.

          • GSCU

            Gathering $2 a year from individual union members would be barely enough to buy snacks for meetings and rent rooms for said meetings for a year, much less provide the resources needed to negotiate a first contract–even if all 6000 or so grad students joined the union, much less the 2200 who can vote in an election at any given time. Even gathering $50 per person wouldn’t pay for the costs of bargaining, and there is no way I would pay that for snacks and rooms and the privilege to vote in rooms.

            I wish your optimism was more correct than it is. But you are so wrong about the costs–time, money, political capital–of organizing and bargaining and the willingness of average people to invest money in something that isn’t already benefitting them. That’s why there are no dues until a contract and why contracts are negotiated to outstrip dues costs.

          • Grad

            So you’re saying the current labor conditions in America make national unions the only option? And people wonder why I don’t like them. And seriously, check your activity fee, it’s $2 per student to fund the gpsa, all of it. And only a small portion of it goes to advocacy, yet they still have gotten some impressive gains for us over the years. A good organizing campaign doesn’t need these bells and whistles, just some money for flyers and snacks and some info sessions. I think if we had a recognized union going into negotiations on a contract you’d get people willing to contribute some money to get an attorney to review the final contract, but I would be happier with a group of five grad students handling all the negotiation meetings with the admins. I guess I fail to see why a union needs to be a million dollar operation.

          • GSCU

            I’m not saying it isn’t possible. I’m saying it will cost way more that $2 or even $50 a year to achieve what you’re saying, and I don’t think it’ll get done by hanging about meeting rooms and forming caucuses, and so I won’t be paying any amount of money to fund more student government experiments, even if it calls itself a rank-and-file union, and I don’t know many people who would. But funding itself is the only way to be independent before and after an election and going into bargaining, and right now we pay zero money to zero parties. Therein lies the rub.

            There are huge differences between GPSA and a union. One main one is that university absolutely doesn’t want a union because it has the power to extract much more in a shorter period of time and with the backing of real law. GPSA is not adversarial or contractual; it is conciliatory and contingent and has successes based on what the university says it can do, not what they actually must do.

            That doesn’t diminish the work of GPSA, not in the least. If GPSA is what you want, support it. But there is no comparison between the two…they are structurally too dissimilar even though they can work in cooperation I imagine.

          • GSCU

            Also…those would have to be some extraordinarily beautiful flyers, some incredible info sessions, and like crazy-good snacks to get hundreds of people to vote yes in an election that would mean the entire legal, political and material relationship between the employer and employee would change, not to mention the employee’s relationship to himself as a political subject.

            More likely you would have a few dozen people coming to info sessions to eat the snacks.

          • Grad

            If a union was necessary, it would win with nothing more than that. If it takes a coordinated and saturating canpaign, it’s probably not necessary, more of a salesman pushing a sale. Now, to be fair if a union was necessary you would need the outside help to overcome the administration attempts at blocking a legal vote in favor, like the situation at Columbia. I still think an independent union is worth the risk, and I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of student volunteers to get things done. Again, dues offsets can be negotiated for the first pass, and yeah it would likely take $100 per member at minimum. But that $100 a year translates to $200,000 a year which is enough for an attorney to work full time with the negotiating team on the legalese.

  • Reality Check

    It’s been more than a month since voting ended in the GPSU recognition election, in which the no side achieved a 63-vote plurality and only 81 of 1,856 ballots were deemed questionable. What’s taking so long for AAA (the election administrator) to resolve the uncertainties and declare a winner? Assertions of pre-voting improprieties are not a proper basis for deferred reporting of the outcome. Before the two (or more?) sides resolve their next steps, the outcome of the the preceding step should be clearly documented.

  • Working Grad

    I think Grad’s suggestions are quite interesting. I think there’s some potential for an independent union — and it’s an exciting idea and good for Cornell & ILR etc to be this type of leader. I’d hope CGSU could solve the problems w its current constitution. I’d actually say a great place to look for ideas on how to do this is the GPSA, which runs like butter and is great at getting things done (the only problem is that it doesn’t have much or any real power in the realm of labor or employment).

    The biggest challenge I’d see with going alone w/o a national affiliate union is successfully getting the legal support the union would need for national legislative advocacy. Cornell and all the other Ivy+’s for instance signed an amicus brief opposing grad unionization in March 2016 before the NLRB ruling was overturned and they’re giving every indication they’ll go after the prospect of a grad union with lawyers and money (if they can’t manipulate the results of the election in their favor, as they so desperately tried to do this spring).

    One of the problems right now is the Cornell’s law clinics, for instance, are barred from getting involved in internal matters. And there were at least a few instances over the years where the GPSA has tried to get legal support during flare-ups with the administration (especially regarding the workers’ comp controversy).

    My main point is that if grads are going to have a union, we’d need the big-time legal support that a national affiliate like AFT can provide. Since they’re invested in at least 5 other high profile grad union campaigns they do have a lot of investment in fighting these battles. That said, the local AFT staff really did a lot to screw up the campaign this year. The main questions for me are: i) can the relationship w AFT be reformed so that CGSU stays in control both during and after the campaign, or ii) could an independent CGSU find a sustainable way to engage in the national legislative advocacy we’d need by hiring our own lawyers and/or reforming the policies that prevent the cornell law clinics for getting involved in internal issues

    • Grad

      National legislative action is nice, but sort of a stretch goal I think. Now, I hate arm chair quarterbacks as much as the next person and I sincerely tip my hat to everyone devoting so much time to this, but for what it’s worth what I would do is the following: dump AFT, pursue a second election ASAP. I don’t know the legalities of this, new cards may be needed. But the idea is out there right now that a union would be good to have, but people are hesitant around AFT. Launch a full proposal, lay out what the dues will be and what they will pay for. Name realistic labor related goals for the first round, nothing crazy. Guarantee that there will be no attempt at equalizing stipends and lay out a plan for dealing with the decentralized nature of the way stipends are set at Cornell. Basically, avoid the emotional plea and go for the data driven approach. I think you can get a bunch of people behind that idea. If Cornell decides to stonewall and prevent an election, use it as a way to get a first round of crowd funding. It won’t be much, because of concerns over funding a sinking ship. But it should be enough to get the NLRB to weigh in. Then, the election itself would be the easiest part. Two biggest reasons I heard for voting against the union was AFT’s tactics and AFT’s price tag. Without AFT, that election would be 80% in favor. Cornell would have to try very hard to stop that. Once that is done, ask for people to contribute dues ahead of the contract. You don’t need a full time attorney, just enough billed hours to consult at the beginning and end and let students handle the middle part. Half of my family are attorneys, $10,000 would be enough for that. That’s why ILR will be key, bring in as many ILR PhD’s and masters who would be knowledgeable about what is needed. After the first contract, you can actually collect say $200 in dues from people. That’s a $400,000 a year budget, more than enough for a full time attorney and a paralegal. Or, probably smarter idea, save it up and have $1,000,000 saved for the next contract negotiation (I still think that is excessive but I admit to my limited knowledge on this) and use the rest to support students that have individual grievances with Cornell as they come up. This will mean very few gains in that first contract, the one done on a shoe string budget. But ultimately the long term benefits of an independent union slowly growing to be a national union of graduate students outweighs the costs, in my opinion.

      • Dustin Unfeld

        I’m with Grad on this one!

  • dinkleberg

    What would be the disadvantages to a grad student union that students enter by departmental votes? For example, each department votes to unionize or not and those that voted yes collectively unionize, those that voted no have the option to join the union with a future vote.

    I feel like one of the big problems with the union idea was that it was all-encompassing, where every grad student was forced to join it. So you had departments in the STEM fields, who would gain nothing from unionizing (wages far above minimum wage, student health covered, etc.) who voted en mass against paying $400-800 annually for essentially nothing. Whereas some humanity department grad students would definitely benefit from unionization but now had to out-vote both people who hated the predatory CGSU as well as departments that didn’t need to unionize.

    Have the voting done department-by-department so you’re not forcing grad students in departments who don’t want to unionize to pay unneeded dues, and create a better chance of departments that need unionization to get the representation they want. This will also prevent students from departments where the union has no chance of winning to be bombarded by unwanted voting campaigns. This is what happened to Yale, they had elections in 9 departments because they believed only those 9 departments would unionize. 8 of those departments voted yes and they’re now collectively forming their union, as they wanted. The only department that voted no, Physics, will have the opportunity to vote yes in the future if they desire, as well as the other departments that didn’t vote.

    Now why did CGSU not employ this kind of system? Why did they want an all-encompassing unon attempt instead of winning a collective of supporting departments? I feel like they saw that they had the best chance to deceive the most students that they could into voting yes, and if the students felt like unionizing wasn’t worth it in the long run, the difficulty of removing CGSU would mae it nearly impossible. I feel like CGSU attempted to get a permanent deal to force half the grad student population to pay them for something they didn’t want. Had they simply had a department-by-department vote, then yes they would definitely have won some departments, but a handful of departments would be forever out of their reach as they would never vote to unionize.

    CGSU tried to force certain departments to unionize based on the majority of other departments. That was their goal. The only way grad students will unionize is if: 1) a local union is formed and they aren’t predatory, deceitful dickwads, or 2) it’s a department-by-department vote like at Yale (WHERE THEY SUCCESSFULLY VOTED TO UNIONIZE).

    -A grad student in a department that voted >90% no, but still feels like some other departments need it