September 6, 2017

Letter to the Editor: ILR faculty perspectives on negotiations between the Cornell Administration and CGSU

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To the editor:

The following letter was sent to Cornell President Martha Pollack on September 6, 2017:

Dear President Pollack:

Labor Day provides an important moment to reflect on the rights of employees, including on the Cornell campus. As you know, in March 2017, Cornell graduate employees voted on whether to be represented by the Cornell Graduate Students United in collective bargaining with Cornell. The election results were close, with 856 votes for union representation, 919 votes against union representation and 81 ballots not yet counted due to questions about voter eligibility. At this point, therefore, the final outcome of that election remains uncertain. According to the Cornell Graduate School, it is expected that a final tally would maintain the majority “no” vote.

Unfortunately, two incidents occurred that interfered with Cornell graduate employees’ right to vote in a fair election. On the eve of the election, Cornell’s Senior Vice Provost and Graduate School Dean Barbara Knuth sent an email to all graduate students that linked union negotiated benefits to the possibility of “reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell.” This email by Dean Knuth constituted a threat that a vote for the union could lead to future cutbacks in the graduate program. On the first day of the election, Dean Knuth sent a second email informing graduate students of new insurance benefits. Announcing new benefits close to the time of an election to influence employees to vote against union representation interferes with voters’ free choice.

Following the election, 32 ILR faculty signed a letter, published in the Cornell Daily Sun, expressing deep concern about Dean Knuth’s coercive actions. This ILR faculty letter stated, “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.” As the letter explained, “Each message [by Dean Knuth], 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.”

In writing to you today, we again draw on our expertise and experience as ILR faculty to urge Cornell to take action to remedy this situation. Dean Knuth’s coercive conduct interfered with graduate employees’ ability to freely exercise their rights to choose whether to be represented by the CGSU. We urge you to take action to right this wrong.

As explained on the Cornell Graduate School website, the Cornell administration and the CGSU have been negotiating for an agreement to hold a second election if CGSU chooses to file another election petition. We commend Cornell for engaging in these negotiations and urge you to reach a mutually agreeable plan with the CGSU for a second election, collective bargaining if the union is elected, and implementation of any collective bargaining agreement reached. Further, we urge Cornell to agree to honor this plan regardless of any change that may occur in the National Labor Relations Board’s Columbia University precedent that graduate assistants are employees under the National Labor Relations Act. By choosing this path, Cornell would follow the highest ethical standards in labor relations by respecting graduate employees’ freedom of association and choices concerning unionization. This was the path taken by New York University in 2013, when it voluntarily recognized and entered a collective bargaining agreement with a union of graduate assistants prior to the NLRB’s decision in Columbia University. We believe that Cornell should do no less.

Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, ILR

Prof. Maria Lorena Cook, ILR

Prof. Ileen A. DeVault, ILR

Prof. James Gross, ILR

Prof. David B. Lipsky, ILR

Prof. Lowell Turner, ILR

Jeff Grabelsky, associate director of the Worker Institute

Lara Skinner, associate director of the Worker Institute

Prof. Sarosh Kuruvilla, ILR

KC Wagner, senior extension associate at the ILR School

Prof. William Sonnenstuhl, ILR

Prof. Shannon Gleeson, ILR

Prof. Kate Griffith, ILR

Prof. Lance Compa, ILR

Prof. Rachel Aleks, ILR

Prof. Michael Evan Gold, ILR

Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner, ILR

Prof. Virginia Doellgast, ILR

Sally Klingel, senior extension associate at the ILR School

Prof. Eli Friedman, ILR

Sally Alvarez, senior extension associate at the Worker Institute

Maria Figueroa, Worker Institute, ILR School

Prof. Ben A. Rissing, ILR

Prof. Lee H. Adler, ILR

Valerie C. Benjamin, assistant dean of human resources, ILR School

Prof. Emily Zitek, ILR

Debra Lamb, assistant director for access and administrative services, Hospitality, Labor and Management Library

Aliqae Geraci, associate director of Catherwood Library

Prof. Allison Weiner Heinemann, ILR

Jim DelRosso, associate librarian at Catherwood Library

Linda H. Donahue, senior extension associate at the Worker Institute

Prof. Sam Nelson, ILR

Nellie Brown CIH, director of the Workplace Health and Safety Program, ILR

Patrizia Sione, research archivist at the Kheel Center, ILR

Prof. Ronald Applegate, ILR

Esta Bigler, director of the Labor and Employment Law Program, ILR

  • Kenshin13850

    I think a union can offer a lot to certain students at Cornell, but I do not think CGSU is a union that I want to represent me. I say this because the CGSU is no better in their tactics to establish their union than the complaints raised against Dean Knuth.

    The way CGSU conducts itself seems predatory, petty, and unprofessional. They haven’t said anything concrete really and just offer platitudes like “more pay, better insurance, workers comp” and things that we all obviously want, but they don’t have a strategy beyond “we’ll get it at the negotiations”. They even bother people at their homes attempting to drum up support with a door-to-door campaign. They strike me more as zealous supporters rather than mature individuals seeking civil discussion and better conditions with a clear strategy. I want a union with a professional face and clear direction. I think there are many students at Cornell that would benefit from a union, but I don’t think CGSU is that union.

    If that’s not enough, then the voting block the CGSU sought excluded students on external fellowships and grants, which includes a large number of STEM students. We STEM students do not stand to gain much by being included in the union and are largely opposed to unionization. This exclusion of our students effectively disenfranchises people who would ultimately be included under the union when their funding expires. It seems like an effective way to exclude a group that is opposed to the union to force the vote to pass.

    That said, I am not privy to the negotiations. There may have been very legitimate reasons to exclude these students or to be unable to give a concrete strategic plan and objectives. But all I see are shadows, secrecy, and mudslinging. I am content with the status quo and I think the CGSU is doing more harm than good at the moment.

    Anecdotally, this was my first impression of the the CGSU. The CGSU came to GPSA to have an open forum “discussion” with the graduate school (I was a field rep at the time). Approximately 40 extra students came to support the CGSU. The students asked questions of CGSU and Dean Knuth and it was not a very civil discussion. The CGSU peanut gallery cheered whenever CGSU reps spoke and boo’d whenever Barbara spoke. The CGSU would say things like “We have unmet needs X, Y, and Z” followed by cheering, to which Barbara would respond “We already have tools A, B, C in place to meet needs X, Y, and Z respectively” followed by boo’ing. It was a disgusting civil display and an awful first impression. Since then, the CGSU has done nothing to improve their image in my eyes.

    Recent communications from the CGSU indicate they are seeking input to change their tactics and how they present themselves. I hope they do so in a positive manner.

    Personally, I believe unions should focus on departments since I do not believe there is a union that can effectively serve the entire graduate community. I want a union for STEM students with STEM student needs in mind. I want a union for humanity students with humanity students needs in mind. I understand that smaller unions will wield considerably less power, but I don’t think a blanket union will accommodate everyone’s needs.

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