For more than six months since the union recognition election in March, Cornell Graduate Students United and the University have been negotiating terms for a new agreement that would ultimately establish conduct for another union recognition election. With negotiations at a “standstill,” CGSU is bringing the possibility for a re-election to its membership with a referendum vote.
According to Michaela Brangan, grad, former member of the Union Management Committee, the referendum will allow CGSU members to vote on three options: to file objections with the arbitrator, to accept the settlement that has been reached in negotiations or to accept the results of the election.
As it stands, the election has not been certified by the American Arbitration Association as the two parties have been in negotiation. When the ballots were counted in March, 856 voted in favor of establishing a graduate student union and 919 voted against it.
If members were to vote to accept the results of the election, the remaining 81 contested ballots would be determined and the results would be then be announced and certified. These challenge ballots have been put aside during negotiations, according to Brangan.
Negotiating began following the recognition election after arbitrators gave CGSU an indefinite amount of time to decide whether to file objections with the University. This process also came following an announcement by the American Federation of Teachers — the union with which CGSU is affiliated — saying they were considering filing objections.
During negotiations with the University, the two parties — through communication primarily between their lawyers — have attempted to settle terms of a new agreement that would establish guidelines for another union recognition election.
Negotiations has “reached an impasse” at this point with neither side “willing to compromise any more,” said Hao Shi, grad, UMC member. For this reason, CGSU has decided to move from negotiations to voting on the referendum, allowing for input from the entire body of members to decide the best path to move forward.
The main goal of negotiations was to establish, within the agreement, protections for CGSU if the National Labor Relations Board, under the Trump administration, were to overturn an August 2016 ruling. This ruling established that graduate students could be considered workers under the NLRB, with the right to campaign and organize.
However, the agreement, which although not yet finalized as each party waits on lawyers to add final details, would not guarantee this protection.
For Ethan Susca, grad, administrative liaison for CGSU and UMC member, not guaranteeing this protection despite months of back and forth between the two parties made the process feel like a “waste of time,” he said.
“We thought we were going to get more out of [negotiations],” he said. “We thought we were going to get some type of protections against the Columbia ruling. It seems like after all of it is over with, we don’t have those.”
He added that “it’s easy for those of us who have been involved to feel very pessimistic right now. … We tried and it doesn’t feel like we accomplished a whole lot.”
Filing objections to the union recognition election based on unfair labor practices would be based on behavior by the University prior to and during the election. These behaviors mainly include offering students health insurance benefits on the day of the election, accusing CGSU of voter intimidation during the election and claims made in the Ask A Dean forum, Susca said.
Earlier in September, Joel Malina, vice president for University Relations, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that if CGSU were to file objections, the University would consider filing objections against CGSU. This consideration has not been raised in negotiations nor in any communications with CGSU, said Brangan and Aubrie James, grad, standing chair of the legal affairs committee.
Brangan, summing the conduct of the University as “deplorable,” added that such accusations are “baseless.”
“The way that Cornell has acted is a piece of a larger story about the ways that the University really just wants to keep its most malleable and low-paid workers quiet,” Brangan said, speaking in reference to recent union recognition elections at universities across the country.
The University did not respond to a request for comment.
After filing objections, it would then be to the discretion of the arbitrator to decide if such behaviors were “influential” to the outcome of the election, said Jaron Kent-Dobias, grad, UMC member.
“Given that our election was extremely close, and was extremely close alongside an extremely low turnout for this type of election, if any objectionable behavior is found on behalf of the University, I cannot imagine that the arbitrator would see that as being non-influential,” Kent-Dobias said.
However, filing objections does not come without its caveat for CGSU.
“We’re relinquishing a huge amount of power if the objections are filed because then all the decisions, every last one of them, regarding the nature of our next campaign, will be made by the arbitrator,” Susca said.
Depending on the result of filing the objections, Kent-Dobias said, the arbitrator may give leverage to the union in the process.
“Typically if an arbitrator in this sort of case does find fault in one of the party’s behavior, they will take a lot of the input of the other party into how to decide things to happen,” he said. “If we end up winning objections and we tell the arbitrator as part of that filing, this is how we’d like it to be resolved, the arbitrator is likely to take that into account.”
As it is up to the arbitrator’s discretion, it is possible that the arbitrator may decide that the objections do not warrant a re-election. For this reason, CGSU members may find the agreement — which would guarantee another election in the future — as more beneficial for the union, Kent-Dobias said.
“Right now the only advantage that most people see in the settlement procedure is that it guarantees another chance whereas we do have a chance of losing objections,” he said.
For Susca, the length of the negotiating process and the settlement that has come out of it has given him “hindsight” for how the entire process could have been avoided from the very start.
“[Negotiating] took a bunch of time and ultimately if we turned around right after the election and immediately filed objections based on unfair labor practices, it would have been a much stronger stance to have than waiting all these months only to probably make the same decision,” he said.
“But hindsight is 20:20 like that and we’re going to move forward with hopefully the route that will work best for CGSU,” he added.
Voting for the referendum will begin on Oct. 16, according to James. A quorum of a third of CGSU members must vote. Once this quorum has voted, voting will continue for an additional two days with a minimum of a week to allow for voting, James said.