Yesterday at noon, about three dozen Cornell workers and students gathered in front of Day Hall carrying signs that read “Cornell workers deserve a fair contract” and cheered as passing buses and cars honked in agreement.
“What do we want? Fair contract! When do we want it? Now!” yelled participants in the rally. “When working families are under attack what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
The group then marched to Ho Plaza, where they came face to face with President David Skorton, who was tabling on Ho Plaza for an event promoting diversity. They handed him a letter and a copy of “In the Shadow of the Tower,” a short film created in the early ’90s by United Auto Workers 2300, Ithaca’s local chapter of a 28-year-old union. UAW 2300 currently represents employees of 12 units, including Cornell, TCAT, Ithaca Times and the Tompkins County Public Library.
The Cornell Organization for Labor Action hosted the rally to bring attention to the contract negotiations between the University and the UAW, which will commence at the beginning of June. The group especially hopes to raise awareness amongst students and ultimately convince the administration that labor rights are important to the entire Cornell community.
“The majority of the people that we talk to support us, but they have no idea what is happening. The University is very hush, hush,” said Christopher Duni ’09, a student in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations student and COLA member. “The negotiations occur over the summer, so no one is here. People care, they just don’t know. Our goal is to educate [in] grassroots style. Let the administration know that the students support the workers and that we need to make their livelihoods a priority. They are not a number on a spreadsheet.”
This is not the first time COLA has been active in negotiations between the University and the UAW. As an organization of students fundamentally committed to the struggle for economic justice, COLA has seen many alumni eventually go into the labor movement professionally. In addition to COLA, the Cornell Democrats are also getting involved in the negotiations.
“[The Cornell Democrats] have been working with COLA. They came to one of our meetings and talked about what was going on. A lot of us from the Dems got really excited about what was going on. We were looking for a way to get involved on campus,” said Elizabeth Spink ’11, former director of Community Relations. “I am really surprised that more students aren’t getting involved because this is really big, and we need to do something now before the summer. I am really concerned about what will happen this summer when there are no students around,” she added.
Terry Sharpe, president of UAW 2300, stressed the importance of student participation.
“The students are the driving force here at Cornell. They need to see where and how their tuition dollars are being spent. They are just as much a part of the ownership of Cornell. It helps our workers to see the support of the students; it gives them hope.”
On the other hand, Skorton said after the rally that while he welcomed students voicing their suggestions, ultimately the negotiation would be between Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman and UAW.
UAW contract negotiations are set to begin in early June. Some students argue that the University purposefully planned for the current contracts to expire on June 30 so the negotiations would occur when interested parties like students and dining workers would not be present to voice their concerns.
“The choice to negotiate during the summer was made by management years ago in an attempt to weaken the UAW’s bargaining power. Research has shown time and time again that community and stakeholder support is key in securing a union victory,” Duni said. “While most students and faculty support the workers’ demand[s] for a fair contract, they are not on campus in June during the negotiations. Also, most dining workers, Cornell’s lowest paid employees, are [unemployed] in the summer. It is a challenge for them to voice their opinions when they are not on campus regularly.”
However, according to Opperman, the contract always ends on June 30. “It has nothing to do with when the students are here. Negotiations occur based on when the contract term ends.”
The timing of the negotiations is not the only contentious issue surrounding the negotiations this summer. The University is not necessarily in an ideal state to support all its employees’ demands given its financial circumstances. “[Cornell] has had a good relationship with UAW in the past and hopes that we will again. We have always had mutually respectful conversations — we share our financial information with the union so they know what our financial constraints are. That will be a significant factor for us this time,” Opperman said.
However, University employees are likewise affected by the economic crisis. Although the cost of a middle-class lifestyle is rising, employees’ salaries generally have remained rather consistent over the years. As a result, the real income of employees are in fact decreasing, according to COLA. Cornell’s employees are also being paid less than many of its peer institutions, according to statistics compiled by UAW. The cost of living, however, depending on where an institution is located.
Due to competition associated with hiring faculty, faculty salaries are unaffected despite massive budget cuts, but this competition simply does not exist when hiring staff, according to Opperman.
“We try to pay our positions at about median against the market in which we recruit and compete; we don’t compete nationally for our custodians, they come from local markets, and we pay much better than the local or even regional markets for these positions. Our competitors are not Harvard; [Harvard] pays against the markets in which they compete. The comparison isn’t Ivy league to Ivy league, unlike say a faculty member who may very well compete against the other Ivy leagues,” Opperman said.
Members of UAW 2300 emphasize it is not about robbing Cornell of its funds but about negotiating a fair contract.
“[UAW] has already formed the bargaining committee. We have already been over the language and the things that we would like to propose to the University. We are looking at getting into a fair three-year contract for the workers,” said Mike Allen, international representative for UAW.
In the interest of maintaining the positive relationship between the University and its workers, both sides appear to understand the importance of compromise when coming to a mutually advantageous decision.
“[Cornell] will do what [it] does in all matters of the workforce — we will listen and we will do everything we can to be responsive. My experience with this union has been that they are a good partner and they are forceful in bringing forward the issues of their bargaining unit. In the end, we have always found a way to have a mutually beneficial contract,” Opperman said.