The administration espouses the view that the unionization debate should be a free and open exchange of ideas, but uses its powerful platform to undercut the debate, and grads’ expectations that they can make their decisions free of institutional interference.
In the March 3, 2017 Graduate School Announcements email’s “Ask a Dean” feature, there was a featured question asking what would happen if graduate employees decided to strike. In her response to this question, Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth, wrote, “Very few undergraduate courses have a graduate assistant as an instructor of record, so it is unlikely that many, if any, classes would stop due to the absence (on strike) of graduate assistants, but such a situation has not occurred before at Cornell so it is hard to predict what the full set of consequences would be.” I write today as a graduate employee teaching a first-year writing seminar, an active participant in shared governance at Cornell and proud supporter and member of Cornell Graduate Students United to affirm the essential labor of graduate employees belittled and erased by Knuth’s response. Even if we follow the scope of Knuth’s response and only focus on teaching assistants, it must be recognized that the labor provided to Cornell University by graduate employees is absolutely essential to its daily functioning and ability to fulfill its educational mission. Full stop. No qualifiers.
I am writing as a graduate student who has been involved with the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly since spring 2013 and with Cornell Graduate Students United since spring 2014 in order to respond to some of the discourse around shared governance that has emerged in debates over graduate student unionization this semester. I am a proud member of both organizations and believe deeply in the necessity of each, and based both on my own experience and the extensive evidence from other universities at which both graduate student unions and assemblies productively coexist, I believe unequivocally in the potential for both organizations to continue to work effectively after a unionization vote. The GPSA is not at all threatened by the formal recognition of CGSU as an exclusive collective bargaining unit. More importantly, I want to respond to the idea encapsulated in Interim President Rawlings’s statement that graduate students already have a significant voice in administration, and that “We have not been able to solve every issue raised by students, but I believe we are better able to work through differences of opinion in a collegial atmosphere than in a potentially adversarial collective bargaining setting.” There are two issues to look at in evaluating this claim: first, the Board of Trustees’ decision to not raise the minimum stipend of Research Assistants to be equal to Teaching Assistants in spring 2014, and second, workers’ compensation. When the Trustees made their decision on graduate student stipends, they did so with the consultation of a handful of graduate student leaders who were forbidden from discussing the issue with other graduate students.
Rawlings voiced concern that the Cornell Graduate Student Union would change the working relationship between faculty and graduate students by creating an artificial divide between workers and “management.”
“I am confident CGSU and Cornell can work together to achieve mutual gains and that the agreement can serve as a guiding light for higher education institutions across the Ivy league and around the country,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten ’80.