June 12, 2002

Undergraduate TA's and RA's Attempt to Organize

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Responding to a May 14 petition by graduate employees seeking recognition as a collective bargaining unit, the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has begun hearings to determine if Cornell University teaching and research assistants may hold a union election.

On May 29, the NLRB hearing officer denied Cornell’s motion to delay hearings until appeals by Brown, Columbia and other universities to unfavorable NLRB rulings are resolved.

“If the full NLRB sides with the appeals taken by Columbia, Brown and other institutions of higher education, it would have a major effect on the

situation here at Cornell and at other private universities throughout the United States,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University


If the petition is approved, it would “extend worker status to thousands of graduate students who heretofore have been considered to be

students,” according to a University press release.

The release also stated: “The Cornell adminstration views this action with serious concern.”

The Cornell Association of Student Employees/United Auto Workers (CASE/UAW)disagreed with the University’s attempt to delay the proceedings.

“We perform the same work as the professors,” said Ariana Vigil grad, a CASE/UAW organizer. “There is no gray area.”

“If you work and receive a pay check then you have a right to organize,” Vigil added.

CASE/UAW identified 2,700 graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, research assistants, readers, graders, and others for membership in the bargaining unit.

According to Dullea, however, the actual number of teaching assistants is “substantially” smaller than 2,700.

“The administration is now trying to identify the names of all the students in these categories,” he said. “This is a major and complicated task, but we are doing everything we can to comply in a timely manner.”

NLRB hearings will continue throughout the summer in Ithaca. The next will be on July 9.

CASE/UAW hopes that by unionizing, student-employees can improve working conditions and attract better wages and benefits.

“Being a teaching assistant at Cornell is great, but not if you have a family or a bad professor,” said John Carasone grad. “Health insurance doesn’t cover a spouse and there is no grievance procedure.”

A spate of unionization at private universities began when the NLRB ruled in 2000 in favor of New York University teaching assistants. The ruling reversed an earlier policy that did not recognize teaching assistants as employees, but as students.

One Cornell professor studying trends of unionization in higher education found changes that have led to the surge in student-employee unionization. “In the seventies I was on a fellowship and taught one semester,” said Prof. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

“Today, especially in the humanities time [spent working toward a] degree is longer and teaching assistants are performing more hours of work than they used to,” he added.

While student-employee unionization at private universities is relatively new, that is not the case at public universities.

“There are a number of major public universities that have collectively bargained with their employees,” Ehrenberg said, pointing out the first graduate student-employee movement began at the University of Wisconsin in 1969.

Before an election is held, the NLRB hearing must find CASE/UAW to be an appropriate bargaining unit, settle the dispute over the size of the unit and determine whether teaching assistants are employees or students, as well as resolving other issues that emerge.

A majority vote from teaching and research assistants would be needed to create the union which would then be allowed to negotiate a contract with the University and have the power to strike.

“The one major difference between public and private universities is the right to strike,” Ehrenberg said. “In many states, public employees do not have a right to strike.”

Archived article by Peter Norlander