August 26, 2002

Graduate Students To Elect Union Reps

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In a major break from its peer institutions, Cornell University has agreed with its graduate students to hold a union representation election, to be held on October 23rd and 24th. The agreement ends an adversarial hearing process that would have likely taken months to resolve.

“This is an unqualified victory,” said Joan Moriarty grad, an organizer for the Cornell Association of Student Employees/United Auto Workers (CASE/UAW). “They guarantee to count our votes.”

Cornell is the first private university employer to agree to a graduate student election and its results, although it has reserved the right to withdraw from this agreement and enter 45 day renegotiations should other major private universities win their lawsuits blocking the results of union elections.

“We have great respect and admiration for our graduate students,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations. “By this agreement we avoid enormous expenditures of time and money on both sides.”

The July 12 agreement covers approximately 2,200 teaching assistants, research assistants, graduate research assistants and graduate assistants.

The deal comes three months after graduate students filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which began hearings on the matter in June.

“They’ve seen the writing on the wall,” said Joan Moriarty grad, a member of the Cornell Association of Student Employees/United Auto Workers (CASE/UAW).

As part of the settlement, CASE/UAW shrank the proposed size of any union from over 4,400 to half that by excluding undergraduates, readers, graders, students in the professional schools (law or veterinary medicine) and hourly workers.

“[CASE/UAW] originally identified a larger number of groups than the big four we considered employees,” Dullea said, referring to the TAs, RAs, GRAs and GAs covered.

If they win a majority vote in the election scheduled, the CASE/UAW will enter negotiations with the University to create a contract.

In a 2000 decision, the National Labor Relations Board held that graduate students at New York University (NYU) were also employees, reversing a long-standing precedent.

Facing similar student unionization movements, Columbia and Brown universities appealed the NYU case and are currently awaiting a decision from the full NLRB.

“If the Brown and Columbia appeal is victorious and we haven’t signed a contract, then we could be back to square one,” said Robb Willer, grad, another organizer of the CASE/UAW.

“They’ve committed themselves to a much more respectful path than the other universities,” Willer said. “This reflects a smart, progressive attitude.”

Only days before a July 9 hearing, the parties began negotiations to search out common ground.

“We wanted to avoid a contentious process,” Willer said. “Unions work best when they have a positive relationship with management.”

The administration also had encountered difficulty with the hearings process. “The hearings would have involved hundreds if not thousands of faculty and administration [hours] to go over specific functions performed by individuals,” Dullea said.

With an election now scheduled, both sides are preparing to lobby for votes.

The University will “speak directly to the appropriateness of union representation for the designated graduate students,” stated Mary G. Opperman, vice president for human resources, according to a University press release.

Willer and Moriarty both said they expected a victory. “There is a feeling that this is a national movement to unionize graduate students,” Willer said. “We all fought really hard for a long time.”

Archived article by Peter Norlander