September 19, 2002

Hundreds Debate Over Grad Unions

Print More

Yesterday, hundreds of graduate students confronted the promise and peril of graduate student unionization in a panel discussion at the David L. Call Alumni Auditorium.

While members of the Cornell Association of Student Employees/United Auto Workers (CASE/UAW) distributed buttons and flyers at the entrance, graduate students opposed to unionization were also vocal and present in large numbers. Both groups filled the auditorium so that many were left without seats.

Some anti-union students expressed their belief that they are students foremost, not student-employees.

“We are working for publications, with faculty and for our careers,” said Sarah Sawyer grad. “Nobody would be here if we were here for the money.”

Last semester, CASE/UAW collected enough union card signatures to prompt a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing into the legality and the appropriateness of student-employee unionization.

In July, CASE/UAW and the University struck a deal to hold an election without further NLRB hearings and to exclude undergraduates and others that CASE/UAW had originally proposed to include in the bargaining unit.

While some felt that the University’s offer of a free graduate education in exchange for teaching is adequate, others disagreed.

“It’s not just about money but also voice and compensation,” said panelist Prof. Harry Katz, the J. Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining.

One contested issue was health care.

“I have a really bad toothache and it will cost me 10 percent of my annual salary to get a root canal,” said David Stolzberg grad. “Our health care sucks; It only works if you don’t get sick.”

Panel member Prof. Nick Salvatore, industrial and labor relations and American studies, dealt with these issues years ago when he was an organizer for the student union at University of California at Berkeley.

“Teaching assistants are critical to the running of the University,” he said. “I do not believe that graduate student organization is inherently detrimental to the University, to the faculty, or to the undergraduates and their education.”

Salvatore, who studies American labor history, likened graduate students to apprentices, adding that in colonial times apprentices and masters were each bound by contracts with provisions beneficial to each.

Some graduate students felt that the University makes clear what their options are and that they are free to take or leave their stipends.

“I knew the bargain I was getting when I came here and I considered it in my decision,” said Michael Garcia grad.

J. Robert Cooke, dean of faculty, scheduled the panel to be a faculty forum but the overwhelming majority of those present were graduate students.

“I think it’s great that all the comments at this faculty forum were from students,” said Prof. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics. Ehrenberg authored one of two papers on the effects of graduate student unionization that Katz and others cited during the discussion.

Katz spoke about the evidence from Ehrenberg’s paper showing that graduate student unions have had no statistically significant effect on wages but may boost health coverage.

“I don’t think it’s surprising,” he said. “Unions of graduate students don’t exert an enormous amount of bargaining power.”

While Katz praised the University for agreeing to hold an election, he criticized the Sept. 3 statement President Hunter R. Rawlings III made against unionization as, “presumptuous” for not remaining neutral.

“This is a decision up to the employees, not the management,” he said.

Speaking against unionization, Prof. David Collum, chemistry and chemical biology said that in, “a battle between Cornell efforts to be a prominent institution and the UAW’s efforts to be a prominent organization, I have to vote with Cornell.”

Collum repeated a concern Rawlings expressed that Cornell’s dispararte departments must be free to specially tailor their programs to graduate students.

“The chemistry department can’t negotiate for physics,” he said. “My fear is that [the negotiators] will be from the ILR school.”

Kerim Odekon grad opposed Collum’s presentation.

“I would ask the faculty to stay neutral,” he said. “I’m convinced more than ever that the union is appropriate.”

In her remarks, panelist Anne McNeil grad asked whether Cornell needed a union.

“Do we want to replace our mutually beneficial relationship with this system of antagonism?” she asked.

McNeil calculated that each year, “the UAW will get at least $350,000” from any union.

“Unlike some here, I’m not being paid by anyone to say this,” she said, pointing out that the UAW has a paid staff of organizers, including current grad students.

Robb Willer grad, a CASE/UAW organizer on the panel, said that though he was not paid, there are three graduate students working part time, who are paid at rates similar to those of teaching assistants.

“Cornell has put up a lot of resources on the other end,” he said. “This is pretty normal.”

Organizers from other graduate students campaigns have joined CASE/UAW’s effort.

“The UAW has provided useful organizational advice from their experience in different campaigns,” Willer said.

Panelist Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, spoke from the administration’s perspective. She was concerned about a loss of flexibility, the fundamental change a union would represent and the line between academic and work responsibilities.

“Decisions once decided between faculty and graduate students may now be at to the bargaining table,” she said. “We need to keep this conversation within a reasoned level and we need every graduate student to go vote.”

In the Oct. 23 and Oct. 24 unionization election, a majority vote of 2,300 eligible teaching assistants, research assistants, graduate research assistants and graduate assistants will create or prevent a union.

If it should win, CASE/UAW will become the sole bargaining agent on wages and terms and conditions of employment for all graduate students eligible to vote. They would be UAW members and be required to pay union dues.

Graduate students would then elect a negotiating committee that would solicit the priorities of the members and then negotiate a contract with the University.

The University would be bound to negotiate a contract in good faith, any final one would be submitted to the graduate students for a vote to approve or reject that contract. A contract would last a minimum of three years.

The panel was hosted by Edward J. Lawler, dean of the College of Industrial and Labor Relations and also included Prof. Stewart Schwab, law.

“It is very hard to know [from this forum] how the majority of students will vote,” Schwab said.

Archived article by Peter Norlander