September 27, 2002

Graduate Students Prepare for Union Vote

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The Cornell Association of Student Employees / United Auto Workers is the center of the graduate student unionization debate at Cornell. If they win a majority in an election on October 23 and 24 they will become the sole bargaining agent for University graduate students on terms and conditions of employment.


John Comeau grad, who opposes unionization, agrees with the CASE/UAW on at least one thing, that CASE/UAW will probably win.

“There is a financial interest in seeing it pass,” Comeau, who is opposed to unionization, said. “And no one has a financial interest in seeing it fail.”

Joan Moriarty, one of three paid CASE/UAW organizers, disagrees.

“There is an organization with a financial interest that is working against the union,” she said. “It’s the human resources department of Cornell University.

However, multiple interests agree that CASE/UAW is organizing the campus for the election in ways that no other organization could. The UAW has given CASE financial support for various expenditures, such as student organizers, campaign literature and an Ithaca office.

“I think the UAW has been putting a lot of money into this campus,” said Amanda Holland-Minkley, a founder of the anti-unionization group At What Cost. “The UAW has been very aggressive and been willing to put money on the table to go to Court.”


While some have challenged the propriety of the UAW paying graduate students as organizers, Moriarty does not see it as important.

“There have to be some people to coordinate this major campaign,” Moriarty said. “I probably work four times as many hours as I’m paid for.”

The election participants will be the 2,300 eligible teaching assistants, research assistants, graduate research assistants and graduate assistants who have the power to create or prevent the union.

Financial support is only part of the reason why CASE/UAW perceives that unionization is likely to pass.

Organizers have been holding departmental meetings with graduate students, disseminating information and presenting arguments for the union.

One volunteer, Matthew DiCarlo grad, has helped CASE/UAW as web master, data manager and organizer in engineering and economics departments.

“We’re trying to talk to everyone,” he said. “It’s really difficult, especially in engineering and the sciences where people are busier, harder to find, and more difficult to talk to.”

Close to 200 other volunteers have also been reaching out to graduate students with phone banks and one-on-one personal communication, according to Moriarty.

“We’re trying to talk to as many people as we possibly can,” DiCarlo said.

Organizers are reaching out to graduate students at bars, on buses, in the Big Red Barn, during office hours, outside of class, and anywhere they can.

“It’s really important to get the information out,” said Robb Willer grad, a volunteer organizer.

CASE/UAW is tracking supporting, opposing and undecided graduate students in its database. Union organizers would not comment on the results of their data collection but are optimistic.

“I definitely think we’re going to win,” Moriarty said. “But we also want to win by a lot.”

The UAW has aggressively organized graduate students at New York, Brown, Columbia and other universities. Legal challenges by Brown and Columbia

sealed the results of representation elections there.

“It’s not just about our rights, it’s about the movement across the country,” Moriarty said. “A lot of other campaigns are pushing for us to win. We have to show that unions can make the University stronger.”

Graduate students at NYU approved a union contract earlier this year, making them the first group of graduate students at a private university to do so.

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

It was that case and similar movements at private universities across the country that first motivated approximately 15 University graduate students in industrial labor relations, sociology, city and regional planning and other departments to begin to consider if, in Moriarty’s words, “a union could solve problems here.”

The organization they founded, CASE, began a search for an international union to sponsor them and unanimously selected the UAW.

“If it wasn’t for the UAW, we would still be recognized as students, not as employees,” Willer said. “They have a history of sticking with drives even when they weren’t easy, and they represent more graduate students than any other union.”

From that small group, a union card campaign began to collect the required signatures to get an election.

“The level of activism really took off,” Willer said. “Within a month we had several hundred supporters and 50 to 60 activists.”

On May 14, the union filed its request for an election with the NLRB after a majority of the 4,400 student employees signed union cards. The Board then began investigating if to see if they could hold a union election.

On July 8th, the University and CASE/UAW reached a compromise agreement to end the hearing. The University agreed to hold an election and CASE/UAW agreed to drop undergraduates and other classes of student employees from the bargaining unit.

Cornell is the first private university employer to agree to a graduate student election and its results. However, the University has reserved the right to withdraw from this agreement and enter 45 day renegotiations should the other major private universities win their lawsuits against graduate student unions.

If it should win, CASE/UAW will become the sole bargaining agent on wages, terms and conditions of employment for all graduate students eligible to vote.

At the NYU Local 2110, members pay dues of approximately 1.5 percent of their income, according to filings with the Department of Labor.

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

The University would be bound to negotiate a contract in good faith and any final one would be submitted to the graduate students for a vote to approve or reject that contract. Union contracts regularly last three years.

The NYU contract included pay raises and health care coverage.

Archived article by Peter Norlander