October 17, 2002

Grad Union Vote Could Alter U.S. College Climate

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Cornell’s graduate student representation election on Oct. 23 and 24 could be a key turning point in the two-year explosion of unionization at private universities.

It is hard to tell whether the movement is picking up pace or stagnating.

With legal issues boggling down other campuses, a ‘yes’ vote in the Cornell representation election would create only the second grad union at a private university.

New York University (NYU) signed a contract in Jan. 2002 with their graduate students — the first at a private university — that boosts the minimum stipend, provides health care and offers other guarantees.

“We weren’t getting any respect for the work we were doing,” said Sudhir Mahadevan, the chair of the bargaining unit at NYU and a Ph.D candidate in cinema studies.

Mahadevan sees a 20 year process of “casualization of academic labor” as motivation for the new union agitation.

“The number of adjunct faculty and graduate students has been going way up,” he said, while their job responsibilities have also increased.

The NYU graduate students won sizable raise for some employees in their contract, according to Mahadevan, who said that before the contract the average stipend was $11,000. Under the contract, minimum stipends are $11,000 for masters and $16,000 for doctoral candidates with a 3.5 percent raise per year for those already above the minimum.

“Our pay didn’t meet the cost of living in New York City,” Mahadevan said, adding that NYU does not provide its graduate students with housing.

The United Auto Workers backed the grads in their winning case in 2000 that changed the legal status of grads from student to employee.

With that spark, organization drives at Brown University, Columbia University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University exploded.

Legal action by Brown and Columbia universities is delaying the release of election results, which are sealed until the full National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) examines the NYU precedent declaring grads as employees.

At Yale, union organizers have not mustered enough support to seek an election yet but the university wasted no time to begin opposing the group.

“The Yale administration has repeatedly said that they’ll use all of their appeals to stop this,” said Matthew Glassman, a Yale grad who opposes unionization but thinks that graduates should have a right to unionize.

Glassman is concerned about the political situation a union would create.

“The only leverage any union has is a strike,” he said, “but a strike would hurt undergraduates and faculty. Using them as pawns would be unconscionable.”

Yale graduate students did strike once, in 1995, by withholding undergraduates’ grades.

Unlike its peers, Cornell chose not to fight the gritty battle that has been waged at other campuses between university employers and their graduate students.

“We said upfront that we would [respect the results of the election],” President Hunter R. Rawlings III said.

If the NLRB alters the status quo in the Brown and Columbia cases, Cornell will re-evaluate its options.

Archived article by Peter Norlander