October 18, 2002

S.A. Debates Grad Unionization Vote

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Two members representing the Cornell Organization of Labor Action (COLA) appeared before the Student Assembly (S.A.) yesterday to gain undergraduate support for the upcoming graduate student unionization vote.

The vote deciding whether graduate students will be permitted to unionize or not will be held Oct. 23 and 24, and Jay Anderson ’03 and Tomer Malchy ’04, president of COLA, hoped to encourage undergraduates to lend their support to the effort.

Malchy and Anderson began their presentation by asking the S.A. to help in their efforts to encourage undergraduate students to become involved. They cited several reasons for pushing for a “yes” vote on the issue.

The presentation before the S.A. did not include an opposition voice to the unionization effort. However, several S.A. members offered their own reservations and concerns, while others supported the idea.

The two representatives gave statistics about the effects of unionization at other universities and offered their view of how Cornell would benefit from the proposal.


“The pay of the [graduate student] employees is horrible. A lot of these employees have families, and it is not possible for them to support their families under these conditions,” Malchy said.

In addition to a pay increase, health care coverage and protection of intellectual property are other benefits to come from unionization, according to Malchy.

Malchy attempted to answer how the increase in salaries for graduate student employees will affect tuition at the University. He said that according to data collected from other universities that have unionized, there is no correlation between pay increases and rising tuition.

According to Anderson, the Administration has indicated that Cornell may be different, and tuition may increase.

“The Administration doesn’t set the tuition. Tuition isn’t actually based on our expenditures due to labor. It’s more based on our endowment, and on the economy, and the tuition at other schools,” said Leslie Barkemeyer ’03, student-elected trustee.

Malchy and Anderson acknowledged that pay increases would be seen more at the bottom of the current pay scale, but said that even the highest paid employees would either stay the same or slightly increase.

Lisa VanEyndhoven ’04, international liaison, said that several teaching assistants in science related departments she has talked to had a different opinion. These employees fear that their pay may decrease as a result of unionization. If this happens, said VanEyndhoven, Cornell will not be able to attract as many qualified graduate students in the sciences.

“Just in general, the science-based programs will decrease in quality,” VanEyndhoven said.

Several S.A. representatives also asked how undergraduates are expected to help if they support the current effort. Malchy and Anderson hoped to encourage undergraduate supporters to speak with graduate students they know and bring up the issue in their classes.

Other members of the S.A. questioned how undergraduate employees may fit into the picture in the future if a graduate student union is formed.

“Down the line, it is possible that undergrads could become part of the union, or form their own union,” Malchy said.

Still other members were unclear about the role for undergraduates and about the unionization effort in general. They expressed their concerns about hearing both sides of the issue and about being uncertain about specific issues.

Some asked the presenters if they could produce something in writing expanding on their position.

Malchy and Anderson encouraged members to research various websites devoted to their cause and their opposition.

They also emphasized the current trend towards unionization at other national universities, such as New York University (NYU), which reached an agreement with their graduate students in Jan. 2002 and became the first private university to sign such a contract.

According to Anderson, NYU has seen a 38 percent increase in wages without a correlating rise in tuition.

Malchy and Anderson also spoke about the undergraduate support at Columbia University, which has been the site of a unionization drive. At Columbia, a group was formed by undergraduate students to promote and lend support to unionization, according to the presentation.

Archived article by Mackenzie Damon