October 25, 2002

Union Vote Resounding No

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Cornell University graduate students overwhelmingly rejected a unionization movement started by the Cornell Association of Student Employees / United Auto Workers (CASE/UAW) that began more than a year ago.

The landslide results revealed that 1,351 graduate students voted against the union and only 580 voted for it. Turnout, including challenged votes which were not counted, represented 2,043 of 2,318 eligible voters.

Seventy-five spectators crowded into the International Room of Willard Straight hall last night until 1:40 a.m., nervously awaiting the results of the election. Students, lawyers for both sides and administrators kept count alongside representatives from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) using Palm Pilots, notebooks and legal pads.

While many watched in disbelief until the last vote was counted, some unionization supporters left early as the chorus of “no” votes was read aloud to the silent crowd.

“I’m obviously elated that we won, but I know how much time and effort [CASE/UAW] put into this, and our victory was bittersweet,” said John Sebastian grad, a member of At What Cost, the group opposing the unionization movement.

A Sun exit poll conducted yesterday and Wednesday at the Mann Library and the Straight pinned 68 percent of 477 graduate students surveyed as voting against the union. The actual results found that 69.9 percent of students cast a “no” vote.

“If you had asked me in August if CASE/UAW would win I would have sworn the answer was yes,” Amanda Holland-Minkley, a founder of At What Cost, said before the election. “A week ago I would have said maybe, but tonight I think we have a real chance.”

CASE/UAW supporters meanwhile had publicly expressed complete confidence that they would win. “People having a voice in their working conditions is the right way to go,” said Robb Willer grad, a CASE/UAW organizer after the results were announced. “We still feel that way.”

Cornell became the first university in July to agree to abide by the results of a unionization election. Private universities such as Brown and Columbia are challenging the right of graduate students to unionize in a lawsuit in front of the NLRB.

A “no” vote at Cornell is the first significant setback in the UAW’s nationwide campaign to expand student unionization to private universities. Students at New York University (NYU) voted to unionize in 2000.

One researcher of higher education, Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives professor of industrial and labor relations and economics, thinks that the UAW is “in this for the long run.”

“The UAW sees higher education more broadly than just graduate students,” he said, citing research that shows that 38 percent of full time professors at public universities were unionized and that 80 percent of faculty nationally is in public higher education.

However, the questions stands: Why is Cornell different from NYU, where graduate students voted in favor of unionization?

According to Ehrenberg, Cornell graduate students generally face better job prospects, better stipends and a lower cost of living than NYU students. An additional consideration is that the NYU union doesn’t include many students in the sciences, Ehrenberg said.

The Cornell union would have been second at a private university and was already the largest proposed to date. Another unionization vote cannot be held for at least one year.

Some of the paper ballots contained handwritten messages expressing emphatic opinions, including, “no, absolutely not, no way” or “go CASE.”

Some opponents and even a few supporters found the union’s last-minute letters, phone calls and personal visits overbearing.

“Trying to convince people who have said ‘no’ is not a good strategy,” said Matt Steven grad. “I don’t support

anything other than an open shop [voluntary dues]. I have no desire to be in a union myself.”

“A lot of people like unionization but don’t like this union,” Holland-Minkley said. “They felt that CASE was pressuring them into making a decision rather than informing people. We tried to hand people primary source material and the data.”

Other students did not form a decision until the last moment. “I was seriously on the fence just until I biked up here and then I thought, it’s worth the experience,” said Fred Werner grad after he cast a “yes” ballot yesterday.

Challenged ballots caused lengthy delays in the tally of votes. Some graduate students found that their votes had been challenged by either the union or the University.

“I’m on the list of eligible voters,” said John Teifel grad. “Apparently, CASE decided to challenge me and so I was forced to vote a challenged ballot. Another person in my department with the same exact funding source had no problems.”

Many graduate students who had been told that they were ineligible to vote, voted anyway.

“I’m very pleased with the number of students who voted,” said Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, the department responsible for negotiating labor contracts.

“I’m going to sleep all next week,” Holland-Minkley said with a laugh.

Archived article by Peter Norlander