At a time when the nation and University’s financial numbers are looking down, Cornell’s graduate students will get their largest pay increase next academic year in more than a decade.
The decision to boost wages from $13,850 yearly to $14,530 stems from two factors: competition with other graduate schools for applicants and last year’s unsuccessful unionization movement.
“[Graduate students] were trying to send the administration a message that there were still issues,” said Allison G. Power, dean of the Graduate School.
“We wanted to indicate our responsiveness to their concerns,” she said.
Robb Willer grad, a spokesperson for the Cornell Association for Student Employees / United Auto Workers (CASE/UAW) also saw the link between the pay boost and the union drive.
“Today we’re appreciating an improvement we feel we had a lot to do with,” he stated in an e-mail. “We feel that this reflects the value of collective action for improving employee working conditions.”
Amanda Holland-Minkley, a leader in the anti-union group At What Cost?, agreed that the union movement focused the University’s attention on graduate students.
“It’s clear that a lot of discussions were started with the administration last semester that involved way more graduate students than in the past,” she said.
The stipends apply to the approximately 2,300 teaching assistants, research assistants, graduate research assistants and graduate assistants who work in any given semester.
The raise was approved by the Board of Trustees during their meeting at the end of January and was based on a recommendation from the Executive Budget Group, which is put together by the Provost’s office.
Graduate student pay comes from the University’s general fund, where it must compete with other funding needs for priority.
The second factor behind the wage gain was competitive pressure from other graduate schools.
“We’re probably keeping up,” Power said. “I’m not going to claim to be at the top of our peers.”
Keeping up with the competition is necessary so that students will decide on a graduate school “based on what Cornell has to offer academically” and not on money, according to Power.
CASE/UAW is planning to focus on other issues for the immediate future, including improving the quality of the health care they have received since 2001.
“We are continuing to push issues we find important like child care and comprehensive family health care,” Willer said. “CASE/UAW isn’t going to stop working to improve Cornell graduate student working conditions.”
Holland-Minkley, however, said that these programs would take time to put into place but that the wage gain would “give people a little more flexibility in finding solutions in the short term.”
Power also considered how the wage increase might affect the future of unionization at Cornell.
“It’s very hard to say,” she said. “There are still students who believe the union is the right way to go … it depends on where they go from there.”
The University has already set a 5 percent tuition increase for the endowed side of the Graduate School while it will adjust its health insurance benefits in April and statutory tuition levels in March.
Willer said that arguments offered during the unionization campaign that Cornell did not have enough money to improve employee compensation “were finally shown to be hollow this week.”
The 7 percent increase is well ahead of wage growth nationally, which has “ground almost to a halt,” according to The New York Times.
“I think we’ve done very well,” Power said.
Archived article by Peter Norlander