September 25, 2015

Graduate Students Move to Join Teachers’ Federation

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Moving forward in their push for graduate student unionization, an “overwhelming majority” of Cornell Graduate Students United members voted Thursday to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliate, New York State United Teachers, according to James Ingoldsby grad, CGSU communications and outreach chair.

The decision to affiliate with the AFT had been in process for nine months and was determined by an internal CGSU vote, Ingoldsby said.

“We were convinced the AFT was best placed to provide us with the support necessary to achieve justice for the thousands of graduate employees who take on steep teaching and research loads each semester,” Ingoldsby said in a statement. “Cornell works because we do, and we look forward to harnessing the power of our membership to escalate our campaign.”

CGSU, which has been an independent union since its inception, will have the support and resources of the NYUST, which currently represents 600,000 members, and the AFT, according to the release.

“Today, graduate employees at Cornell stood up to say, ‘We deserve to have our voices heard,’ just like the tens of thousands of graduate students already affiliated with the AFT,” said Randi Weingarten ’80, president of the AFT, in yesterday’s release. “We are delighted that the members of Cornell Graduate Students United have overwhelmingly voted to partner with the AFT, which is the largest union of faculty in the country, in their campaign to be recognized as higher education professionals.”

Ingoldsby added that the new affiliation wouldn’t alter CGSU’s ultimate goal of “striking a bargaining agreement between graduate students and Cornell University.”

“Things are just going forward. It’s just now we have the support of AFT behind us so nothing’s really going to change as far as what we’re asking for and the final goal,” Ingoldsby said.

While Ingoldsby said that CGSU hopes to strike a collective bargaining agreement between the University and “the potential bargaining unit” of 2,500 graduate students currently enrolled or working as researchers and teachers at Cornell, Joel Malina, vice president of university relations, said in a statement that federal labor law prohibits the University from considering graduate students as employees.

“Currently, graduate students at private universities are not considered employees under federal labor law, since their relationship with the university is primarily educational,” Malina said. “As a result, they do not have the right to union representation or to engage in collective bargaining. Cornell will follow the law.”

Malina added that, in the case that federal law changes to allow recognition of graduate students as employees, Cornell graduate assistants would be able to unionize only if such action were approved “through the appropriate process, which may include a legally sanctioned election should a sufficient number of graduate students request one.”

“The last time this choice was presented, in 2002, Cornell graduate student assistants voted against union representation,” he said.

While CGSU and the AFT have not determined how exactly their relationship will play out in the future, Ingoldsby said he hopes AFT will be able to “furnish [CGSU] both with expertise and physical resources for our unionization push.”

He added that some of the physical resources the AFT might provide Cornell graduate students include office space and access to labor professionals in addition to the AFT’s expertise in organizing teachers in higher education.

Weingarten added that as an alumna of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, she hopes the University’s administration will have a “productive” dialogue with CGSU.

“I am confident the CGSU-AFT can set the example for graduate employee relations across the country,” Weingarten said. “While there are real issues, CGSU wants a productive relationship with the Cornell administration; we hope Cornell does as well.”

Earlier in the semester, President Elizabeth Garrett announced a number of graduate student initiatives that included doubling funds for student child care grants, creating new student-centered graduate housing, providing workers’ compensation to injured graduate and professional students, raising the minimum stipend for research interns and reducing sixth and seventh year doctoral student tuition to $3,500 per year.

Ingoldsby said CGSU was “excited” about Garrett’s initiatives, but added that the group still feels there is “a lot of work to be done.”