March 3, 2016

Cornell University Signs Brief Opposing Graduate Student Unionization

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Cornell Graduate Students United, the graduate student union, said they are “disappointed” by Cornell’s support of an amicus brief that argues against the unionization of graduate employees.

In an ongoing case before the National Labor Relations Board, the Graduate Workers of Columbia — graduate labor union at the Columbia University — argues that graduate employees should be afforded the same labor rights and legal protections granted all university workers.

A ruling in favor of GWC would reverse a 2004 NLRB decision at Brown University which held that the relationship between graduate students and their universities is only educational.

“Graduate employees, through their employment as teaching and research assistants, perform labor vital to Cornell’s mission and deserve to be recognized as workers,” a statement from CGSU said.

The statement pointed out that graduate students teach and staff a majority of the classes and labs on Cornell, performing equivalent duties to other educators on campus.

“The core educational functions of the University are based, to a large extent, on the labor of the graduate employees, and their work thus has a real and measurable value,” the statement said.

However, the recently filed amicus brief contends that “there is no compelling reason” to grant the same status to university employees and graduate student workers.

The brief — authored by lawyers at Harvard University and signed by nine other private institutions, including Cornell — argues that graduate research and teaching positions are part of “a fully integrated educational experience,” and that “the market value of any teaching services provided by doctoral candidates is not taken into consideration when determining stipends provided to students teaching during their graduate programs.”

Students are also typically offered substantial financial support, which often includes health insurance coverage and a stipend for living expenses, in addition to tuition, the schools argued in the brief.

“Reversal or modification of Brown would significantly damage private sector graduate education in this country and will represent an inappropriate intrusion into long protected areas of academic freedom and autonomy,” the brief said.

Cornell Graduate Students United contests these schools’ stance on the classification of graduate students, stressing that there is “convincing evidence to the contrary” to the view that reversing the 2004 decision would damage private sector education.

“Graduate colleagues at public universities across the nation have been unionized for decades,” the CGSU statement said. “Evidence has shown that collective bargaining has been a helpful resource for strengthening the relationship between those colleagues and their advisors.”

CGSU has contributed to an opposing amicus brief, submitted by the American Federation of Teachers, according to the group’s statement.

“We concur with and support AFT’s brief, which affirms that graduate assistants are workers and poses collective bargaining as the appropriate intermediary between graduate workers and their university and faculty management,” the CGSU statement said.

According to the CGSU statement, legal experts observing the progression of the case believe that the Board is likely to rule in favor of the graduate student union.

“CGSU and Graduate Workers of Columbia University are both confident that in its deliberations the NLRB will recognize the functional equivalence between the work of graduate assistance and their faculty and staff employee colleagues, and subsequently the right of these groups to choose union representation,” the statement said.