Greg Keller / Sun Staff Photographer

The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly discussed workers' compensation for graduate students during its meeting on Monday.

May 2, 2016

Cornell GPSA, Administrators Debate Benefits of Unionization

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The Cornell Graduate and Professional Student Assembly debated the details of graduate student unionization at its final meeting of the semester Monday in Bache Auditorium.

After numerous amendments and a lively debate, the GPSA passed a resolution which asks the University to “clearly detail a schedule of expected stipend support throughout the planned course of the degree” in admission letters for all admitted graduate students. The resolution passed 11-0-6.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Dean Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the graduate school, recognized the “strong possibility that the National Labor Relations Board will soon overturn current case law to consider private university graduate student assistants to be employees under the National Labor Relations Act.”

The University has begun negotiating with the Cornell Graduate Student Union as the union plans to move toward formal unionization if the NLRB does, in fact, consider private university graduate student assistants to be employees.

Kotlikoff the University is currently working to clarify the unionization process for graduate students.

“First, we want to be transparent throughout the negotiations process,” Kotlikoff said. “The second point is that the University’s position is that this is a decision of the graduate students — of all graduate students who are eligible to vote. So we’re negotiating these rules of engagement so we can set up a process in which graduate students will be informed with information to make their decision.”

Knuth elaborated on Kotlikoff’s second point, emphasizing the University’s desire to make sure all graduate students are aware of the consequences of unionization.

Knuth explained to students that the union will define its own “bargaining unit” — the collective body of people it will represent in dealings with the University. The bargaining unit may not necessarily be all graduate students because some departments or academic fields may opt out of unionization.

“If a majority of those who vote in a union election votes in favor of the union, then all of those in the [union’s] defined bargaining unit – no matter how they voted or if they voted – will be explicitly represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment,” Knuth said.

Therefore, even if only 51 percent of graduate students in the bargaining unit vote to unionize, the complete bargaining unit — including the 49 percent who voted against — will be included in the union, according to Knuth.

Knuth reaffirmed the University’s view that graduate students should be considered students, not workers and that graduate student work is educational.

“Ph.D. coursework, research and teaching are an integrated educational experience and are components of the student’s progression toward earning a degree,” Knuth said. “Teaching experience is an important component of preparing doctoral candidates for careers either as teachers or as professional leaders.”

Jackqueline Frost, grad and GPSA field member, who teaches a French language course four days a week, spoke in favor of unionizing on behalf of the CGSU.

“It’s really easy to see myself as a worker,” Frost said. “What makes my current job different from all the jobs that I’ve ever worked is that I’m not protected under the current labor law.”

Frost said she does not agree that her current job should be “interpreted unidimensionally as training for a future career.”

“Even if I become a professor [after graduating], it doesn’t mean that what I’ve been doing at Cornell isn’t work,” she said.

Frost argued that unionization will benefit both graduate students and the University.

“Unionization is about sharing in the process of determining the conditions of your basic livelihood in a way that benefits both grad workers and their universities,” she said. “[CGSU] believe[s] that everyone wins with a solid union-University relationship because happier, more secure workers means better teaching and better research.”

Jesse Goldberg, grad and GPSA voting member, read a joint statement from the administration and CGSU that emphasized both organizations’ common goals.

“Cornell and CGSU are committed to working together to ensure that our community’s environment remains one in which the conditions for graduate students to make their own decisions about unionization without intimidation are achieved,” the statement said. “Our negotiations have been setting a positive tone based on our shared values of dignity and respect for each other.”

Knuth said she anticipates that the NLRB will release its decision on the legality of graduate student unionization at private universities sometime this summer.