Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times

A National Labor Relations Board ruling gave graduate students the right to unionize in late August.

September 8, 2016

Graduate Student United Looks to ‘Build Union Culture’ Following Columbia Decision

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Following the National Labor Relations Board’s August ruling giving graduate assistants at private universities the right to unionize, Cornell Graduate Students United held its first general assembly meeting of the semester Thursday in Thurston Hall.

Shortly after commencing the meeting, CGSU voted to expel The Sun’s reporter in attendance. One member was concerned that the reporter would divulge “strategy” that CGSU “wouldn’t want administration to know about.” Michaela Brangan grad, administrative liaison, expressed that the lack of “objective” for the story was “worrying,” adding later that the meeting’s content could be difficult to parse.

Per its constitution, CGSU retains the right to deny any non-member access to its meetings. However, Ben Norton grad, communications and outreach chairman, said he had no recollection of any graduate student being denied admission to a meeting, Brangan said the group last admitted a Sun reporter two years ago.

Norton invited The Sun to return after the meeting to speak with him and two other members: Maggie Gustafson grad, grievance committee chair, and Juan Guevara grad, unity committee chair. The members reported that the meeting generally focused on realizing CGSU’s goal of forming a graduate student union.

Guevara said the NLRB’s decision this summer, while not essential to the unionization effort, corroborated the group’s assertion that graduate students are both students and employees of the University.

“A government agency is not going to give us a right to form a union; that comes from us. We ourselves have the inherent right to form a union,” Guevara said. “[But] I think the NLRB told the administration in clear words that, yes, we are workers.”

Although CGSU’s next step in unionizing is to hold a “recognition vote” — in which all Ithaca and Geneva-based graduate students will decide whether or not they wish to be represented by a union — Gustafson said that the vote is not yet the group’s top priority.

“Right now, the focus that we have is talking to as many grads [as possible] and [learning] what they care about,” Gustafson said. “We’re not focusing on the vote yet because the vote is not scheduled, and it’s not going to be scheduled until we really feel like we’ve touched base with the people who[m] it’s going to affect.”

CGSU’s membership will hold an internal vote to decide when to move forward with the recognition vote, according to Norton. He stressed that the potential union’s endurance depends on more than a simple majority of graduate assistants.

“Our goal is not just to win the election, but to build a union culture on campus,” Norton said. “Developing that [culture] … will take time, and we want that to be the healthiest, most inclusive community it can possibly be,” Gustafson added.

Norton and Gustafson agreed that the meeting facilitated inclusive dialogue.

“We split the room into groups, which discussed the state of the organizing and what they know about their own departments,” Norton said.

Gustafson added that understanding the needs of graduate students from a range of departments will add inclusivity to the unionization effort.

“Being part of a union isn’t just about ‘what can I gain from this?’ It’s ‘How can I help the person who’s two buildings down from me — whose situation I don’t really know much about?” Norton said. “We are very much stronger together in knowing the experiences of people in different departments. It gives us energy and empathy.”

The members reported that resistance to the unionization effort has been “anecdotal,” but Norton expects the administration to challenge the effort.

“Something we will see more and more of as we move toward the election is the administration trying to drive wedges between departments and highlight our differences over our similarities,” Norton said. “But we are not inherently oppositional.”

Guevara recognized that some graduate students have good-faith objections to the effort, and said CGSU will not turn its back on these students.

“When we do win the union, even those fellow students who were not in favor of the union will be surveyed and represented in the [bargaining process],” Guevara said.

In a contract joined by both the University and CGSU, the University promised that, in the event that graduate students vote to unionize, it will “immediately … grant recognition to the [u]nion as [graduate students’] exclusive collective bargaining unit.”