Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times

Students stand on the quad at Columbia University after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the Graduate Workers of Columbia.

September 11, 2016

After NLRB Decision, Cornell Grads Step Up Union Campaign

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While the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to classify graduate students as employees this August spurred members of Cornell Graduate Students United to seek University recognition, Cornell’s unionization campaign actually began about two years ago — and has not stopped since.

In the fall of 2014, CGSU ratified its constitution in an attempt to become a collective voice for graduate workers to the University. Shortly afterward, the group began its campaign for recognition from the University as the collective bargaining representative for graduate employees, according to its website.

Michaela Brangan grad said that CGSU formed when student workers began to notice inequities like pay differentials that they could not explain.

“Workplace issues that come up that, as a collective we share,” she said. “Or we find out that one group of grad students have a particular issue. We can work together to try to get some of these things fixed.”

After the NLRB ruled in favor of graduate workers at Columbia, asserting that such students are can be categorized as both students and workers, a door opened, allowing graduate student unions to form at private universities.

Although now CGSU performs many union-like duties, its members are campaigning for recognition from the University and will eventually call a vote for graduate workers on whether they can deem CGSU their official representative.

Without formal recognition, graduate workers often dictate the terms of their employment and have few options if issues arise such as wrongful termination or workplace harassment, according to Maggie Gustafson grad, grievance chair for CGSU.

“As of now we’re the friend that gets to be there to advocate for them,” she said. “The whole point is advocacy. It’s that approaching the administration — this bureaucratic wall — as this individual student with a problem is daunting and sometimes stifling. There are graduate students every year who leave Cornell because that wall is put up to prevent them from really dealing with a grievance.”

Although her official title is friend and not a union representative, Gustafson added that CGSU aims to help students understand their options in the event of a grievance.

Once there is an official contract between CGSU and the University, formal procedures and standards will aid and protect student workers, according to Gustafson.

“The official contract is really going to strengthen the position we already have to be able to help,” Gustafson said.

Archishman Raju grad emphasized that, during the campaign process, in addition to trying to obtain enough votes for formal recognition, CGSU hopes to solicit more information about graduate student concerns.

“We’re not just trying to get people to vote in this election,” he said. “We’re building a real union.”

Campaigning has proven difficult for CGSU at times. Finding any contact information for graduate students is difficult, and obtaining correct contact information can be even harder.

However, the organization was aided by a provision in the agreement reached between the University and CGSU in May, which states that members of CGSU may puruse student records to find information on students they would like to contact.

“At a university this big, in buildings this convoluted, it’s complicated,” Gustafson said. “That’s information we’re going to use to make sure that we don’t leave anybody out of these conversations we’re having.”

CGSU representatives said that the long process of assuring recognition will be worthwhile if the group is able to sign a labor contract with the University to become the official union of graduate workers. If graduate workers are happy, the movement could benefit not only those in the union, but everyone that they work with, according to Brangan.

“Everyone in this area is affected by all workers’ quality of life,” she said.

Gustafson agreed and stressed that teaching assistants are a vital component of Cornell’s education system, often providing a personal touch or contact in large classroom settings.

“At a university like Cornell where you have so many undergrads, where we do have 400 student classes, the T.A.’s are an essential part of our academic ecosystem,” she said.

Katherine Quinn grad added that unionization could benefit many constituent bodies at Cornell, pushing for greater collaboration and unity among University workers and students.

“To be pro union is not anti Cornell,” she said. “It’s pro everyone getting a voice and everyone who’s affected by what goes on at Cornell being able to say how it’s run. It’s not like it’s us fighting Cornell, it’s just us wanting to all come together.”