Michael Li / Sun Staff Photographer

Interim President Hunter Rawlings announced Cornell's position on graduate student unionization in a statement emailed to students in October.

October 27, 2016

Rawlings: Unionization Would ‘Weaken’ Graduate Education at Cornell

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Interim President Hunter Rawlings revealed his posture on graduate student unionization today, saying he believes representation by a collective labor union could undermine shared governance and individualized learning, and so is “not in the best interests of graduate education at Cornell.”

Rawling’s announcement on unionization comes months after the National Labor Relation Board’s August decision that graduate students are characterized as workers, in addition to students, opening the door for labor movements at private universities across the country.

In a statement emailed to students Thursday, Rawlings voiced concern that the Cornell Graduate Student Union would change the working relationship between faculty and graduate students by creating an artificial divide between workers and “management.”

“While the full impact of a recognized graduate labor union on shared governance bodies … is unknown, it could very well preclude these existing groups from interacting with ‘management’ — including faculty, department chairs and university leadership — on issues that could be considered potential topics for collective bargaining,” he said.

The interim president also said the nature of a union would interfere with the “flexibility, individuality and inventiveness” of graduate education, making students responsible to a larger collective labor group, rather than able to cater their educational experiences individually.

“I am concerned [about] a collective bargaining agreement that is, by definition, designed to meet the interests of a collective, rather than tailored to each individual’s educational pursuits,” Rawlings said.

He also expressed doubts about the ability of the American Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers — two unions affiliated with CGSU — to adequately represent students’ interests in dealing with the administration. In contrast, Rawlings stressed that graduate students have more influence and greater flexibility in shared governance bodies that already exist.

Saying that graduate students already have a “significant voice” in the administration, Rawlings cited the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the General Committee of the Graduate School as examples of bodies that endow graduate students with a voice and are specifically Cornell-centered.

“We have not been able to solve every issue raised by students, but I believe we are better able to work through differences of opinion in a collegial atmosphere than in a potentially adversarial collective bargaining setting,” he said of these groups.

Praising Cornell’s structure of graduate education, which he described as both academically strong and centered on individualized learning, Rawlings warned that unionization could “weaken this system.”

Predicting that a vote on unionization could occur in the next few weeks, Rawlings urged students to consider “what value a graduate labor union would add to the Cornell community and to your academic degree.”

Despite assuming an anti-union position, Rawlings encouraged graduate students on all sides of the issue to participate in the vote on unionization, saying the decision will “likely stand for many years to come.”

“The election outcome … will be binding on all current and future graduate school students who hold an assistantship appointment, regardless of whether they voted in the election or not,” he said.