October 30, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | In Response to the Rawlings-Brickhouse Letters

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To the editor:

“The administration may make one formal communication to Graduate Assistants regarding the University’s position on unionization. ‘Formal communication’ shall be defined as a written document setting forth the University’s official position that is signed by the President or another senior University Officer. i. The document shall be distributed via email to the Cornell campus (one time) and posted to a public CORNELL website(s). …”

This passage is from the “Union-University Conduct Rules and Recognition Election Agreement,” the document signed last May that details the current Union-University relationship.  Interim President Hunter Rawlings was far from violating the agreement when he emailed his and the administration’s opinion last Thursday and in fact was distributing it to the entire Cornell Campus as stipulated.  Despite this The Sun published an irresponsible letter to the editor alleging he had sinister plot to isolate and disparage graduates students and incite the campus against them.  The author paints graduate students as the targets of a vicious smear campaign that simply isn’t supported by Rawlings’ letter or the Union-University Agreement.

The letter first alleges there is a power imbalance: Rawlings can use the mass email system while the union cannot. While it is true the union cannot email the entire campus, the administration is limited in what it can do by the Agreement.  It can only send one, 1,600 word letter to the campus setting out its opinion, it has only seven designated speakers to articulate its opinion orally and in writing, and it cannot send emails or letters to individual students.  Furthermore it may not “coercively initiate conversations” or interrogate graduate students; due these restrictions and as a matter of practicality, to my knowledge, the administration does not approach or interact with students individually.

Many of these same restrictions do not apply to the union. While they may not have the entire campus’ email address the union has each grad student’s and can contact them individually.  Additionally they do interact with students personally and have sent paid union representatives to students to encourage unionization. Twice I, though not a grad student, have been approached by unionization advocates who normally travel in groups of two or three. I should note that I do not know whether the people I interacted with are union members or pro-union grad students, regardless they were pro-union.  This ability to interact with grad students face-to-face is much more powerful than a single 1,600 word letter to their peers could ever be. If anything, the union has the upper hand in any power imbalance.

The second concern was the “biased” nature of Rawlings’ email: “President Rawlings used his position to privilege one side of an argument.” This concern presupposes the Cornell Administration has an obligation to present a balanced, impartial view on the issues.  As a corporate entity Cornell University is entitled to hold an opinion.  More specifically the National Labor Relations Board has firmly acknowledged the right of employers to opine about active unions and unionization campaigns provided they are not threatening or coercive in any way. Just as the union is allowed to make its case for, so the University can make the case against and I dare think the author would hold a union representative to the same unbiased standard.

But the previous letter charges the mere fact that the letter was sent to non-grad students was coercive enough.  That its anti-unionization stance will insight the campus against the union and grad students will quake under the weight of our negative approval. Utter hogwash. This reasoning deprives us of our mental faculties painting a campus that is swayed by a single, lengthy letter and not by facts or reason.  Secondly, it alleges that we will impose our beliefs upon grad students, a claim I see no evidence for. Finally it argues grad students will change their votes because of what the faculty, staff and undergraduates think. One feature of the election the author conveniently overlooks is the secret ballot.  No grad student need fear individual retribution for their vote as it will not be made public.  Yet grad students still might be hesitant to unionize if the campus would be against the union. To which I ask just as students and faculty have little power to influence the UAW, the largest staff union, and their negotiations, why would we have power over a graduate student union?

As a web commentator succinctly wrote: “That line of reasoning seems to reduce graduate students to mostly empty intellects to be filled with the President’s master plan.” Although I know just a few graduate students, I know this is not the case.

William Stone ’18