Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Cornell Graduate Students United organizes in support of graduate student Martha Jean-Charles at Caldwell Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

November 1, 2016

Graduate Students ‘Torn,’ Debating Necessity of Union

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Unionization has quickly become a hot topic among Cornell graduate students. Within the past week, an email discouraging unionization from Interim President Hunter Rawlings and the formation of At What Cost to counter information disseminated by Cornell Graduate Students United have spurred the debate about whether unionization is in graduate students’ best interest.

Many graduate students — some confused about the issue, some near experts — are scattered somewhere along the spectrum from pro- to anti-unionization.

“I’m pretty torn about the union because Cornell’s been pretty good to me and I have no complaints,” said Hoa Duong grad.

Some graduate students value the formation of a union not because of “a specific benefit that we’re looking for, but rather an ability to be represented,” according to Gregory Booth grad.

For Duong, Rawlings’s recent email is a source of “potential conflict,” particularly because it was sent to undergraduate as well as graduate students. Duong said this demonstrated that the University “get[s] to shape the debate.”

“The administrators have an institutional bargaining stance that grad students don’t have and that’s clearly indicated in their ability to send out mass emails,” he said. “It’s an implication of the asymmetries or the divide between the powers of grad students and the power of administrators.”

However, strong relationships between graduate students and their advisors — particularly principal investigators in research laboratories — have also made students cautious about unionization. Okan Köksal grad expressed concern that the presence of a union could “override such a strong connection.”

“By negotiating on student pay, CGSU will possibly thwart the business strategy of the [principal investigators],” Köksal said. “This might force PIs to let go of newer and less active graduate students.”

It is just this relationship between one faculty member and graduate student, however, that has caused other students to come out in support of unionization. Without the official work policy or accountability that a union could provide, some graduate students end up working up to 80 hours a week, according to Xanda Schofield grad.

“The University relies on us to provide value to a lot of people here and if we’re doing that kind of work, then the idea that we can be in a situation where one person, our advisor, can decide what work we do, how much we work and how long our degree takes is terrifying,” she said. “My interactions with my advisor and professors in the department has been great, but I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from other graduate students.”

Schofield added that without graduate students, “the University would not be functional.”

A union could therefore provide “an actual legal backing” to address these kinds of issues, Booth said.

Jordan Jochim grad agreed, arguing that a union would provide a “guaranteed institutional space” for shared governance between graduate students and faculty.

“The issue is that [pre-existing organizations are] an outlet that they can feel free more or less to neglect,” Jochim said. “The union, in having a legally secured space, offers graduate students a voice in their own institutions.”

Other graduate students have placed their faith in the ability of groups such as the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly to provide this space. They argue that GPSA — which has taken a neutral stance on unionization — provides ample leverage to the University, calling the addition of a union superfluous.

“GPSA is our voice. To say that we don’t have one, that is totally false,” said Christopher Budrow grad. “GPSA has been fighting for the same things the union is fighting for and it has had success.”

Rawlings cited the same reason in his email, writing that GPSA has “a demonstrated record of effective advocacy and action to improve the lives of graduate and professional students.”

However, Schofield said the administration’s reasoning is further proof of why a union if necessary.

“The information that gets relayed by the administration appears to be incorrect or misleading about what the graduate and professional students have been able to negotiate with the administration without a union,” Schofield said.

Resentment by graduate students towards CSGU has grown over time, according to a graduate student who wished to remain anonymous due to concerns about being confronted by his peers. Several other graduate students also accused CGSU of persistently badgering students who have publicly opposed unionization.

The student was originally in support of unionization, but has had a change of opinion, uncertain as to whether the union would adequately provide a voice for students.

“We do not need the risk of Cornell shutting down when so much of our careers hinge on making deadlines that will not care if we missed out because the union held a strike,” the student said. “And we do not need a chant of empty promises stirring up a fervor among students who may have been trapped by emotional appeal over reasoned judgement.”

Ultimately, graduate students are grappling with significant confusion on this issue, according to Duong. Discourse among students — increasingly prolific in the past weeks — has fueled debate, especially as CSGU continues to collect the signatures it needs to put the unionization to vote.

“When we meet up, we flesh out a lot of ideas … just to see what each one of us understands,” said Duong. “Talking about it helps to clarify what the actual goals are of the unionization.”