November 9, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | On Unions and Shared Governance

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To the editor:

I am writing as a graduate student who has been involved with the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly since spring 2013 and with Cornell Graduate Students United since spring 2014 in order to respond to some of the discourse around shared governance that has emerged in debates over graduate student unionization this semester.

I am a proud member of both organizations and believe deeply in the necessity of each, and based both on my own experience and the extensive evidence from other universities at which both graduate student unions and assemblies productively coexist, I believe unequivocally in the potential for both organizations to continue to work effectively after a unionization vote. The GPSA is not at all threatened by the formal recognition of CGSU as an exclusive collective bargaining unit.

More importantly, I want to respond to the idea encapsulated in Interim President Rawlings’s statement that graduate students already have a significant voice in administration, and that “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.” There are two issues to look at in evaluating this claim: first, the Board of Trustees’ decision to not raise the minimum stipend of Research Assistants to be equal to Teaching Assistants in spring 2014, and second, workers’ compensation.

When the Trustees made their decision on graduate student stipends, they did so with the consultation of a handful of graduate student leaders who were forbidden from discussing the issue with other graduate students. In the trustees’ and administration’s eyes, this qualified as consultation with graduate students. I simply ask, do you really believe that a decision about graduate student pay made with only a handful of the thousands of graduate students at Cornell even privy to the conversation was democratic and fair — given that these privileged few were then not allowed to talk to the rest of us about it?

The GPSA does valuable, important work, but so long as the Board of Trustees and the administration can make decisions that ultimately disregard the expressed opinions of graduate students — or, in this case, without even consulting graduate students for their opinions in the first place — the GPSA is not positioned to substantively advocate for graduate students in certain crucial ways. In a GPSA meeting earlier this semester, Dean Barbara Knuth explained that this difference in minimum stipend amount was eliminated after the Graduate School realized that a large majority of faculty were electing to pay research assistants at a level higher than the minimum, as if it had increased the same amount as the teaching assistantship stipend. That’s good, but this was only the case because individual faculty made the decision out of the goodness of their hearts to pay their research assistants fairly. It very easily could have been different, since this fact is contingent on these individual decisions. A formally recognized union would be able to make legally binding agreements on issues like this so that policies on graduate student pay are crafted with actual consultation of graduate students and implemented without being contingent on individual supervisors’ whims.

On the issue of workers’ compensation, the line repeated by Graduate School and Cornell administrators is that following discussion with the GPSA Student Advocacy Committee in 2013-2014, Cornell “clarified” its workers’ compensation policy. This line was just repeated by Dean Knuth in her last appearance before the GPSA, and it relates to President Rawlings’ asserted preference for “collegial atmosphere” over “potentially adversarial collective bargaining.” It is certainly true that the GPSA did tremendous work that required hours of extra meetings, and it is true that in this instance discussion between administration and a committee of the GPSA resulted in concrete benefits for graduate students. As a member of the Advocacy Committee that year I was proud to be a small part of this work.

But it must be said that to call these discussions “collegiate” or amicable would be a mischaracterization at best, at least to my ear as a member of the Advocacy committee during 2013-2014 and co-chair in spring 2015. While the tone and substance of these conversations was sometimes collegial, they also at times became explicitly adversarial as administrators objected to any hint that graduate students might be thought of as workers or employees. Workers’ compensation was not an issue solved by the university merely clarifying its policies in response to questions and inquiries from graduate students; the policy articulations in 2015 were the result of conversations that ranged from collegiate to adversarial. To pretend that the current structure is always “collegiate” and that a union would introduce a new level of “adversarial” discourse that did not before exist is not simply to make a hypothetical or theoretical point, but to misrepresent the nature of actual conversations between GPSA committees and administration, at least in this one recent and salient example.

In the end, it is true that the GPSA does valuable work, but it is also true that there are limits to its effectiveness. The GPSA exists in relation to administration and the Board of Trustees through a stark power differential. Cornell does not ultimately have to do anything at all that the GPSA recommends (as we saw when the Trustees rejected Fossil Fuel Divestment after four shared governance bodies including the GPSA passed resolutions to the contrary), and this power differential can potentially manifest in adversarial posturing in even those conversations, like the ones on workers’ compensation, that have positive results for graduate students. A union, however, would be different. A union would democratically seek the input of all members of its bargaining unit through openly-structure meetings and streams of communication, and the policies crafted in conversation between the union and the university would be legally binding. I look forward to seeing this more even playing field become a reality.

Jesse A. Goldberg grad