Adrian Boteanu / Sun Staff Photographer

November 29, 2016

CGSU Fields Unionization Questions at First Public Meeting

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To address concerns associated with the movement to unionize, Cornell Graduate Students United organized a group of panelists to lead a question and answer session on Monday night.

Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations, who worked for the National Labor Relations Board for three years before coming to Cornell, gave a general overview of the legal process of unionization.

“I’m not here in a role to give you an opinion of what you should do,” she said. “I’m not here as an advocate, but here to present issues and information about the law.”

Lieberwitz explained that in an August decision regarding Columbia University, the NLRB ruled that graduate assistants are employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The board recognized that graduate assistants have a “dual status” as employees and students and found no evidence that their unionization or collective bargaining would interfere with the educational process, according to Lieberwitz.

If members vote to unionize, Lieberwitz said the union would become the “exclusive bargaining representative of all the employees in the bargaining unit,” but the law provides flexibility for the union to decide on the specifics of how to move forward.

Following Lieberwitz’s introduction, student panelists responded to audience questions specific to Cornell’s unionization situation.

In response to concerns about whether the potential union would retain the right to strike and how striking could possibly interfere with graduate assistants’ roles as students, Sena Aydin grad, a member of CGSU, said striking would be considered a last resort collectively decided upon by the union.

“The union doesn’t have any authority to compel you to stay home from work,” said John Ware, Union President of the University of Michigan.

According to Rose Agger grad, individuals could get involved with creative solutions and protests, if necessary, without compromising their other commitments, like research work.

“You can show solidarity while still taking into consideration something that is really important and is required of you because of your specific position,” she explained.

Another issue concerned the relationship between CGSU and the American Federation of Teachers, specifically whether union dues could be allocated to political lobbying efforts that individual members might not support.

Juan Guevara grad said the AFT and CGSU agreement is not publicly available, because it “reveals our strategy and shows our targets, and just making that publicly available allows the university to see it and counter that.”

Political lobbying should be acknowledged as a significant tool available to unions, according to Ware.

“One thing that should be clear about political lobbying is that the union engages in political lobbying for a reason,” he said. “The reason is that both employees and unions are affected by legislation. We need that large scale coordination in order to be able to defend ourselves.”

All student panelists emphasized the importance of the collective strength that would come from unionization.

“Even for people who are not covered under the collective bargaining agreement and even on issues that are not necessarily covered in letter under the collective bargaining agreements, our union is an awfully strong thing and together we can do a lot,” Ware said. “The contract makes it a lot easier, but we can often protect ourselves even beyond what we manage to get in the contract.”

Karla Peña grad, a member of CGSU, said she was pleased by how many people attended the event and raised interesting questions.

“I strongly believe in unions and collective bargaining and solidarity,” Peña said. “I believe this is a way to protect ourselves. We should be asking these questions while at the same time, actively participating in building the union that represents our needs.”

However, other audience members like Mark Obstalecki grad and Nicole Wiles grad — members of At What Cost, an organization founded by graduate students concerned about CGSU’s lack of transparency — disagreed about the effectiveness of CGSU.

Wiles said the panel addressed some of her concerns, but “some of the answers skirted around the question that was being answered.”

According to Obstalecki, this session was the union’s first public meeting, as general CGSU meetings are only open to members. He criticized CGSU’s efforts to raise awareness about the union, saying that “holding a meeting the first day after Thanksgiving on a Monday at 8 p.m. isn’t inviting for students.”

Peña, Wiles and Obstalecki all agreed this open information session was long overdue and that similar events should be held in the future.

“I think that there needs to be more public sessions where CGSU engages a larger body of students,” Obstalecki said. “We need all of the students talking about union issues and attending question and answer sessions or panel discussions just so everybody is informed before the vote arrives.”

  • Grad

    I counted about 20 graduate students that are not active members of CGSU. The voting body consists of about 2400 students. I would call attendance poor.

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      Considering that hardly any grad hasn’t already been talked to or otherwise informed about the union, a big portion are already in the union, and information is plentiful, I’m not that surprised it wasn’t packed. I disagree with Mark that it wasn’t “inviting.” The atmosphere was really pleasant and was planned on the later side of BRB’s hours to avoid conflict with other events and work schedules–and scheduling any room on campus regardless of your profile is like pulling teeth, so you take the best you can get, even weeks ahead. It’s unclear what At What Cost wants CGSU to do for them: a red carpet? Better free beer?

      Active members were there in solidarity with their colleagues and to help out with the event. And if 20 people were there to get questions answered which were really keeping them from making their decision on whether they want the union, then that’s great. I suspect some of the questions were not coming from a position of genuine curiosity or indecision, though, but were trying to expose a perceived gap or controversy, because the askers would like to see the union fail and shroud their efforts in the language of “concern.” In particular, the “lack of transparency” accusation is tedious.

      Many of the answers given on Monday could have been found with a halfway motivated web search–including the (clutch pearls) budget and “agenda” of AFT, the national affiliate, which for some reason a few oversuspicious people are fixated on like it’s the Pentagon Papers. Organizations have budgets and plans and stuff…it’s normal. Non-profits like labor unions are required to disclose…it’s searchable. Some things–like exactly how much dues are going to be–are unknowable because it is in the future, and is for members to discuss and decide. And yes, there are some things–internal documents, decisions, etc–that are the privilege and purview of those who commit to the project of building CGSU. That is also normal!

  • grad

    The idea that At What Cost is not just anti-union and is only concerned in transparency starts to wear thin when the criticism of the Q&A (the first of many information sessions, I hope) is that its scheduling wasn’t “inviting”… Give it up, AWC! You’re anti-union. Be transparent about that!