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.”