November 29, 2016


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To the Editor:

Unions in workplaces are a much-needed apparatus to ensure equitable work conditions. The power of collective bargaining is indisputably beneficial to workers in establishing fair contracts. Our vote in the impending referendum on the matter of unionizing graduate workers is of grave importance, and we bear the burden of vastly influencing the course of graduate education in Cornell and beyond. Follow not in the footsteps of Brexit, widely recognized as the glorious failure of democracy through uninformed, misinformed voters who leveraged their responsibility to vote through passion and nonchalance, bereft of rationality. This letter aims to understand the effect of unionization particularly through CGSU, as an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and New York State United Teachers.

Do you share the same work concerns as a nurse or a kindergarten teacher?: Local unions (such as CGSU) derive legal support and socio-political leverage through the standing of their affiliate parent unions. AFT caters to about 1.6 million members who are to an overwhelming majority, teachers from K–12 and healthcare professionals such as paramedics and nurses. AFT has meager experience in concerns of graduate students from large private universities such as Cornell. Interestingly, other top graduate programs including Harvard, NYU, Columbia, UMass and UConn among several others are affiliated with the national union, UAW, which spearheaded the path-breaking NLRB ruling allowing graduate students the right to collective bargaining. UAW has championed the right of graduate students from private universities to unionize through efforts spanning over a decade (since 2000). The choice to align with UAW would seem like common sense, given their proven commitment in support of graduate students, alignment with unions from fellow Ivies, and most importantly, experience garnered through noteworthy movements at NYU. It is worthy to note that Cornell in previous efforts to unionize did align with UAW. Such prudence eludes the current efforts. But surely CGSU saw some value in AFT — this is hard to know, since like most workings of this union, the agreement signed between AFT and CGSU is inaccessible to graduate students unless one has already signed the authorization card in blind faith — cart before the horse.

AFT drowns the voice of its members: Information on AFT available through investigatory sources paints a sordid picture, betraying rationale behind CGSU’s choice. There are at least 129 registered allegations of Unfair Labor Practices against AFT including 57 violations of the Duty of Fair Representation — filed when members find a union is biased in non-representation of concerns of specific members. Further, in the realm of politicking, AFT is accused of having endorsing Secretary Clinton in her race in the primaries against Senator Sanders and previously against President Obama, much to the chagrin of its fellow unions and their members. This is a classic example of how AFT, like any other democratic organization, is beholden to represent the interests of its majority, i.e. K-12 teachers, even if this means rallying against a candidate such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) who clearly had a fiscal agenda most appealing to (us) the collegiate population. In yet another twisted portrayal of facts, CGSU is proud to be aligned with AFT that caters to 25,000 graduate students – that this is less than 2 percent (total 1.6 million) of AFT’s membership is conveniently unmentioned.

NEA and NYSUT are not vetted here since the former has no prominent presence representing graduate students, and the latter is an AFT-associated state body.

AFT is in it to make money: In the event of CGSU being recognized as our representative union, we will be charged $400 to $800 depending on our annual pay, and the hitherto unmentioned dues owed to CGSU – of this $400 to $600 per student will be directly transferred to AFT and NYSUT’s coffers. Cornell’s current graduate student strength is about 2400 (those eligible to be part of the bargaining unit – teaching assistants, graduate assistants, research assistants, and graduate research assistants). That would mean we would contribute roughly 1 million dollars to AFT’s cause yearly, with little say in their spending of this sum. Recent litigations in California reveal the cutthroat manner in which AFT has focused on its political agenda at the cost of the democratic right of members to take contrarian political stance. Hence, congratulations, we get to pay a hefty annual fee of a million dollars that will be used to further political agendas in which we will have no say. However, from AFT’s standpoint, their renting an office on East State Street and paying several non-Cornell members (anecdotally 12 non-Cornell union workers) to spearhead their campaigning efforts on campus, including constantly haranguing students to sign authorization cards is well justified. For a one-time investment of roughly $102,000 per month — office rent of about $2000 per month (craigslist listing of a similar office in the neighborhood), monthly salary of $100,000 towards the aforementioned campaign workers (AFT pays campaign workers between $262,000 and $8,000 annually with an average of $119,000 US Department of Labor records) a victory at Cornell would set them off in a path to regular remunerations from Cornell upwards of a million dollars. In the meantime, if you suffer loss of pay through strikes, you should know AFT has spent a grand total of $0 on strike benefits, while UAW has spent $4,470,313 in a representative year (2013).

Permanent damage: Your vote in the impending election will dictate the lives of graduate students at Cornell forever. The process of decertifying a union (i.e. legally removing ourselves from CGSU or its affiliates AFT/NEA/NYSUT) is prohibitively onerous. The exact same process as is ongoing, collection of 30 percent of signatures on a decertification petition, followed by elections, is the legal requirement — only this time, we won’t have members paid to harangue graduate students in their offices, homes, over the telephone and such to sign the petition. It is therefore not surprising that despite much dissent and dissatisfaction for AFT, only 18 unions have managed to execute a decertification. Further, analysis has revealed that only about 7 percent of the members of all unions in the country have voted in favor of the union that represents them; most employees are bequeathed membership to their union as terms of their employment, with no say in the choice.

Know what you are signing away and what you will be voting for. Be an informed voter — don’t hire a dubious cardiologist for a complicated brain surgery just because they can wield a scalpel! You may go here if you wish sign up for the union, here if you wish to withdraw your signature from authorization cards, and if you do not want to be bothered by union workers hang this poster outside your office.

Nicole Wiles grad
Mark Obstalecki grad
Kyle Mack grad
Siddarth Chandrasekaran grad