January 22, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Unionization and Harassment

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Re: “LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Division and Solidarity in the Unionization Discussion,” Opinion, Dec. 12, 2016

To the Editor:

The New York Times came under fire recently when, in an article about the post-election climate on campuses, they described: “Bias incidents on both sides have been reported. A student walking near campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr. Trump, according to a campus wide message from Mark Schlissel, the university’s president.”

By virtue of its organization, the statement seems to imply that being called racist is ‘as bad’ as a direct death threat. Media commentators have noted that this constructs a dangerous false equivalency.  “Both sides have it bad,” it says, “we should *all* end this divisiveness and come together in the middle.”  Pardon me, but I’ll excuse any hijabi for refusing to step even halfway into the fire.

In December, two Cornell grads wrote a letter to The Cornell Daily Sun expressing their concern that our unionization effort is causing “divisiveness and emotional distress.”  It describes behavior they call “harassment” and “emotional abuse.” I have collected every example they indirectly supply in the letter:

  • A “Concerned Graduate Student” asks a dean: “I’ve heard numerous complaints from my graduate student peers that they are “harassed” by union employees at work and at home. Is there a way to stop these unwanted visits?”
  • Juan Guzman is reported as commenting that “representatives’ visits feel like solicitations by salesmen, as though “someone [is] trying to sell you something that you’re not really prepared or interested in at the time.” When he refused to sign a membership card, union members were purportedly “pretty forceful about asking us the reasons, the discrete reasons why we didn’t want to.”
  • Ruidong Chen was surprised by a visit at his home.
  • Siddarch Chandrasekaran was asked, “Do you have a problem with your advisor?”, a question he thinks is indicates that “CGSU has a way of presenting their story in a way where they can potentially be polarizing the campus.”
  • Teja Bollu fears his critiques of the union have been “mischaracterized,” that he and others have been painted as “unconsidered with welfare of their fellow students,” and that union representatives have practiced “emotional blackmail” by purportedly using rhetoric like “if you are not signing this, you don’t care enough about other students.”

Hard conversations are unpleasant, and building a local organization takes persistence and convincing.  Though many graduate students do have problems with their advisers, acknowledging this and reaching out to potential victims is apparently “too polarizing.” One might have thought that a University with such a prestigious business school would be more accommodating to “salesmen.”

Last year, between July 2015 and April 2016, Cornell’s Office of Inclusion & Workforce Diversity recorded 95 bias incidents made by faculty, staff, students, and visitors to Cornell’s campuses.  Nearly half involve the victim’s race; another quarter their gender.  We can surely assume that many more incidents have gone unreported.  Here are some excerpts from the report.

  • On Nov. 3, 2015, the CUPD filed a report to the Reporting Bias System stating that an individual had reported to the Silent Witness Program being verbally attacked and physically assaulted. The accused also sent messages via Facebook to the victim over the next day, using a number of slurs and making threats of physical harm.
  • On March 8, 2016, an individual reported that derogatory depictions of them had been posted in a public department common space, even mentioning the individual’s name. The individual cited that this was part of an ongoing series of incidents within the department.
  • On Dec. 1, 2015, a staff member reported that a student had sent an email to inform the staff member of an off-campus incident with another student that involved the police. The reporter indicated that another student had verbally attacked her outside of her apartment, using racial epithets and other derogatory language. The individual also began to bang on the common wall in a threatening manner, prompting IPD to be called.
  • On Dec. 2, 2015, a student reported that another student had been targeting the individual and continuously stating that women from a particular racial and ethnic group were “crazy” and that interracial marriage between particular races should not be allowed. The respondent has also sent a number of text messages to the victim that have been racist in nature.
  • Tagged as *Physical Attack – Based on Ethnicity*: On Jan. 30, 2016 an individual reported being physically attacked at an off-campus location by a group of men. The attack was broken up by security guards from an establishment in the vicinity.

Cornell students report harassment that is vicious and regular.  The union has been accused of being annoying salespeople whose arguments appeal to emotion. To casually use epithets like “harassment” and “emotional abuse” to describe this is disrespectful to people who actually experience that abuse. It’s sad that some students have had bad union conversations — with so many volunteers untrained in activism and outreach, it can be difficult to make a consistent presentation. But no example provided has approached the severity of the rhetoric used. I’m disappointed in both the letter writers and The Sun for printing such an alarmist piece.