After Cornell Graduate Students United took the next step in calling a vote on unionization Wednesday, delivering over 1,200 signatures to Day Hall, members of Cornell Organization for Labor Action emphasized the effects that the formation of a graduate student union could have on undergraduate students.
COLA member Alfie Rayner ’19 attributed undergraduate mentorship to the dedication of graduate students, especially at a large research university like Cornell.
“Graduate students mentor us in a lot of different ways,” Rayner said. “Grad students are often the ones who remember your names when your professors don’t, or who meet with you outside of class, and they should be acknowledged for that work.”
Rayner added that a union would allow graduate students to better support undergraduates because graduate students themselves would be better supported.
“Time and time again, you see that well-treated workers are better workers,” Rayner said.
Administrative Liaison for CGSU Michaela Brangan grad, encouraged the support of undergraduates.
“I do think undergrads should care and should be in support, because happier graduate students means better instruction for them,” she said.
However, Mark Obstalecki grad, a member of At What Cost? — a group that has frequently criticized CGSU’s methods — did not think unionization would have a significant effect on undergraduate students.
“The unionization effort really focuses on compensation and benefits for graduate students, so the union would really have no interest in undergraduate sort of affairs,” he said. “I don’t think they even have the legal ability to influence them.”
Even if it doesn’t directly affect undergraduate students, Rayner said that the symbolic significance of having a union is one reason undergraduates should care about unionization.
“Establishing a graduate student union is a really strong sign that Cornell cares about student interests, so even for people who are currently undergraduates, just knowing that the university is able to put student interests above administrative profit is something that is extremely positive for students of all levels,” Rayner said.
Furthermore, COLA members Emad Masroor ’17 and Xavier Eddy ’19 both emphasized the idea of standing in solidarity with graduate students.
“They are obviously making a lot of sacrifices to go to graduate school, to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, and in return for that, they should get some job security and benefits,” Masroor said.
Eddy added that backing graduate students in their desire to unionize was a way for undergraduate students to show that they care about the graduate students who support them.
“At this moment, the really important thing is that the grad students need this, and I think the time is right for that,” he said. “So, we should do all we can as undergraduates to support the graduate students.”
Undergraduates Left Out of the Bargaining Unit
Cornell has not joined other universities — such as Columbia and Harvard — in including undergraduates in the bargaining unit.
According to Brangan, this was not necessarily an intentional decision, but rather a consequence of the fact that the group formed due to a collection of grievances that were specific to the experiences of graduate students.
Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations, said that the law only requires that there be an “appropriate bargaining unit” and that it is typical to have a bargaining unit without undergraduates.
Brangan added that undergraduates are in a slightly different situation from graduate students because they are typically hourly workers and that the process of unionization should be tailored to the specific interests of a particular group.
In her opinion, it would be more meaningful if undergraduate workers formed their own union based on their own concerns instead of being lumped together with graduate students.
“Undergrads should feel inspired by what graduate students are doing and organize themselves,” she said. “A union doesn’t work unless the people in the cohort want it. … They have to do it themselves.”
Additionally, Brangan addressed the concern that the added benefits for graduate students could potentially come out of the tuition paid by undergraduates. She said that she believed this would not antagonize the relationship between graduate and undergraduate students.
“We look at undergrads as our allies in this,” she said. “They should really care about where their tuition dollars are going and whether it’s going to create a larger structure that they don’t have any power over, or whether it is flowing towards those people they actually end up having contact with on a regular basis.”
For COLA member Katy Habr ’18, improving the working conditions of graduate students is a worthwhile use of her tuition money.
“If I’m paying tuition, then I want to be getting a good education, which means that the person who is teaching me, grading my work, is fully able to do that work properly,” she said.
Brangan also said that what the union really wants is a “more equitable piece of the pie” of Cornell’s $4.3 billion revenue for graduate students.
“We’d like to see more of the University’s revenue, regardless of where it comes from, flowing towards the education and research mission of the University, and a lot of that mission is on the backs of grad students,” she said.
A Strike Strikes Undergrads?
Another way unionization could potentially affect undergraduates is if grad students went on a strike, either refusing to teach classes or grade assignments. Yet Brangan emphasized that a strike is highly unlikely and would only be undertaken as a last resort if all other bargaining efforts failed.
“I don’t see our relationship with Cornell deteriorating to the point where we would have to have a strike, but we would hope that undergraduates would be in solidarity with us and they would understand the reasons for it,” she said.
Brangan added that a strike is generally undesirable and that the occurrence of a strike would reveal a deeper flaw about the University’s unwillingness to cooperate with its workers.
“We think that undergrads should look at [a strike] as a critique of the institution,” she said. “If the institution isn’t willing to work with graduate students, what does that say about the institution?”
If a strike were to occur, Eddy said he hopes it would be executed in a reasonable manner.
“I hope no grad student wants to make life harder on undergraduates,” he said. “Anything that would be done would be done with the consideration of the students and education would be at the forefront.”
Additionally, both Haber and Jack Nobel ’17, another COLA member, said a strike would be an eye-opening depiction of the significant contributions of grad students on campus.
“I think that [a strike] would really stop things,” Habr said. “It would definitely have a huge effect, which I think just goes to show the crucial role that research assistants and TAs play in our lives.”
“[In the event of a strike,] I hope students would recognize the labor that grad students put in and would be more thankful for them,” Nobel added. “I think oftentimes they don’t get the respect that they deserve.”
On the Path to Graduate School
The presence of a graduate student union could affect the decisions of current undergraduates to attend graduate school in the future.
“Essentially all of the students right now that are working towards forming the union won’t be here in five to six years, so it will be a new body of students,” Obstalecki said.
While Obstalecki acknowledged that it would depend from student to student, he said that for him, the academic merit of a school matters more than the presence of graduate student union.
“If I were applying to Cornell now, whether it had a union or didn’t have a union, I don’t think it would affect me significantly,” he said. “When I was searching for a graduate school, I was looking for, ‘What is the best program to advance my academic career in the future?’”
On the contrary, Rayner said that she would perceive the presence of a graduate student union as an added benefit for potential students.
“I think that going into a school knowing that there is a graduate student union and knowing that there is a mechanism for graduate student voices to be heard by the administration, at least for me, would make me feel much more positive about going somewhere,” Rayner said.
Masroor echoed this sentiment, saying that he believes that the presence of a graduate student union would demonstrate that the university is a welcoming place that treats its graduate students well.
“I’m applying to grad schools right now, and I know these things do factor into your decision of where to go to grad school,” he said.
Rose Agger grad, said that she knew people, women and minorities in particular, who previously wanted to pursue academia and had the potential to be mentors and teachers. However, they are no longer interested in this goal because of how they have been treated here, leading to a feedback loop of low-quality mentorship.
“I think unionization can be extremely important for supporting minorities in academia and not just in STEM fields,” she said.
Also, Rayner said that regardless of political opinion, getting involved with unionization can contribute to a sense of political efficacy.
“I think that unions are an amazing way for people to have firsthand experience with democracy and to have a real place where they can have their voices heard,” Rayner said. “Even just being involved in it, I feel like I’m contributing a little more to the kind of world I want to see.”
According to Eddy, current events on campus surrounding unionization demonstrate that it is an important issue with tangible implications for Cornellians.
“It is very easy to talk about unionization as a big, far off topic and discuss it from the ivory tower, so to speak,” Eddy said. “This is something happening at our doorstep, something that deeply affects us.”