lte unions
March 20, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Administrative interference and the union

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To the Editor:

We are Cornell graduate students concerned with the way some Cornell administrators have conducted themselves during the grad unionization campaign. In our view, administrators have undercut the election agreement between CGSU and Cornell, and have even subverted their own policies to boost explicitly anti-union messages. We are also disturbed that the “Ask a Dean” forum seems little more than a way to disseminate anti-union propaganda and pit graduate students against one another.

The university and CGSU agreed in May that there would be one formal statement “setting forth the University’s official position” from Cornell; that lengthy statement, from President Rawlings, was issued in the fall. The agreement also permits certain administrators to “communicate the University’s official position (collectively ‘the issues’),” while refraining from using such communications to coerce grads. Accordingly, our expectations were that university officials would leave the choice on whether to unionize up to us, honoring the guidelines set out and agreed to last spring.

In the fall, grads began to receive unsolicited emails from the anti-union group At What Cost? using a “cornell.edu” listserv. According to the university’s IT policy, e-lists should only be used in support of “instruction, research, outreach, administration or other recognized university activities.” We do not believe that this group fits these criteria, and according to email inquiries from grads, AWC thought the same. Given its focus, AWC did not expect a cornell.edu listserv, but nonetheless received one from administrators, seemingly by surprise.

To be clear, this is not an attack on At What Cost. Any group has the right to find legitimate, effective ways to reach out with their message. But the university should not support unsolicited anti-union messaging on its official channels. We, and several other colleagues, independently filed complaints about this. To ameliorate the violation, we later proposed that Cornell could simply ask AWC to send a message with its next email, requiring people to reply “STAY” to continue receiving their communications. In its refusal of our request, Cornell framed cornell.edu spam as “bad manners” and told us that we could just unsubscribe.

We find this recommendation unsatisfactory. (At this time, AWC’s emails no longer have a link to “unsubscribe.”) The university is here, as in so many instances, the sole arbiter of its own policies, leaving little recourse for those affected by the breaching of them. Such unilateral, self-serving judgments are precisely why a union is essential for grads to advocate for themselves against institutional power.

Further, allowing unsolicited emails from a cornell.edu listserv transmits tacit approval of those emails’ contents. We don’t expect anyone to refuse gifts, and AWC are not restricted from seeking them (though on their honor, they claim they “do not have any affiliation with Cornell University”). To our dismay, we have reason to think Cornell is providing more than tacit approval. AWC’s uncannily-timed emails to the grad body, containing previously unreleased information about the election, suggest that they are being contacted with information, which they then disseminate to supplement university communications. In its best light, such actions by Cornell would be extremely unseemly.

Finally, with the use of the “Ask a Dean” forum, Cornell is blatantly skirting the “official position” stipulation. At first glance, “Ask a Dean” appears to be a step towards transparency. But by directly responding to individual graduate student questions, then forwarded to the entire graduate student community, Cornell promotes a range of anti-union views that diverge wildly from Rawlings’s “official position.” One particularly vitriolic question accuses CGSU of perpetuating “lies” to attract new members, and “Ask A Dean” has even provided links to the AWC website in response to such questions. Even if we grant that the questions are genuine, it still appears that deans, with their unfettered access to Cornell grads’ inboxes, are consciously using this forum to subvert the agreement and disseminate anti-union propaganda.

The administration espouses the view that the unionization debate should be a free and open exchange of ideas, but uses its powerful platform to undercut the debate, and grads’ expectations that they can make their decisions free of institutional interference. This is highly disappointing, but it points to why we want a union: to even the playing field between grad workers and the institution. We thus call on all grads to support unionization and vote yes, so we can have a real voice in the policies that affect us in many areas of our lives, and have real recourse when the university falls short.

 

Vera Khovanskaya, Information Science grad

Edward Tremel, Computer Science grad

Tom Davidson, Sociology grad

Ethan Ritz, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering grad

Robert Escriva, Computer Science grad