March 21, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Why STEM graduate students support CGSU

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To the Editor:

On March 27 and 28, graduate students will vote to recognize CGSU as a graduate student labor union. If this vote passes, the Cornell administration will be legally required to acknowledge our needs by collaboratively drafting a contract with us that will protect and improve our working conditions. Understanding how our union’s contract could benefit grad students requires acknowledging the minimal influence we currently have on our working conditions, and also requires creative thinking about how our lives could improve. Thankfully, we can look to any of the more than 30 universities with existing grad student unions for examples of why working under a union contract will benefit our Principal Investigators, our labs and ourselves.

A union contract does not impose limitations, but rather enables protections. It is a myth that a union contract would limit the hours a graduate student can work. In fact, many contracts explicitly state that grads can work as many hours as they choose. For example, Article 33 Section 8 the University of Washington contract states: “Workload assigned to a [graduate employee] should not in any way be construed as imposing a limit on the amount of academic work necessary for a student to make satisfactory academic progress toward their degree.” A union contract does not limit our work, but will protect students who feel they are overworked or in need of support. In the 14 years since University of Washington established their union, not only has it admitted more PhD students, it rose to second for federal research grants awarded to a university.1

A union does not limit STEM stipends, but protects them. A union will not negatively impact students who receive the best stipends. Instead, it protects and guarantees increases to the highest stipends, and also increases the minimum. Currently graduate students have no say in minimum stipends and no guarantee that individual stipends will increase from year to year. Summer appointment letters decreased by up to $780 in engineering departments in 2016 compared with 2015. It is unclear how widespread this cut was within the school of engineering since the administration does not inform us of pay cuts, who they affect, or why they occurred. The Board of Trustees currently determines both minimum and maximum graduate stipends unilaterally. We will draft our contract with language that protects graduates from decreasing stipends, which is exactly what NYU’s contract Article XIX protects against: “No provision of this agreement shall be construed as to lower the compensation rate of any graduate employee.” The NYU grad union contract, like many others, explicitly rebuts the misconception that stipends will decrease for the best-paid students. We will include an equivalent statement in our contract that ensures stipends won’t decrease, and instead have guaranteed yearly net gains. No CGSU member would vote to ratify a contract that had more dues than gains to salary and benefits.

A union contract establishes a floor, not a ceiling. We will write protections into our contract, not limitations. Expanding healthcare coverage to include dental and vision limits no one. Expanding graduate childcare grants limits no one. Establishing clear leave policies for bereavement or illness limits no one. Establishing protections for the most vulnerable, such as international students and victims of sexual assault limits abuse. A union does not limit working conditions for graduates who are well supported; it protects everyone.

Given that there are clear advantages to unionization, it is unsurprising that advisor/student relationships can improve when graduates unionize. According to a study published in the ILR Review on precisely this subject, “the potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as a basis for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.” A union contract establishes baselines and expectations for everyone, so graduate workers spend less time anxiously asking advisors for bureaucratic or procedural guidance.

Our union contract will enable more flexibility for graduate students. In several STEM departments, the graduate school already provides training assistantships for new students during their first semester, giving them time and flexibility to decide on a group. Why not expand upon the support the graduate school can provide? As a unionized graduate student body, we can put pressure on the graduate school to provide assistantships that help decouple a P.I.’s funding situation from their graduate students’ stipends. How about assistance for students whose P.I.s are leaving Cornell? How about assistance for students who wish to change their advisor due to a lack of clear expectations or mentorship? A union provides a means to address the problems we know exist in graduate school.

When we go to the polls on March 27, we will be voting to establish a democratic community of graduate students who will collectively work to improve our working conditions and benefits. Every step of the process, from union recognition, to selecting a bargaining committee, to ratifying a contract is democratic. Our union and the contract we develop together will reflect our interests. If you don’t believe us, read any of the more than 30 contracts ratified across the country. We think you’ll find them compelling enough to vote.


Ethan Susca grad
Maria Sapar grad
Ethan Ritz grad
Jackie Bubnell grad
Ibrahim Issa grad