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March 25, 2017

GUEST ROOM | CGSU’s Constitution is Neither Fair nor Democratic

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A long-standing criticism of the Cornell Graduate Student union is that its organizational structure has serious flaws which undermine its ability to be an effective democratic body — who bargains for aggrieved graduate students? Who constitutes the voting body? How are the votes allocated? And, most importantly, is the representation fair? While some of CGSU’s governing documents, like the agreement CGSU has signed with AFT, remain secretive and unavailable to an uncommitted graduate student like me, they have released their constitution for public perusal. In my reading of their constitution (the governing document that dictates how the CGSU will function) I find that the union’s tag line of Fairness, Respect and Democracy is more aspirational than actual.

Voice at the negotiation table is disproportionate to the number of students in a discipline — the CGSU Legal Affairs committee recently proposed the composition of its Negotiation Committee (reference: Constitutional Amendment III). This has been endorsed by 10 percent of its membership, and has likely been reviewed by all its current Officers. A simple analysis (see table below) reveals that students in the some disciplines get more than twice the representation as compared to students in the Engineering, Physical Sciences and Life Sciences. Given that it is the Negotiation Committee that will sit at the table with Cornell to strike a bargaining agreement, I am very concerned about this discordance between the number of members in a constituent discipline and the representation they receive.

Division Graduate Students in the Bargaining Unit Seats on Negotiation Committee Representation relative to members in unit
Social Sciences (Endowed and Statutory) ~ 500 4 200 %
Humanities ~ 250 2 200 %
Engineering and Physical Sciences ~ 980 4 98 %
Life Sciences ~ 500 2 100 %

* In addition, the amendment proposes one seat for international students

All organizations from the United States Congress to Cornell’s GPSA require a minimum number of voting members to be in attendance for any meeting to be called to order. This prevents such organizations from being run by a small clique of members. Of the 2,200 potential voting members that will constitute the CGSU, their Constitution only requires 20 members to be present (reference: Quorum Requirements Article I B.2.4.). This means that if less than one percent of the graduate students are present at a meeting, they may pass most policies with a majority therein — only 11 out of 2,200 members need to vote in favor of a policy at their meeting.

The CGSU has been consistently critical of grievance procedures of the University, and in some instances have been right to call for greater transparency and sensitivity. Given this position, the current internal grievance procedures in the CGSUs are draconian in their scope and their ability to deal with sensitive cases. Specifically, CGSU’s constitution mandates that in case any member (you or I) has a grievance with the union, we give up the right to approach any state or federal court for redress until the union’s internal Grievance board makes a ruling. Further, in the event of a grievance, the Grievance board will make a ruling that will be announced to all the members of the union for a majority vote. This procedure leaves no room for the protection of sensitive information vis-à-vis the victim (reference: Article IV B). For instance, as per the current guidelines, if a student filed a case of sexual harassment against a union officer or member, this case would be brought to the floor, to the attention of all the members with no precautions taken to safeguard the identity of the individual. Finally, once you do file a grievance, and it gets addressed by an ad-hoc board with no requirements, get ready to start campaigning for votes in your favor. The final say on the grievance procedure is not by qualified members who are well read on the matters of the constitution, but by a majority vote of the entire voting body (reference: Article IV B). As an analogy, would you like the courts, staffed by justices that are well read in the constitution to rule on cases, or would you like the entire population to vote on a case? Are we reducing the grievance system to mob justice?

CGSU has fundamental issues concerning financial and budgetary transparency. There are currently no guidelines and no rules for how CGSU committees spend and allocate their budgets. Outrageously, there are no mechanisms for any financial accountability of any unit to the union membership with only vague references to an undefined “finance committee” (reference: Article II: Section C.4.7).

CGSU requires that all members of the bargaining unit — you are included irrespective of how you voted or even if you voted — must sign the union card to have any say in how the union is governed. Members of the CGSU have repeatedly disputed that there are not going to be “two classes” of students in the bargaining unit, this is clearly false under their constitution (reference: Article I. A1. 2).

At the GPSA, I have worked extensively to facilitate diversity in thoughts and opinion within the Assembly. To this end, we have a representational system where voting members proportional to the size of each division in Cornell and field representatives are proportional to the number of graduate students in the field and we are currently in the process of bringing in representatives from outside the strict academically defined units. However, despite CGSU’s explicit goal of ensuring diversity, their constitution does not represent this attitude (reference Article II, and Article V). There is no provision to ensure proportional representation through either academic or demographic categories, within the various committees of the CGSU. Meaning, all committees and officers can easily be dominated by singular groups of individuals.

At this point, in the hunt for a solution, you may hope that once the union does come to fruition, you may join the union to be involved in student governance and to address these issues. The mechanisms to request to change the bylaws or the constitution of the organization by any constituent member is arduous (requires signatures of 10 percent membership). To add insult to injury, officer elections are scheduled to be held on or before April 15, 2017 (reference Article V A1.2.d). This leaves a window of two weeks (perhaps less) between when the union may be voted in, and when you may run for office. In essence, these leadership positions are likely to be staffed exclusively by current members of CGSU.

Some of these problems are acceptable for new volunteer based organizations and could be genuine oversights. However, since CGSU is requesting to be the sole bargaining representative for the unit and to be responsible for the language in graduate student contracts, I think it is fair to hold the union to a reasonable standard.

However the events of March 27 and 28 turn out, my sincere hope is that the CGSU puts in careful thought into its governance structure and deals with these clear structural deficits in a timely and transparent manner.

Teja Pratap Bollu is a Ph.D. candidate studying neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University. Bollu was previously executive vice president, vice president for operations and University Assembly representative for the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. Comments may be sent to Guest Room runs periodically this semester.