Despite the unionization election being only a few days away, many graduate students remain uncertain about some of the foundational components of Cornell Graduate Students United, particularly, its affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers.
At an information session CGSU hosted for graduate students, Michael Durney, grad, questioned the portrayal of the administration as a “rich, uncaring” group.
Instead, Durney pointed to AFT as the source of this behavior, referring to them as the “King George” in relation to graduate students.
“I’m a little concerned at some of the rhetoric of CGSU that we’re fighting against some rich, uncaring administration,” Durney said. “The rich, uncaring people in my mind is AFT. And so I support everything you guys are doing in terms of making sure I have a voice. But I don’t support that you’re doing it by bringing in a rich, uncaring person and so I don’t view the administration as rich or uncaring. I view King George — the AFT — as rich and uncaring.”
Sena Aydin, grad, clarified the relationship between CGSU and AFT to explain AFT’s presence on campus. Aydin admitted while she is critical of the relationship, she believes that early on in the campaign, “the affiliation with AFT was needed.”
“There is a large amount of graduate student body [at Cornell] and the union, starting as small as it was, didn’t have neither the financial nor the timewise needs to reach out to graduate students as a body,” she said. “So that is one point that we needed some support which means that people who are paid can actually do that.”
Similar to viewing AFT as a king-like figure, many graduate students worried that AFT will impose authority over CGSU.
However, Aydin argued that they hope CGSU will lead negotiations and processes afterward, giving AFT an “advising” role.
“When it comes to the negotiation with the University — with the hopes that we’re going to win the recognition election — I think anybody here would agree that we all want to be the ones negotiating at that table and have AFT and NYSUT representatives as an advising position,” she said. “Not in a position where they make the decisions or they do the negotiations.”
Katie Smith, grad, explained that that the current contract reflects an affiliation agreement. For that reason, the “agreement with AFT [is] about the campaign, the election and contract negotiating …that agreement is not about afterward,” she said.
After the election, should the graduate students vote in favor of unionization, CGSU aims to establish itself as a local that has representation in AFT.
After being chartered as a local union of AFT, CGSU will be governed by the AFT and NYSUT constitutions but still will be able to maintain independence and autonomy, according to Todd Dickey, grad, and one of the CGSU members who voted to affiliate with AFT.
“AFT and NYSUT both operate under constitutions and bylaws that guarantee local autonomy and independent decision-making. CGSU’s current constitution ultimately would need to be converted to local union bylaws as part of this structure,” Dickey said. “Under the AFT
and NYSUT constitutions, local autonomy is protected and CGSU’s participation in the unions’ representative assemblies and conventions at the state and national levels is welcomed, encouraged, and expected.”
In fact it was this democratic structure that attracted Paul Berry, grad, and other CGSU members to AFT.
“What we really needed was a lot of support to run a successful campaign,” he said. “However, the reason we chose AFT as opposed to UAW, for instance, was local autonomy within our organization.”
To emphasize this point of local autonomy, Berry, a former GPSA member, likened the power of a union to the GPSA’s advocacy committee.
“We want to be running our own union,” he said. “In a way, I really think the union is like the GPSA advocacy committee if it had teeth. The teeth that I wish it had and I wish it had been able to push through some of these things over the last several years. And it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.”