Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

From a rally on Saturday, AFT President Randi Weingarten '80 speaks to a crowd of graduate students.

March 26, 2017

AFT President Randi Weingarten ’80 Rallies With Grads Before Major Vote

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Randi Weingarten ’80 returned to Ithaca on Saturday to discuss the same topic she studied as a student in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations: unionization.

As the president of the American Federation of Teachers — the national union affiliated with Cornell Graduate Students United — Weingarten praised Cornell graduate workers and urged them to vote for unionization on Monday and Tuesday.

In an address to graduate students gathered at Hasbrouck Community Center, Weingarten assured the group that the AFT would not try to diminish local autonomy. Instead, she said, it would be a group that would support graduates if they needed it.

Weingarten highlighted the diversity of locals that are affiliated with the AFT. She said the 3,500 locals “are as different as they can be,” and pointed out that the AFT is still growing, especially since the election of President Donald Trump.

She said that when the first travel ban was announced, she and her partner went to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City to protest with hundreds of others.

While on her way, she said she got a call saying that a professor at CUNY — who belonged to a union affiliated with the AFT — was unable to enter the United States because of the ban.

Through working with a variety of people including U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the professor was able to come home, an event which Weingarten said was an example of the union having someone’s back.

“If you vote to organize and ratify a union this Monday and Tuesday, you will never, ever, ever, ever see me ever telling you what to do,” Weingarten said. “What you will see is a union throughout this country who will have your back every single day, for the issues that you champion, for the people that you represent and for the country that we want to be.”

“That is who a union is these days. That is who a union needs to be these days. That is what, if you vote for a union, that is what the graduate students/workers at Cornell will be,” she added.

Weingarten then turned to more local issues, and in what she said was “the only political piece I’ll say today,” criticized Prof. David Collum, chair of the chemistry department, who sent out an email to his colleagues calling graduate student unionization “an existential risk to Cornell’s graduate program.”

“Look, I went to this school. I went to the school of labor relations at this University. So personally I am really offended that somebody who has a lot of power, and who has tenure and who has voice would actually say in a university that has an ILR school here, that having real labor relations is an existential threat,” Weingarten said.

“Don’t tell me that they’re an existential threat when we have on this campus, and what makes this campus a great campus, what makes it a land-grant university is having an ILR school,” she continued to applause.

In an interview with The Sun, Weingarten highlighted CGSU’s position as what she called a bottom-up organization and criticized Cornell’s administration for its behavior during the campaign.

“This is not top-down,” she said of the unionization campaign. “When the boss tries to make it that way, that is the boss attempting — whether the boss is a university president or whether the boss is the head of Walmart — it is the boss trying to create fear and polarize in the same kind of way as Donald Trump tries to polarize.”

Weingarten also condemned what she called a “whispering campaign” whose effects she said she saw even since she arrived earlier that morning.

Earlier several graduate students spoke about their struggles with having kids as a reason for their support for CGSU.

They spoke about the “exorbitant” cost of childcare in Ithaca and pointed out that even though at times things might be alright, a union is necessary for when things go wrong.

“What I’ve experienced with fellow grads and friends who are nervous about unionization is this notion that ‘well we’re okay already,’” said Anaar Desai-Stephens, grad, with her child in her arms. “But sometimes that falls through, that relying on these individual links with our advisors, our departments is really tenuous at best.”

She added that many changes around campus that benefited her, such as the ability to pump on campus, were things that happened because of collective advocacy around campus.

“Asking for a union is not a sign of our privilege, it’s a sign of our solidarity,” Desai-Stephens said.

Jane Glaubman, grad, thanked Weingarten and praised the relationship between CGSU and the AFT.

“They always say the union is an outside force coming in,” she said. “Our union was inside people, it was grad students who started a union, but we needed help, and AFT came through and they’ve done a fantastic job.”