On March 27 and 28, Cornell graduate students will vote on the question of their potential unionization, the finale to a series of events prompted by an August 2016 NLRB ruling that graduate students can be considered workers with the right to unionize. This is a reversal of a 2004 ruling which stated that graduate students should have a “primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”
The role of graduate students has become highly contentious; students argue they play an indispensable yet under-appreciated role in Cornell’s research initiatives and course curricula. Cornell Graduate Students United supports unionization as a means of increasing the benefits of all graduate students at Cornell through a collective bargaining unit. The potential union will aim to give graduate students a say over issues ranging from health insurance to stipends and wage increases, ultimately to improve students’ living and working conditions.
Critics of the union point out potentially flawed voting procedures and the potential union’s ability to fairly represent grad students. At Yale, “slim margins of victory” in the voter turnouts revealed divisions across departments when it came to unionization. Due to similar conflicts within Cornell’s graduate student body, it is difficult to gauge whether a union’s bargaining efforts can adequately serve and reflect the concerns of graduate students at large; divisions can “dampen the effect of a union’s arguments,” according to Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations. Other criticisms of unionization include the potential damage to faculty-student relationships and fears that the reach of the union will extend beyond the economic issues of students and intrude on academic decisions that are better left to the University.
The Sun takes no official position for or against unionization, but we urge students to be cognizant of the potential union’s powers and limitations. It is in their best interest to be as informed as possible about the benefits and drawbacks of the unionization before casting their ballots, as this decision will affect not only currently employed students, but also generations of graduate students to come.