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Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

March 28, 2017

Cornell, Union File Grievances on Opening Day of Voting

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The graduate unionization took an ugly turn after the first day of voting.

Cornell Graduate Students United and its affiliates in addition to Cornell administration have referred grievances to an arbitrator after a controversial email was sent out Sunday night by Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth and alleged complaints by student voters of coercion and “electioneering by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT.”

The CGSU complaint was filed after an email sent out Sunday night by graduate school administrators suggested that fewer graduate students could be hired if unionization were to occur.

The suggestion appeared in an Ask a Dean forum, where graduate students can submit questions anonymously to the deans of the Graduate School.

A question included in the email asked how the University would pay for the added benefits the potential union would bargain for.

“It is possible that significantly increased costs for these items could lead to reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell, but faculty, departments and colleges would need to make those decisions,” Knuth wrote in the response.

Knuth told The Sun that the response was revised to remove the sentence that appeared problematic, “not because it was determined to be a violation, but in our good faith efforts to address concerns raised.”

Cornell also filed a grievance against CGSU and its affiliates, claiming that its members were coercing voters.

Vice President of Human Resources Mary Opperman sent out an email on Monday claiming that pro-union advocates were violating the agreement through other measures.

“We received a report that a number of CGSU/AFT/NYSUT representatives have told eligible voters who don’t support the union not to vote,” Opperman said in the email. “The student making the report noted he felt threatened by the representatives.”

Four American Arbitration Association officials stationed at the four polling places on campus all said that there were no instances of any coercion or harassment to people waiting to cast their vote.

Pro-union members fired back at the charges, saying that the University provided no evidence to back up its claims.

“There’s an important difference between the grievances submitted by Cornell and CGSU: those submitted by the union reference specific, well-documented violations of our Code of Conduct, while Cornell’s are wholly unsubstantiated,” said Jaron Kent-Dobias, grad. “It’s disappointing the Graduate School would publicize such alarming claims based only on hearsay.”

The arbitrator Howard Edelman ruled Monday night that there can be no “electioneering” within 100 feet of polling places and that administrators and CGSU officials may make no coercive statements to prospective voters.

The Ask a Dean forum has been a breeding ground for conflict. Administrators claim they are addressing legitimate concerns from students — who are always anonymous — while union organizers claim that it is the University’s method of circumventing the agreement reached between the two sides in May that prevents professors or administrators from trying to persuade graduates to vote “no.”

Recently, the forum has been filled with many questions on unionization and CGSU’s campaign. The responses, as well as certain questions, have caused conflict between administrators and union organizers, particularly, Knuth and CGSU member Paul Berry, grad.

The drama started three weeks ago, when Berry received an email newsletter from the graduate school including two Ask a Dean questions. One asked about the potential consequences of a CGSU strike and the other asked whether the student should be concerned about CGSU’s “non-Cornell affiliates.”

Knuth posted responses to both questions — which were linked in the email — providing details on dues structure and speculating on some possible consequences of a strike, while maintaining that a strike has never before occurred at Cornell, so it would be impossible for her to know.

Berry was displeased, and responded to Knuth via email.

“Maybe try some yoga and meditation?” he wrote to Knuth in an email. “[P.S.] this misuse of the graduate school listserv is completely irresponsible.”

A few days later, Berry emailed the graduate school deans in the hopes of getting a question posted on the forum about whether Cornell would challenge the results of the election if CGSU were to win, as Columbia University did when the Graduate Workers of Columbia won their unionization election.

Berry repeatedly asked to confirm that his question would not be altered without his knowledge, other than to make it anonymous, pointing out another answer on the forum stating that the deans make no editorial decisions other than to make sure the student is currently registered and to make it anonymous.

Knuth responded to his email suggesting that he try what he advised a few days earlier.

“Your series of emails implying the graduate school does not do what we advertise we do for Ask a Deans is bordering on paranoia,” she said in her email response. “Have you tried yoga or meditation?”

The email then continued by assuring him that they will not edit his question and thanked him for already providing an anonymized signature, something she said not everyone does. He responded politely before adding another quip.

“I did some meditation today actually, very relaxing,” he said.

“Thanks, Paul,” Knuth responded. “I prefer yoga, and am glad to know that you have a technique that works for you.” After, Berry cced Knuth’s assistant asking if she “would like to weigh in on this important debate too?”

The assistant responded by saying that she has tried both yoga and meditation, but has a hard time finding time to fit them into her schedule regularly.

Berry, although polite in the exchange, was unhappy with the behavior Knuth exhibited, both during the email conversation and before it as well.

“Dean Knuth’s behavior during the union campaign … has been unprofessional and completely inconsistent with the values of any university,” he told The Sun. “Unfortunately, I was not surprised at all when recently the dean responded to my legitimate concern … by accusing me of ‘bordering on paranoia.’”

Others shared Berry’s concern with Knuth’s behavior during the campaign. Director of the Worker Institute Prof. Ileen DeVault, industrial and labor relations, said that the University’s actions go against the spirit of the agreement they signed with the union in May 2016.

“And I would argue that it goes against the spirit of Cornell itself, and certainly the ILR school,” she added.