April 20, 2017

Letter to the Editor: ILR faculty object to Cornell’s coercive conduct prior to CGSU election

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To the editor:

As faculty members in the Cornell University ILR School, we are deeply concerned about the conduct of the Cornell administration on March 26, the eve of the Cornell Graduate Students United election and on March 27, the first day of voting in the election. On both days, Cornell’s Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth sent emails to thousands of Cornell graduate students with messages that interfered with graduate employees’ ability to freely exercise their rights to choose whether to be represented by the CGSU. In raising our concerns about Dean Knuth’s conduct, we draw on our expertise and experience in the field of labor law, labor relations and labor rights.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, it is unlawful for an employer to make statements that would have the tendency to “interfere with, restrain or coerce” employees in exercising their rights to choose whether to unionize.  Unlawful coercive statements by employer representatives include explicit or implicit threats that the employer may cut back on jobs if employees vote for a union. Such unlawful statements by an employer are particularly harmful when made close to an election, which the National Labor Relations Board recognizes as the “critical period” when employer coercion is most likely to affect the outcome of the election.

On Sunday, March 26, the day before the election, Dean Knuth emailed to graduate students a “Special Edition” of her “Ask the Dean” column, in which she states: “It is possible that significantly increased costs” due to wages and benefits negotiated by the CGSU “could lead to reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell, but faculty, departments and colleges would need to make those decisions.” By linking union negotiated benefits to the possibility of “reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell,” Dean Knuth’s statements constituted threats that a vote for the union could lead to future cutbacks in the graduate program. The attempt to camouflage those threats as “predictions” or “possibilities” does not change the fear-inducing nature and intent of the message. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the serious coercive nature of threats that unionization could lead to job loss. In finding that employers violate the NLRA by threatening to close a plant if employees unionize, the Court noted that the NLRB “has often found that employees, who are particularly sensitive to rumors of plant closings, take such hints as coercive threats rather than honest forecasts.”

On Monday, March 27, the first day of the election, Dean Knuth emailed “Graduate School Announcements” to the graduate students informing them that, “Starting in 2017-2018, Cornell SHP will reduce the cost for care received outside the Ithaca area for graduate and professional students who see Aetna participating providers. The cost will be reduced from 20 percent to 10 percent.  This enhancement is a direct response to concerns about how to improve access to care for students who are studying or performing research away from campus.”

What’s wrong with Dean Knuth announcing these benefits?  The announcement of new benefits close to the time of an election or as here, even during the election, is an abuse of Cornell’s economic power as an employer.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an employer violates the NLRA by announcing new benefits for the purpose of influencing employees to vote against union representation.  As the Court stated, “The danger inherent in well-timed increases in benefits is the suggestion of a fist inside the velvet glove.  Employees are not likely to miss the inference that the source of benefits now conferred is also the source from which future benefits must flow and which may dry up if it is not obliged.”

It is very disturbing that Dean Knuth chose to conduct herself in this way — and particularly disturbing that she sent these email messages at the moment that graduate employees were on their way to the election polls. Each message, by itself, was coercive.  But together, they delivered a “one-two punch” to remind the graduate students that Cornell holds the ultimate power to give and to take away. The first message threatened graduate employees with the possible loss of graduate student positions, followed by the second announcement of a new benefit that Cornell was giving them. In the words of the Supreme Court, “The beneficence of an employer is likely to be ephemeral if prompted by a threat of unionization which is subsequently removed.”

As faculty members in the ILR School, we expect Cornell to follow lawful and ethical standards that respect employees’ rights to decide for themselves whether to be represented by a union. It was wrong — and likely a violation of the NLRA and the Cornell-CGSU conduct agreement — for Dean Knuth to use Cornell’s economic power in an attempt to sway the vote. The international affirmation of the freedom of association as an essential human right makes Dean Knuth’s and the University’s unlawful resistance to the exercise of this human right by Cornell graduate students particularly shameful.


Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, ILR

Prof. James Gross, ILR

Prof. Shannon Gleeson, ILR

Prof. Sarosh Kuruvilla, ILR

Prof. David Lipsky, ILR

Prof. Virginia Doellgast, ILR

Prof. Eli Friedman, ILR

Prof. Rosemary Batt, ILR

Prof. Ileen DeVault, ILR

Prof. Rachel Aleks, ILR

Jeff Grabelsky
Associate Director, The Worker Institute

Lara Skinner
Associate Director, The Worker Institute

Prof. Tove Helland Hammer, ILR

Linda H. Donahue
Senior Extension Associate, The Worker Institute, ILR

Prof. Kate Griffith, ILR

Allison Weiner Heinemann
Lecturer, ILR

Jim DelRosso
Associate Librarian, Catherwood Library

Prof. Lowell Turner, ILR

Prof. Emeritus Lois Gray, ILR

Ronald Applegate
Lecturer, ILR

Aliqae Geraci
Assistant Director, Catherwood Library

Prof. William Sonnenstuhl, ILR

Kate Bronfenbrenner
Senior Lecturer, ILR

Debra Lamb
Assistant Director, Access and Administrative Services, Hospitality, Labor and Management Library

Prof. Ariel Avgar, ILR

Ian Greer
Senior Research Associate, ILR

Lee Adler
Senior Extension Associate, ILR

Sam Nelson
Senior Lecturer, ILR

Prof. Michael Evan Gold, ILR

Patricia Campos-Medina
Extension Associate, ILR

Sally Klingel
Director, Labor-Management Programs, Scheinman Institute

Prof. Ronald Seeber, ILR