May 17, 2018

Cornell University Violated Federal Labor Law in Graduate Union Recognition Election, Arbitrator Finds

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This post has been updated.

Cornell University violated the National Labor Relations Act through an email sent to graduate students on the night before the March 2017 graduate student union recognition election, arbitrator Howard C. Edelman from the American Arbitration Association ruled on Wednesday.

The arbitrator found that the email sent on March 26, 2017, by Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth contained a statement that violated the NLRA, according to the arbitrator’s award document.

The University and Cornell Graduate Students United have been in arbitration since this February, when the union’s legal counsel filed objections to University conduct in the March 2017 union recognition election.

The results of the election are still unresolved, with 856 votes in favor of union representation, 919 votes against and 81 uncounted ballots, according to the award document.

In a statement on Thursday morning, Joel M. Malina, the vice president for University relations, said the University is “pleased with the decision released Wednesday by independent Arbitrator Howard Edelman to uphold the March 2017 graduate student election, directing that its result be certified.”

Malina told The Sun that the University is “confident” that the uncounted ballots will “reaffirm the original result” of the election, noting that a majority of the over 80 percent of eligible graduate student assistants who voted in the election “voted against unionization.”

The University’s violation of federal labor law concerns the special edition announcement email’s Ask a Dean section that replied to a student’s question about where the University would get money for added benefits if a union were to form, as The Sun previously reported.

“All of these funds (external grants, and department and college budgets) are limited,” Knuth wrote in the email. “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.”

The arbitrator said that this statement presents “the real possibility” that the number of graduate teaching assistants would be decreased if the union, CGSU, were to win the election.

“An Assistant reading this communication would have to believe that a vote for CGSU puts his/her position in danger,” the arbitrator said in the award document. “That individual departments will make their decisions does not alter the process whereby one of those decisions may well be to reduce the number of Assistants.”

According to the award document, the University had argued that Knuth’s response to the student’s question only reflected a possible result of graduate student unionization. The award states that the University also noted that it had “modified the bulletin and re-issued it” the following day without the controversial language “as a gesture of good faith.”

As a consequence of this violation, the University will be directed to post a notice of the violation, which was one of CGSU’s requested remedies. According to the award document, the arbitrator will direct the University and CGSU to work toward an agreement on the notice’s wording and when and where it will be posted.

Malina told The Sun that the University will be conferring with CGSU and arriving at an agreement about the posting regarding this violation “in the days ahead.”

The email in violation forms the basis of one of three objections filed by CGSU’s legal counsel in February, with each objection concerning a different email sent by administrators before and during the voting period.

The arbitrator found that neither of the other two emails in question — one alleging that CGSU members engaged in voter intimidation and another stating that the University was reducing health care premiums for some graduate students for the 2017-2018 academic year — violated the NLRA or the Union-University Conduct Rules and Recognition Election Agreement.

With respect to the election agreement, which was agreed upon by the University and CGSU before the election, Malina said that Cornell is “proud of our efforts to honor that commitment.”

“We understand that this issue has created divisions within our graduate student community, whose daily contributions to Cornell’s teaching, research and engagement mission cannot be overstated, and agree with the arbitrator that it is time to certify the results of the election so we can move forward together and continue our collective work to strengthen graduate education at Cornell,” Malina told The Sun.

In arbitration, CGSU also requested as a remedy that it could schedule a new election within 18 months after the results of the still-unresolved March 2017 election are certified. The arbitrator denied this request, but CGSU will have one year to petition for a new election once the certification of results takes place.

The University maintained that even if each unresolved ballot from the March 2017 election were counted toward votes in favor of unionization, CGSU would still not win that election, according to the award document.

The award document said that the University claimed that CGSU did not meet the “heavy burden of proof” that must be presented by those filing objections to an election to show that the election was “unfair.”

When asked after the release of the decision if CGSU will aim to hold another election, Jaron Kent-Dobias grad, CGSU communications and outreach chair, said the union will “certainly consider it, absolutely.” He said that the decision “lies in the hands of our members” and what they believe is right for the union.

Kent-Dobias noted in response to the arbitrator’s ruling that he believes it is “important that institutions see there are consequences for the behavior they exhibit in labor disputes,” even when those disputes are with graduate students.