Boris Tsang / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Jaron Kent-Dobias grad speaks at a CGSU meeting on Feb. 15, where CGSU members finalized their objections and remedies for arbitration. CGSU met again on Thursday after the arbitrator released his findings on Wednesday.

May 18, 2018

CGSU Reflects, Examines Future Plans After Arbitrator’s Decision on Union Election

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Members of Cornell Graduate Students United met on Thursday evening to reflect on the year and deliberate over future plans, following arbitrator Howard C. Edelman’s Wednesday finding that the University violated the National Labor Relations Act but that the still-unresolved March 2017 election with a majority against the union, will be certified.

CGSU members met the arbitrator’s findings with both enthusiasm and frustration, with some members believing the decision did not go far enough.

Edelman’s decision follows arbitration between the University and CGSU that began when CGSU’s legal counsel filed three objections to University conduct in February, each objection concerning an email sent to graduate students by the University before or during the election.

The arbitrator found that one of the three emails — sent by Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth on March 26, 2017, and suggesting that unionization could possibly lead to reduced numbers of graduate assistants — violated federal labor law.

The arbitrator decided that the other two emails followed the NLRA and the Union-University Conduct Rules and Recognition Election Agreement that was agreed upon by the University and CGSU before the election.

As a result of the NLRA violation, Cornell will be required to post a public notice that will be agreed upon by CGSU and the University, according to the award document.

Matthew Fischer-Daly grad, former administration liaison on CGSU’s steering committee and former chair of the Union Management Committee, said during the meeting that CGSU’s legal counsel is drafting language for the notice to be presented to the University along with CGSU’s expectation that the notice be physically posted on campus as well as sent by email.

At Thursday’s meeting, some in attendance expressed concern over the arbitrator’s conclusion that an email from March 27, 2017, stating that health care costs for some graduate students would be reduced for the 2017-2018 academic year was not found in violation.

Fischer-Daly said the decision on the health care email was “very surprising.”

“Had the complaint concerning the Administration’s communication about health care been before the National Labor Relations Board, I think it’s fair to expect the Board would have concluded it was calculated to interfere with the election and therefore a violation of the NLRA, and set aside the election,” Fischer-Daly said.

According to the arbitrator’s award document, the arbitrator also denied CGSU’s request to be able to schedule a new election within an 18-month window beginning after the certification of the March 2017 election results. CGSU will still have one year after the results are certified to petition for an election.

The arbitrator noted that the objectionable content of the email in violation was removed and the message sent again on March 27, 2017, five hours after voting had begun. He said it is “virtually impossible to determine” how many graduate student voters read each email.

Elections “should not be lightly set aside,” Edelman said in the award document. “Absent strong evidence of substantial coercion, intimidation, etc., or demonstrably false statements, their results should stand.”

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

Joel M. Malina, the vice president for University relations, said in a statement to The Sun on Thursday that the University is “pleased” with the arbitrator’s decision to “uphold” the election. He noted that the University is “confident” that the inclusion of the uncounted ballots “will reaffirm the original result,” with the majority of those who voted casting their ballots against unionization.

Fischer-Daly admitted at the meeting that when the election is certified, which will involve the legal counsels for the University and CGSU meeting with the arbitrator to review the outstanding ballots, the certification will not change the election results.

“It’s going to be certified as a loss,” he said. He added in a later email to The Sun that “we don’t know for sure” when the results will be certified, but “likely soon.”

The arbitrator’s decision on the certification of the union recognition election means the results will not be overturned, as some CGSU members had hoped.

Ethan Ritz grad, the administration liaison and chair of the UMC, told The Sun that he thought all of CGSU’s objections were “legitimate arguments” and that he had wanted the arbitrator to overturn the election.

“I wanted … the whole election to be thrown out, because I do think that those things changed the outcome of the election,” he said. “To say that those things couldn’t have changed it is silly to me.”

On the question of whether or not CGSU should hold another union recognition election, members offered differing views.

Ritz said he will be “excited to have an election when we’re ready.”

“I think that recognition in a contract is one part of a labor union as we saw, like the strength of the union only comes in part from its recognition and contract status, but those are very important tools that we can use to leverage and get the things that we need,” he said.

However, other members were more cautious. Natalie Hoffmeister, CGSU’s grievances chair, emphasized that working toward another election is not the main reason for her participation in the union.

“I’m not involved in the union right now in order to push for an election,” she told The Sun. “I’m involved in the union to talk with peers and try to support each other, which, the election does do that, but … we have a lot of conversations to be had prior to that.”

Chris Raymond grad, CGSU’s unity chair, said he thinks “another election is the last thing on my mind,” adding that “an election is a means, not an end.”

Aside from discussions on the arbitration result, CGSU members also held conversations about where the union can improve and what it should do to prepare for the fall semester.

Some suggestions included solidifying the internal structure of the union, connecting to other groups on campus and reaching out to underrepresented graduate students.