September 24, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Cornell’s anti-labor administration is the problem, not its much-needed student housing projects

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A popular student meme circulated on Facebook mid-August mocked Cornell’s funding of “flashy construction projects” over “cheaper tuition,” perpetuating an inaccurate either/or understanding of the university’s budgeting decisions. While a recently finished $61 million glass-enclosed “humanities atrium” should perhaps raise eyebrows, Cornell’s mostly housing-centric construction projects should not. Increased enrollment has placed significant upward pressure on the local housing market, spurring necessary action by the university to expand options for student accommodations. What deserves student and community attention is the particular way in which the university has commissioned such necessary housing developments.

It should first be mentioned that our nearly $7 billion dollar university boasts a tax-exempt status, allowing it to operate within this town at great expense to local taxpayers. For this reason, any voluntary material contributions made by the university to the community are critically important. This includes its hiring choices as it commissions high-priced housing developments.

Cornell has conventionally honored compacts with building trades unions that represent Central New York’s 3000+ skilled construction tradesmen, ensuring that university projects are built by local union labor. The use of local workers, vendors, and construction companies assures that capital flowing from university developments stays in the community. After all, the university’s real estate operations’ stated pledge is to promote “real estate activities that keep Ithaca a great place to live by providing quality jobs, tax revenues, and strengthening its economic base.” Cornell’s boosting of seasonal construction employment is part of this vision.

Cornell undoubtedly benefits when it honors these compacts and works with Ithaca-area union labor accordingly. The region’s community-conscious developers and skilled union tradesmen have commendable track records of compliance with local building codes, state wage and hour laws, and federal OSHA standards. Local labor’s adherence to health and safety standards protects both on-site construction workers and the eventual student patrons of their completed projects, leaving no losers. Unlike out-of-state corporations, they can’t evacuate town post-construction and skirt responsibility for the conditions of housing complexes that students will occupy for countless years to come.

To the dismay of those paying attention, this all went out the window in 2016 when Cornell hired Memphis-based corporate real estate giant EdR to build its $80 million dollar Maplewood Park redevelopment for graduate student housing. EdR unsurprisingly circumvented local labor by bringing non-union tradesmen from 20+ states other than New York to build the site — betraying its own public promise at a June 2016 Ithaca Planning Board meeting to create 300+ job opportunities for workers in the Tompkins-Cortland region.

Cornell and EdR’s neglect of local labor is not the only issue at play here. The Maplewood project has been cited for severe OSHA violations ranging from dangerous nailing patterns to lack of fall protection. Further, workers have complained of illegal wage theft and have even been spotted sleeping on site — the same site being investigated by the state’s Department of Labor for persistent workplace hazards. This chaos has been intensified by multiple ICE raids at the Cortland hotels housing the Maplewood workers, opening Cornell up to well-grounded accusations of complicity in the federal immigration policies it ostensibly condemns.

For obvious reasons, this wreck-of-a-development wasn’t finished in time to accommodate the hundreds of graduate students who were contractually promised fall-semester residence at Maplewood. Cornell left many graduate students without secure housing, undermining an important university constituency that has disproportionately borne the brunt of Cornell’s intensifying hostility to unions. Mere months ago, Cornell was found by arbitrators to have shamelessly violated federal labor law in 2017 by circulating threatening anti-union messages to graduate students in advance of their union recognition vote.

As the university meddles with labor organizing efforts among its students and simultaneously contracts collegiate housing corporations to construct delayed, inspection-failing buildings to house those same students, it appears more hostile to labor than ever. It’s clear that this institutional hostility to organized labor lies at the crux of the many problems surrounding Cornell’s housing projects, and should be resisted appropriately.

As Maplewood delays and investigations drag on, the administration knows full-well the human consequences of its choices to flout local labor. This wealthy university has heard the anger of the region’s robust labor movement, and knows that there are only two paths forward. The sustainable path is for it to repudiate its bad-faith dealings with real estate giants and recommit to solely hiring local workers belonging to Central New York’s vigorous building trades unions.

Corporate developers that violate labor law and betray promises to boost local employment simply have no place in the Tompkins-Cortland region. EdR ought to be penalized for the Maplewood disaster, and then shut out of Cornell-related housing developments forever. Unfortunately, the East Hill Village’s website still lists EdR as one of six developer “partners” for the housing project. If Cornell keeps out-of-state developers like EdR in good company as it proceeds with its North Campus and East Hill Village plans, it best be prepared for the storm of outrage and organizing to come.


Christopher Hanna ’18, Tompkins County Workers’ Center
Daniel Bromberg ’20, Peoples’ Organizing Collective | USAS Local 3
Alessandro Powell, grad
Cecilia Faringer-Perez ’18
Kataryna Restrepo ’21, Peoples’ Organizing Collective | USAS Local 3
Emily Hong, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Natalie Hofmeister, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Christopher Raymond, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Matthew Fischer-Daly, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Ethan Ritz, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Aubrie James, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Kevin Hines, grad
Vera Khovanskaya, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Jacy Tackett, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Katie Rainwater, grad
Henry Kunerth, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Carolina Osorio Gil, grad
Ujjainee Sharma, grad
Johnnie Kallas, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Omar Din, ’19
Sarah M. Alexander, grad
Aman Banerji, grad
Patrick Young ’06, grad
Ewan Robinson, grad
Cait McDonald, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Jaylexia Clark, ’19, Tompkins County Workers’ Center
Mel White, grad
Ethan Whitener, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Shivani Parikh, ’19
Tarannum Sahar, ’20
Michael Cary, grad
Felicity Emerson, grad
David Blatter, grad, Cornell Graduate Students United
Tess Pendergrast, grad