Outside a United Auto Workers union vote on a tentative agreement with the University for wage increases and benefits on Monday, over 30 students were present with signs, rallying for a fair contract for Cornell’s full-time employees.
“Workers deserve to be recognized and formally thanked,” said Javed Jokhai ’24, Sun columnist, Cornell Democrats president and a student organizer for the rally. “They supported the student body for so long, it’s time that the student body supports them back.”
Students stood outside Bailey Hall at the start of the meeting, shouting various chants, including ‘Stand up, fight back,’ ‘If you strike, we strike with you’ and ‘Cornell Cornell you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.’ Ralliers then sang a song in solidarity and entered the meeting, making their presence known by holding up signs and gathering in one section of the auditorium.
Participating in the rally included members of Cornell Democrats, Cornell Progressives, Starbucks Workers United, the Working Families Party, Ithaca Democratic Socialist of America and People’s Organizing Collective, as well as independent students and local community members passionate about the cause.
”I am out here today because our full time workers deserve to have a living wage,” Cornell Progressives member Adele Williams ’24 said. “They are going to the food banks in order to keep up with their low salaries and support their families.”
Negotiations for wage increases started in May, and this is the second tentative agreement that union representatives presented to UAW members in this round of bargaining. Before this round, UAW negotiated an extension on its contract with Cornell due to the pandemic.
“Part of the term of the extension was we took a lower pay increase, and Cornell promised that the next contract would be significantly better,” said Chauncey Bennett IV, a University employee whose job is primarily to coordinate and receive food orders for the dining hall Okenshields. “That’s not what we got.”
Inside the meeting, many union members expressed concern to the UAW bargaining team about the wage increase offers they received from the University. Many cited the high inflation rate — the annual rate was reported at 8.5% in July — and argued that the proposed increases would not be enough to compensate for the rising cost of goods.
Other union members expressed frustration about staff shortages, with many saying they were doing the work of two or three employees. One union member said new hires are not being properly trained, causing them to get reprimanded for not following rules and said that due to this, many new hires do not last long.
In an interview with The Sun, building care employee Suzanne Monroe conveyed her exhaustion for doing the job of multiple people, all while actively fighting her battle with cancer and having to go to the hospital for treatments.
“Even though I’m tired, I make sure my job is done properly. We are so short-staffed. We have to go from building to building. We don’t get paid right,” Monroe said. “Building care employees worked throughout COVID. We are down 11 employees in our unit.”
Bennett expressed concern over wage increases in the tentative agreement.
”Cornell is supposed to be a learning institution founded on peer-reviewed academic data, yet rejects all peer-reviewed academic data when it comes to living wage,” Bennett said, referring to MIT’s living wage calculator, which indicates that a living wage for an adult with zero children is $19.33 an hour in Tompkins County.
Some pointed out that Cornell’s endowment climbed 41.9 percent during the 2021 fiscal year, marking the largest gain in more than three decades. Union members and students questioned why proposed wage increases could not even climb to a livable wage.
“Where is that money going towards, if not going towards improving the quality of living for the students on campus, improving the quality of the buildings and the staff that supports that?” Williams said.
“It is completely unreasonable for a company that has made record profits in the last two years to not pay us enough to live,” Bennett added.
Throughout the meeting and while passing by the rally outside, union members expressed their gratitude for student activism.
“If the workers find a contract through negotiation that they are happy with, then that would be the happiest day for me. And if the Cornell workers decide that they keep getting contracts that they are unhappy with and they decide to disrupt Cornell, I would be equally as happy. Whatever they decide,” Jokhai said. “We will make sure that workers never feel forgotten.”