Rosamond Thalken grad, a Ph.D. candidate in information science, hoped to use the money from her industry internship to pay off her debt. But in March 2022, she received an unexpected email from Cornell, telling her the University had overpaid her $2,000 over the course of several paychecks and that she had to repay the money immediately. Thalken said that when she asked the University if she could repay the money in installments, she was told that she “couldn’t use Cornell as a savings account.”
“I shouldn’t have to go into debt to complete a Ph.D. when I’m employed by one of the richest universities in the world,” Thalken said during a Cornell Graduate Students United unionization card drive event on Wednesday, Sept. 6.
CGSU, an organization that intends to unionize Cornell’s graduate worker population, kicked off its efforts with a card drive event on the Bailey Hall steps before moving to recruit signees at several gathering places on campus — including the Arts Quad, Ag Quad, Engineering Quad and the Physical Sciences Building. Graduate workers signed union membership cards while a series of speakers spoke on issues affecting their experiences at Cornell, such as lack of access to healthcare or support for international graduate workers.
“We have hundreds of grads signing cards right now,” Sophia Taborski grad, a Ph.D. candidate in classics and an organizer with CGSU, said in an interview with The Sun. “We have a lot of support. We have a lot of momentum.”
A card drive is the first step in the unionization process. For an organization to call a union vote, at least 30 percent of workers must sign a card or petition stating they would like that organization to represent them as a union. If that threshold is reached, the organization can file a petition to the National Labor Relations Board to call an election. The NLRB will certify that organization as the collective bargaining representative if a majority of the votes in the ensuing election are in favor of the union.
If over 50 percent of workers sign the card or petition during the card drive, there are two additional methods of recognizing the union. The employer may choose to voluntarily recognize the union, or the NLRB will order the union recognized if the employer commits any infraction that would cause the election to be set aside.
Unions mean different things to different people, according to Connor Davis grad, a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics and CGSU organizer. To Davis, a union is a way to ensure higher workplace safety standards and increased workers’ compensation.
“I work in a high-powered laser lab, and there are huge safety risks,” Davis said in an interview with The Sun. “If I accidentally blind myself, or if I accidentally burn my hands, I have to go through a bureaucratic nightmare for workers’ comp[ensation]. Grad workers have been demanding better workers’ comp for years and the administration has been ignoring us.”
Most speakers at the rally, such as Don-Gerard Condé grad, a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology, focused on the financial insecurity they faced for one reason or another. Condé, who suffers from a disability that requires frequent physical checkups and mental health evaluations, said he was able to manage his care adequately at CUNY Hunter College — where he completed his undergraduate degree — but Cornell did not provide him with enough health insurance for his required appointments. When Condé tried to take out a student loan to cover his medical expenses, he said it was rejected.
“Most of us haven’t seen a dentist in over a year,” Condé said. “A lot of us with disabilities haven’t seen our specialists in that same amount of time. But Cornell’s estimated cost of living for graduate student workers does not take into consideration those of us who have disabilities or health concerns.”
Robert Cantelmo grad, a Ph.D. candidate in government and the Democratic nominee for mayor of Ithaca, addressed Cornell’s treatment of graduate workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and its financial effects — while assistant professors had their tenure tracks frozen and graduate students were left in limbo, their expenses did not cease.
“Did your rent, your mortgage wait and see? Did your healthcare bills wait and see? Did your child care wait and see?” Cantelmo said. “So why do we think that’s an acceptable answer? We can see why we’re working well in excess of the 15 hours a week grading, teaching, advising, working in the lab. And giving the undergraduates the education that they came here for.”
Speakers like Takshil Sachdev grad, a Ph.D. candidate in economics, also addressed issues facing international students, which forms a crucial part of CGSU’s platform.
“Cornell chooses to bring us here from all over the world but does not provide adequate support for us to thrive once we’re here,” Sachdev said. “It’s the baseline responsibility of any good employer, but international graduate workers at Cornell continue to feel like we’re in a precarious position, expending money and effort to deal with issues Cornell could commit to solving.”
Sachdev finished his speech by accusing Cornell of profiting off graduate workers without adequate compensation or support to meet their basic needs.
“As economists, we have modeled countless situations where the party that has more bargaining power, ends up with the greater share of the pie,” Sachdev said. “Right now, we’re doing all the baking, but Cornell is eating the whole damn pie.”
CGSU’s efforts are part of a growing national movement towards unionization among graduate student workers, including at Ivy League and Ivy-equivalent colleges like MIT, Yale and Columbia, in order to advocate for improved working conditions and a more extensive array of benefits.
“Tens of thousands of workers across the country, graduate workers specifically, are coming together to demand fair wages, improved health care, improved safety conditions in their labs, better transportation, affordable housing and more from their employees,” Alec Pollak grad, a graduate worker and Ph.D. candidate in English, said.
The card-counting process is currently ongoing, and CGSU representatives did not disclose when results would be available.
This is CGSU’s second unionization effort. The first, during the 2017-2018 school year, resulted in an election that was too close to call, though Cornell was found guilty of violating labor laws by Howard C. Edelman, an independent arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association. CGSU also organized a demonstration to protest for higher wages and other work benefits — more than the eight percent that the University had announced it would raise annual stipends by — outside a University Board of Trustees event in March 2022.
In an email to The Sun, Vice President of University Relations Joel Malina stated that the University respected the right of students to unionize but did not comment on any of the issues raised by CGSU. The University also did not comment on whether it would voluntarily recognize a union should it hit the 50 percent mark on the card drive.
“We want Cornell to be a place where students can do their best work, and where they feel that they’re being heard,” Malina said. “We are confident that we will continue to address the diversity and variety of student concerns, and we respect the right of students to unionize if they choose to do so.”
Graduate workers altogether hoped that they could succeed in their goals by banding together rather than navigating Cornell’s bureaucracy alone.
“Every one of you is entitled to a living wage and benefits that allow you to survive and thrive in this community,” Cantelmo said. “I support the union because your ability to succeed should not be based on your individual ability to navigate a bureaucracy. My problems might not be your problems, yours may not be mine. But together we can make sure we have one another’s backs and we can all succeed.”
Asli Cihangir ’26 contributed reporting.
Correction, Sept. 7, 12:32 a.m.: A previous version of this article misquoted Takshil Sachdev’s quote about economics. The article has been corrected. The Sun regrets this error.