Taryn Chung/Sun Staff Photographer

Cornell Graduate Students United launch their union drive outside Bailey Hall on Sept. 6, 2023. Graduate students voted from Nov. 6 to Nov. 8 on whether or not to unionize, and the NLRB is in the process of counting ballots.

November 8, 2023

Graduate Students Wrap Up Election for Unionization

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In recent months, Cornell Graduate Students United — an organization fighting for the rights of graduate workers at Cornell — led an effort to improve their working and living conditions for graduate student workers by holding an election for unionization, which ended at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 8. Results have yet to be finalized as of 10:41 p.m.

CGSU’s efforts for unionization were initiated after an announcement was made that the organization would seek to unionize under the labor union United, Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America at a rally in front of Bailey Hall on Sept. 6. Following the event and over the course of September, over 2,500 graduate workers signed unionization cards, which CGSU claims was a supermajority of graduate workers at Cornell. 

CGSU and UE filed a formal petition for representation with the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday, Sept. 28. CGSU requested Cornell “voluntarily recognize” the union as an exclusive bargaining representative for graduate students. UE also filed a petition for a union election with the NLRB the same day, and negotiated a Stipulated Election Agreement with the University, which established details for when a union election will be held, according to the Cornell graduate student website

Since the card drive and the announcement of the election, over 1,600 graduate students have pledged to vote yes in support of the upcoming unionization election. The CGSU hosted elections at the Ithaca campus from Nov. 6 to Nov. 8 as well as elections at the Geneva campus and at Cornell Tech in New York City on Nov. 6. 

If the vote for unionization is successful, it would be a substantial milestone in the effort to improve working conditions among graduate students. The last attempt at Cornell graduate student worker unionization was with the affiliation of the American Federation of Teachers union in 2017, which failed, 941 to 867. 

Cornell was found to have violated the National Labor Relations Act during the 2017 union election process in a 2018 ruling. The University’s alleged violations of the NLRB resulted from an email from former Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth, which was sent 24 hours before the election began. The email responded to a question from a student on where Cornell would get money for added benefits should students vote to unionize. Such a statement could be seen as a threat to students, according to the arbitrator’s award document. 

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

This year, the Administration has appeared more supportive of the right for graduate students to vote for unionization. In a statement from Christine Lovely, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, and Kathryn Boor, Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education, on Nov. 2, the administrators asserted that the University respects the role of labor unions. 

“The University is not taking a formal position during this process and believes that all graduate students should decide for themselves as to whether they wish to be represented by the union,” the statement read. “Regardless of whether or not graduate students join a union, Cornell remains deeply committed to supporting students in their academic pursuits and assistantship roles.”

In an address to the Student Assembly on Sept. 28, President Martha Pollack addressed the topic of graduate unionization. 

“[Unionization] is a choice for every individual. We do encourage everyone to consider the question of unionization thoughtfully and carefully and [to] ask questions,” Pollack said. “The University is committed to engaging in a process that is respectful of the rights of all involved and is consistent with the requirements of the National Labor Relations Act.”

The effort to unionize stems from issues that graduate student workers started to face in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Cornell graduates claim to face a lack of access to comprehensive healthcare coverage, safety and equity in workplaces, fair wages, transportation and housing, and support for caregivers, parents and international students. Through an effort to unionize, CGSU hopes that they can be on equal footing with Cornell when determining graduate students’ working conditions, according to the CGSU website

In an interview with The Sun, Aaron Wang, Ph.D. History ’23, shared an account of having his funding revoked after completing his dissertation defense — one of the final processes before being awarded a Ph.D. degree. Wang, in an attempt to remain eligible for a pending job opportunity, took his dissertation defense early. 

According to Wang, he took his dissertation defense (B exam) on Nov. 30, 2022 after guidance from the Graduate Student Service Office that a defense taken on or after Nov. 24, 2022 would not hamper his eligibility for registration and funding in the Spring semester. At the start of the Spring semester, however, Wang noticed that he did not receive his tuition remission and stipend. After Wang directly contacted the Director of Fellowships of the Graduate School, they stated that passing the B exam itself, as Wang did, made him ineligible for funding. 

The Cornell Graduate School website has been updated since after March 2023 to note that after passing an M or B exam, enrollment in future semesters is not permitted, which Wang believes was changed after his case.

The email correspondence that Wang shared with The Sun shows that when Wang filed a grievance, Boor stated that “such [a] practice that no funding is allowed after defense was generally understood, but not described in explicit detail in the code.” Dean Boor offered Wang prorated funding until Jan. 29, 60 days after the dissertation defense, for which she said was a “special exception to Cornell policy.”

Wang, who was dissatisfied by the dean’s decision, requested to take his grievance to the final step of review, which is with the Graduate Grievance Review Board. Wang claims that Boor refused to impanel the GGRB because it took longer than 60 days to file the dissertation, making him not in good academic standing. Due to this, the funding was removed, for which the grievance procedure does not apply, Wang said.

Wang also showed The Sun his student progress evaluation for the 2022-2033 academic year, in which his Ph.D. advisor rated his academic process as “excellent,” questioning why such a reason would be used to remove his funding. 

“Based on Cornell’s policy on academic progress, even a negative evaluation of a student’s academic progress can only affect the student’s funding eligibility in the subsequent academic year, and cannot be used as grounds for removing a student’s funding immediately, let alone retroactively, within the same semester,” Wang said. “Students not found in good academic standing who are denied funding are further entitled to a formal notification and chance to appeal, which was not given to me.” 

In a statement to The Sun, Claire Cororaton, a history graduate student and member of CGSU, explained how Wang’s case highlights real examples of issues facing graduate students every day.

“What happened with [Wang] indicates the precarity that graduate students face and the limited protections that we have for our rights as workers,” Cororaton said. “As someone who is an advanced graduate student in the history department, I am absolutely horrified that something like this could happen to a fellow student.”

In highlighting that the Administration has not been forthright with their specific policies for graduate students, Cororaton stated her belief as to why the effort toward unionization is essential. 

“Last May, the graduate school issued a new seven-year limit for graduate students, which particularly hits those students whose research timelines were affected by COVID… [The] Administration did not even share this policy clearly and transparently with students or faculty,” Cororaton said. “Unionization means that graduate students at Cornell have collective bargaining rights, and ultimately, better working and living conditions for all graduate students.”

In a request for comment on Wang’s case, Boor said that while the Graduate School cannot speak on individual student cases, University policies are clear.

“The Graduate School’s Code of Legislation details the longstanding policy that a defense can only be scheduled and attempted when the dissertation is considered final and editorially complete,” Boor said in a written statement to The Sun. “A defense that is passed unconditionally means all degree requirements have been met, aside from filing the dissertation. The Code has long been clear that a completed dissertation must be filed within 60 days of passing the dissertation defense.”

CGSU is affiliated with UE, which has formed unions with graduate workers from other institutions including MIT, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, UChicago and Stanford.

“CGSU organizers voted to affiliate with UE because they have an incredible track record organizing graduate workers,” states the CGSU website

While CGSU has affiliated with UE in their attempt to unionize, some graduate students have also expressed concern with the affiliation, namely with UE’s support of BDS — an organization that advocates for the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. 

In 2015, UE became the first national union to endorse BDS, supporting a resolution which calls for the U.S. cutting off aid to Israel.

Several graduate students who wished to remain anonymous out of privacy concerns told The Sun that they thought that it was imperative for graduate students to be informed about the positions of UE.

“While the Union’s goals are very commendable and speak to the needs of many graduate students, I cannot be represented by an organization that supports the BDS,” said one graduate student. “That is basically to say that the union wants my support in eliminating my own presence on campus. When the union’s spokesperson in my department does not know what BDS is, how can I have confidence that the UE is transparent about its agenda?”

Another anonymous Ph.D. student told The Sun what it would mean for Cornell graduates to be affiliated with UE.

“It is not appropriate for the graduate student union — which is supposed to represent all of us — to support divisive political causes such as BDS,” the student, who is Jewish, said. “Antisemitic acts by Cornell students and faculty over the last few weeks have made Jewish students, including myself, feel less safe and welcome as part of the Cornell community. Voting for UE to represent Cornell students would contribute further to that alienation; these political views do not and cannot represent me.”

Another graduate student who wished to remain anonymous questioned the decision for CGSU to change their previous affiliation from AFT to UE.

“I think that the lack of transparency regarding the change from AFT to UE also raises suspension in regard to the union’s financials and its transparency overall. The Union’s recruiting practices are worrisome, and they do not foster a culture of debate and public discourse. Rather, any disagreement is immediately regarded as opposition and anti-union sentiments. This is not what a union should be about,” the graduate student said.

Despite the concerns over the UE, many current and former graduate students, like Wang, have expressed support towards the unionization effort. 

“As my case unfortunately demonstrates, the corrupt leadership of the Graduate School does not hesitate to ignore and violate them,” Wang said. “That’s why unionization is an important way for graduate students to have some real protection against unfair treatments, and the election is the first step towards that.”

Correction, Nov. 10, 4:59 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated the incorrect department affiliation for an anonymous source. The article has been corrected and The Sun apologizes for this error.