Eric Lechpammer/Sun Senior Writer

Graduate students rally outside Day Hall to demand Cornell engage with their collective bargaining demands.

April 10, 2024

“Meet Us at the Bargaining Table”: Cornell Graduate Students United Rallies for Employment Protections

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Over 100 graduate students rallied outside of Day Hall demanding that Cornell bargain a fair contract with the graduate student union on April 10.  

The union, Cornell Graduate Students United – United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, represents graduate workers across the University. CGSU-UE was formed in November after an overwhelmingly positive 1,873 to 80 vote in the unionization election. 

In March, the CGSU-UE’s bargaining committee drafted a contract to the University demanding key protections for graduate student employment, exercising their right to collectively bargain their conditions of employment under the National Labor Relations Act. The contract demanded fair discipline and discharge procedures; non-discrimination and non-harassment and academic freedom, health and safety protections. During the rally, graduate student speakers called on Cornell to “meet [them] at the bargaining table” and seriously consider their demands.

Momodou Taal grad, a Ph.D. student in the Africana studies department, emphasized the importance of discrimination protections.

He cited instances of being harassed on campus for attending pro-Palestinian rallies. He also said that despite the administration’s statements condemning discrimination, they have still failed to protect the student body and graduate workers. Taal said that the CGSU-UE has stepped up where the administration’s actions have failed. 

“The collective bargaining committee has already drafted language that will protect me and other graduate workers from discrimination and harassment,”  Taal said. “A strong union contract is the only way we can ensure a safe environment.” 

Sadie Seddon-Stettler grad, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in the physics department, discussed the importance of the contract’s health and safety provisions, particularly for students who work in labs with hazardous materials, including high-voltage and mechanical equipment, radiation and chemicals.  

“Facing hazards is crucial for my work, which is cutting-edge research at the frontier of accelerator physics,” Seddon-Stettler said. “It also means that I face the risk of injury and permanent harm daily.”

Seddon-Settler said that it is Cornell’s responsibility to ensure robust protections for students working in hazardous settings and formally guaranteed compensation and job security for workers if an incident were to occur.

“Graduate workers should not have to rely on federal law or their advisors for their health and safety, [nor should they] fear retaliation when raising health and safety concerns,” Seddon-Settler said, referencing the reluctance of students who work in dangerous labs to confront their advisors to demand safer working conditions.

Seddon-Settler called on the Cornell administration to “take these health and safety protections as seriously as I, a worker in hazardous conditions, take them.”

Sophia Taborski grad, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the classical archaeology department, said that graduate students require contract protection that provides safe and equitable discipline and discharge procedures. She said that current procedures to fire students or terminate their funding are not transparent.

“[Graduate] workers should be protected from unexpected firing [or] discipline and discharge, whether that comes in the form of suspension, ‘failing’ exams or other vague terms set by [Cornell],” Taborski said. 

Taborski said that since beginning her Ph.D., seven of 30 students in her department have been forced to leave, which she claims is due to the ambiguous nature of existing procedures. She said that her employment has been threatened by vague disciplinary terms, recalling how in March, she was summoned to a disciplinary meeting for holding a megaphone during a protest even though she did not speak into the megaphone.

“Some weeks I spend more time figuring out how to stay in my program than working on my Ph.D.,” Taborski said. 

Taborski also spoke critically of the administration’s Interim Expressive Activity Policy, which imposes limits on student protest. She claimed that the policy was implemented unjustly, as the CGSU-UE was not consulted before the administration adopted a policy that affects graduate students’ terms and conditions of employment. 

“I object to the fact that … Cornell can decide one day to introduce a brand new set of criteria and discharge graduate workers based on things that did not exist the day before, [when] they’re supposed to negotiate any new discipline and discharge policies with CGSU-UE,” Taborski said. 

Bianca Waked grad, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy department, spoke about the importance of academic freedom, specifically in protecting graduate students’ research and teaching.

In January, Waked was called into a meeting with her department chair and a member of Cornell’s University Relations office. The purpose of the meeting was to address a pro-Palestinian statement she wrote in 2021 on a webpage of the Cornell Philosophy of Law Undergraduate Summer School, a graduate school preparatory program for students from marginalized backgrounds. Waked founded PLUSS before beginning her Ph.D. program. 

As an international graduate student, Waked feared for her job, financial stability and visa status. Although she did not encounter any repercussions, Waked attributed the lack of consequences to the support of her department chair, the support of her advisor and “luck.” 

“Luck should have no role in determining when our speech, research and teachings are protected,” Waked said. “Graduate workers need robust protections because today we are under attack.”

In her speech, Waked advocated for comprehensive academic freedom so that no student may express such fears for their livelihood in an academic environment. 

“Today, it is Palestine. Tomorrow, who knows what it will be,” Waked said. “The only way that we can guarantee protections for ourselves is through a strong first-union contract which contains robust protections for our academic freedom.”

Amy Tsai grad, a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department, advocated for establishing a “union shop,” a contract provision that would automatically register all graduate student workers as members of the CGSU-UE. Tsai said that this measure is crucial to preventing graduate students’ fears of retaliation from faculty.

“Retaliation [from] advisor[s] is very common in my department, and as a result, many of my peers were hesitant to show their support for a union on campus,” Tsai said. “A union shop would eliminate the fear of individual students being at risk for personally choosing to become members of the union.”

Tsai said that creating a union shop is especially important for international graduate students because they may avoid participating in a union in fear of jeopardizing the status of their visa. 

Seddon-Stettler ended the rally by stressing the urgency of CGSU-UE’s demands.

“These issues affect our lives right now,” Seddon-Stettler said. “These protections [and] this contract cannot wait.”

Correction, April 11, 5:16 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly called the union Cornell Graduate Students United – United for Everyone. The union is named Cornell Graduate Students United – United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.