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Student protesters show their support for campus workers outside of Bailey Hall on Aug. 29, 2022.

July 10, 2024

“We’re Not Conceding Anything”: United Auto Workers, Cornell University Negotiate New Contract

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Cornell University and the United Auto Workers Local 2300 are negotiating the terms for a new contract, looking for a four-year agreement. Their previous contract expired on June 30.

In negotiations, UAW Local 2300 is asking for substantial wage increases and cost-of-living adjustments amid understaffing and inflation.

The UAW — a union representing about 400,000 employees across diverse industries, including dining workers, gardeners, custodians and transportation — recently won significant wage and benefit gains for Detroit automakers. Now, the UAW Local 2300 has been tasked with securing similar benefits for service and maintenance workers at Cornell.

UAW Local 2300 represents local workers throughout Ithaca, including Cornell service and maintenance workers. While the UAW’s current contract with the University expired on June 30, several later bargaining dates were set in case discussions were extended further.

“We continue to bargain in good faith on terms and conditions of employment, including wages, and are hopeful to reach an agreement soon,” a University spokesperson shared with The Sun.

According to Christine Johnson, president of UAW Local 2300, the union is focused on “improving the living and working conditions of [their] membership.” This includes bargaining for a substantial wage increase, along with cost-of-living adjustments. 

“We’re not conceding anything,” Johnson said. “I can tell you that very little, if any, language will be struck [from the union’s contract draft]. We’re not conceding anything.”

In the 2023 fiscal year, Cornell’s endowment rose to over $10 billion, according to the Cornell Chronicle. This endowment is utilized not only to fund financial aid and research initiatives, but also to pay employees of the University. 

Many UAW members reference the living wage as a benchmark for their ideal pay. Living wage is defined as “the hourly rate that an individual in a household must earn to support themselves and/or their family, working full-time, or 2080 hours per year,” according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.  While the minimum wage for UAW Local 2300 members is $20.03, the living wage for an individual with no children in Tompkins County is calculated to be $24.64.

“Hopefully that dream, just being able to have a living wage, will become a reality,” said Curtis Charles, a food service worker at Cornell Dining, in “We are the Heart, Soul, and Backbone of Cornell” — a video of UAW Local 2300 members describing their experiences and perspectives working at Cornell.

Cost-of-living adjustments are increases in Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income to counteract inflation. They are typically measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers and adjust annually with inflation.

“We feel that [COLAs are] a really sparse thing to ask an employer for, as the risk is shared,” Johnson said. “If there’s no inflation, or if inflation is small, then we don’t get [the benefits]. But if there is inflation, then it ensures that what we bought yesterday, we can still buy today.” 

Workers in the June 12 UAW video echoed similar concerns about pay that they say is insufficient to meet Ithaca’s high cost of living.

“House is double. Tax is double. Food is double. And tuition is double also. Everything double, but our pay did not double,” said Gopini Lama, a Cornell Food Service employee who spoke in the video.

According to a June 17 bargaining update by the UAW, “Cornell stated that … they will take it to heart to better respond to the Union’s interests and requests, including COLA.” The bargaining update explained that Cornell said they had seen the recent UAW video and agreed that the UAW workers are the “heart, soul and backbone of Cornell.” 

According to Johnson, the University is experiencing understaffing, primarily due to lasting COVID-19 impacts. But although the staff size is smaller, the amount of work that is expected to be completed has not changed.

“When you need ten hands to do work but you have four hands, those four hands are expected to accomplish a lot,” Johnson said. “And the workload, health and safety, mental fatigue, worrying about your bills because the money doesn’t stretch as far as it used to … all of those things have had an impact on our workforce.”

These concerns about understaffing are echoed in statements from Leo Lewis, Cornell greenhouse grower, in the video.

“We’re chronically short-staffed,” Lewis said. “We’re chronically dealing with one or two positions absent.” 

Many of the positions currently facing understaffing and being negotiated by the UAW Local 2300 and Cornell are filled by full-time Ithaca residents.

“What happens with our membership affects the whole Ithaca community and the surrounding counties,” Johnson said. “Cornell has a huge impact [on Ithaca and surrounding counties] in so many regards. And this is not a small one.”

Dorothy France-Miller is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times. This article was previously published in The Ithaca Times.

Correction, July 13, 12:55 p.m.: A previous version of this article included incorrect information about the minimum wage for UAW Local 2300 members, Christine Johnson’s position at the University and the length of a future contract.