Rawlings voices concerns about grad student unionization

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John Carberry

Interim President Hunter Rawlings has sent a letter to the Cornell community outlining the university’s position on graduate student unionization and offering his perspective on how issues of unionization could affect graduate education at Cornell.

Encouraging all eligible graduate students to vote in a union representation election if an election is scheduled, Rawlings said the prospect of union representation “is a significant matter for graduate students, and will affect undergraduate students, staff and faculty members,” and he encouraged everyone in the Cornell community to review more information in the Union Representation FAQ posted online. Relevant resources are also posted on the Dean of Faculty site.

The National Labor Relations Board on Aug. 23 ruled that graduate students at private universities can be considered employees as well as students, with the legal right to organize and seek election by eligible graduate students to have a labor union represent them in collective bargaining regarding the terms and conditions of assistantship employment. Based on the pre-election conduct agreement that Cornell signed in May with union representatives from Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU), American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the collective bargaining unit would include all graduate students enrolled in the Graduate School who hold an appointment as teaching assistant, graduate research assistant, research assistant or graduate assistant.

Noting that “students themselves will need to decide this question,” Rawlings expressed his concern that “selecting a labor union as the exclusive bargaining representative for students is not in the best interests of graduate education at Cornell.”

His concerns, outlined in the letter, are centered on three issues:

• Negative implications for the system of shared governance among students, staff and faculty. Rawlings noted that graduate students already have a “significant voice” in their graduate fields and academic departments, at the Graduate School and universitywide, including advocacy through the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA), voting membership on the General Committee of the Graduate School, voting student representation on the Cornell Board of Trustees, and active membership in a host of department, college and university-level committees. Many improvements for graduate students have been made in partnership with the GPSA, based on the strategic plan developed by graduate and professional students.

A union could, he said, preclude “existing groups from interacting with ‘management’ – including faculty, department chairs and university leadership – on issues that could be considered potential topics for collective bargaining.” Rawlings noted his belief that “we are better able to work through differences of opinion in a collegial atmosphere than in a potentially adversarial collective bargaining setting that includes national and NY state union” interests.

• Complications that could arise for individual students bound by a contract’s requirements designed to serve the interests of the collective labor organization and not the interests and nuances of individual graduate student educational goals and experiences. The academic quality of Cornell’s individualized, field-based graduate education system has been highly regarded nationally, Rawlings said. “I am concerned that a collective bargaining agreement that is, by definition, designed to meet the interests of a collective, rather than tailored to each individual’s educational pursuits, will weaken this system,” noting the important relationship of the student and faculty special committee within the graduate field system.

• Potential for collective bargaining about terms and conditions of employment to negatively affect graduate students’ academic experience, “because federal labor law does not define the boundaries between academics and employment,” unlike state labor law where all but one existing graduate union are governed.

Noting that individual graduate students should be able to “optimize opportunities for learning, teaching, research, service and creativity,” Rawlings added: “I believe there will be a negative impact on the flexibility, individuality and inventiveness of students and their faculty advisers in structuring the academic environment. … Graduate students and their faculty committee and mentors are best able to make critical decisions regarding the components of each student’s graduate program without potential constraints imposed by collective bargaining agreements.”

Rawlings praised graduate students as “vitally important” members of the community, saying: “Cornell’s reputation derives in no small part” from their contributions, “interacting with faculty members to learn and produce new knowledge together.”

Barbara A. Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, encourages “open and constructive conversations about graduate assistant union representation at Cornell,” as she said in May when the agreement with the unions was signed. Since that time, students are engaging in constructive information-sharing through websites sponsored by CGSU and At What Cost.

An election can be authorized when CGSU/AFT/NYSUT presents signed authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the proposed bargaining unit. Should an election be authorized, the outcome will be based on a simple majority of those voting, and will be binding on all current and future graduate students enrolled in the Graduate School who hold assistantship appointments.

Rawlings encouraged full participation in the election process should an election occur. “Whether you are for or against unionization, it is critical that you vote and have your voice heard,” he wrote.

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