The minimum stipend for a Fall and Spring assistantship at Cornell is $25,152 for the 2016-2017 school year. For some Cornell grad students, that stipend is enough. For some Cornell grads, like those starting families or with large student debt payments, it’s not enough. A union contract can bring predictable increases to stipends, including increases to account for the increased costs of living in Ithaca. A contract can also bring more funding security, making summer funding and sixth or seventh year funding just a little bit more predictable.
Right now, there is very little transparency around stipend rates paid by various departments. This is especially true of summer funding, where TA’s from the same department are sometimes paid differently for the same teaching assignments. Cornell has a history of changing stipend rates with minimal input from grads. A union contract would ensure any changes to stipends would have to be negotiated, first.
Stipend Rate change of 2014
As recently as 2014, the administration put in motion a plan to reduce the minimum RA stipend rate. According to an internal policy document, this change was imposed on the basis that
Many of the Life Science fields report that their competitors for graduate students are within the flagship state schools which generally have relatively lower assistantship stipend rates than does Cornell [...] spurring questions about appropriate rates for RA stipends.
The report noted that RA stipend rates at state flagship schools range between $13,333 and $18,234 for a 2012-13 academic-year assistantship. The policy implemented in the 2014-2015 academic year allowed departments in the Life Sciences and elsewhere to freeze cost-of-living increases until Cornell’s minimum RA stipend tracked those at state schools deemed competitors. The entire text of the internal policy document detailing this change is available here, or newspaper coverage is available here. Notably the policy document does not make any reference to concerns about the financial well-being of affected graduate workers.
Currently, nothing prevents the administration from unilaterally changing or reducing stipend rates again, as indeed they did in 2014. (This policy was voluntarily abandoned by President Elizabeth Garrett in the 2015-2016 academic year, after it had already been implemented without grad approval). Negotiating a union contract is the only way to protect ourselves from future unilateral and unfair stipend decreases such as this one, and the only way ensure that stipend rates for future grad workers continue to accurately track the cost of living in Ithaca.