What’s the deal with CGSU?

Answers for Undergraduates by Undergraduates


Graduate students at Cornell are currently engaged in a struggle that might not be like anything you’ve ever seen before. We’ve compiled this list of FAQs because we did not always understand why a graduate student union is so important. Through listening to the voices of graduate student workers and working in solidarity with them we have come to strongly believe that there is a lot at stake here. This is a campaign for student interest over administrative profit. It is a fight for democracy over plutocracy. It is a movement to restore the promise of higher education at the very institution we are trusting to help us reach our academic goals. This campaign is pro-Cornell. This struggle believes that Cornell can be everything we hoped for when we chose to come here. We believe Cornell can and must do better.

For more information, please visit cornellgsu.org or the Cornell Graduate Students United Facebook page.

—Students from the Cornell Organization for Labor Action

What is happening?

CGSU was formed in 2014 in response to Cornell’s insistence that grad workers are not eligible for basic Workers’ Compensation benefits. This was an issue that could not be (and still has not been) successfully resolved. In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate student employees at private institutions are workers and therefore have the right to unionize. Graduate students at public universities have been able to organize for decades, with unions in place at 28 institutions across the country representing over 64,000 grad workers. Since the NLRB ruling, grad student unions have been established at Yale and Columbia with organizing drives at dozens of others. Of the graduate students who vote, if a majority vote yes for a union, then CGSU will become official recognized by Cornell. The Administration will be legally mandated to bargain with grads on the terms and conditions of their employment.

What is a union?

A labor union is an organization composed of a specific group of employees that represent themselves in collective bargaining. Rather than needing to try and bargain individually for rights with the employer, unions give workers the strength the bargain together and even the playing field when it comes to negotiations. Unions negotiate on behalf of their members with the employer regarding terms and conditions of employment, such as pay, benefits, job security, workplace safety, and so much more.

Why a union?

An individual employee usually lacks power to negotiate effectively with an employer. Unionizing gives employees a collective voice that levels the playing field for negotiations and makes sure gains won for any individual employee can be equally enjoyed by all. This emcompases everything from health and safety benefits to ensuring employees are no longer at-will, that is to say they can’t be fired for no reason, it must be a legitimate one.

Are graduate students really workers?

Grad students are legally recognized workers by the National Labor Relations Board. But long before any legal decision, Grad student employees taught undergraduates, conducted research, supported faculty, and advised thesis writers. This is the revenue-generating labor that makes our university work. Cornell works because Grad workers do.

What are the problems that exist now?

The main issues being addressed by CGSU include stipends, workers’ compensation, grievance procedure, job security, dental and vision insurance, intellectual property rights, international student support, and family support. Many grad students are overworked while receiving wages that barely make ends meet. The current model makes it incredibly difficult for grad students to access benefits. Without clear workload expectations and consistent and transparent employment policies many grad students are misled or held to nearly impossible workload standards.

Will this make undergraduate tuition go up?

Graduate employee compensation makes up a miniscule percent of our university’s budget. It is common for colleges and universities across the country to balance budgets at the expense of graduate employees, even when this has a relatively small impact. Cornell’s endowment is over $5.7 billion, with an annual revenue of $4.3 billion. The top three administrators (the provost, CIO and president) make over $2 million a year combined, with an average annual increase of 20%. The average grad student makes $30,000 with increases ranging from 1-2%. It’s not a question of access to money, but how that money is allocated. Ensuring learning and working conditions for Cornell students should be a top budgeting priority.

Do unions already exist at Cornell?

Yes, Cornell University has a long and effective history of relationships and productive negotiations with unions representing Cornell staff.  There are currently seven unions representing specific groups of employees including building trades, police, heating and water filtration plant employees, custodians, and food service staff. You can access all their contracts yourself.

Don’t unions create opportunities for corruption?

Unions are organizations dedicated to improving the lives of working people. Nothing is perfect, and there have been examples of union officials who have not been honest. However, rates of union corruption are actually very low especially when compared to corporate corruption. Union organization does not create a unique opportunity for power exploitation. One of the most important differences between unions and other organizations is that unions function on bottom-up democratic systems, that’s to say the workers control the union, not the other way around! Telling you not to vote for a union because there have been some corrupt officials is like arguing we shouldn’t have a government because sometimes politicians are corrupt.

What’s the point of paying dues?

Dues are used to run the union and keep it strong. The dues are divided between the local union and the national union, in this case the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The money is used to provide expert services to the local union, including negotiators, lawyers, economists, and educators; to pay the salaries of officers and staff, including organizers; and to provide newsletters and conferences. The local union’s money is used for reimbursing stewards for lost time and for other expenses of the union. Dues have also been long used to support workers if they decide to go on strike, so dues both run the day to day, and keep the union ready for a rainy day. No dues are paid until the majority of workers vote to accept a contract they helped to negotiate. This means that dues can be tailored to and compensated by stipend and benefit increases.

Will this limit grad student freedom or harm grad student flexibility?

No. All decisions within the union are made democratically and regard employment terms not academic activities.

Can one union really adequately protect all grad students? Don’t they have very different needs?

While academic needs do vary widely across departments, CGSU focuses on conditions of work that are considerations for all workers including stipends, workers’ compensation, grievance procedures, job security, intellectual property rights, international student support, dental and vision insurance, and family support.

Will this undermine current pathways for interaction between graduate students and administration?

No. Collective bargaining over terms and conditions of employment can exist at the same time that faculty senate and graduate student assemblies engage in shared governance. Organizations such as GPSA will still be able to represent academic life while CGSU represents graduate students as workers.

Will turning student-teacher relationships into employee-manager harm academics?

No. Actually, grad student unions mean that most employment-related conflicts are handled through the administration instead of causing tensions in case-by-case negotiations between students and their advisors. A 2013 study published by the Cornell School of Hotel Administration found no difference between faculty-student relationships or education quality between unionized and non-unionized campuses. In fact, unionized graduate students had higher mean ratings on their advisors. The study, Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay by Rogers et al, can be accessed online.

If the union is a good idea, then why are faculty against it?

Many faculty do stand in support of CGSU. After President Rawlings’ email to the Cornell community in mid-October over 40 faculty members at ILR responded in a letter. Opinions differ among faculty as they do among any group of people.

Isn’t it a privilege to be here? Isn’t this work part of the learning process?

It is part of an outdated image of education that graduate employees should be grateful for working, even if they are overworked, underpaid, and lack benefits. The concerns of nonacademic third parties are already rampant in our university. Universities are business enterprises, not academic silos. Being a student is hard enough without having to struggle to pay bills while trying to concentrate on teaching and research.