For the first time, a private university has amicably agreed to a teaching assistant unionization election, and said it would not appeal the results.
In a major victory for the graduate student unionization movement, Cornell University officials last week said that they would negotiate immediately with the Cornell Association of Student Employees if the group wins an Oct. 23-24 election. The agreement comes as GESO continues its 12-year organizing effort at Yale, where administrators have long opposed the legality of TA unionization.
Graduate Employees and Students Organization officials called the cooperation between Cornell and CASE a model for other universities.
“At Yale it’s even more apparent that there are two ways that the unionization of graduate students can go,” GESO Chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said. “You can either go the route of having a lot of dissention and conflict or you can go the route of negotiation, which I think will be better for everyone involved.”
Yale officials declined to comment on the Cornell agreement. Administrators have repeatedly said they do not consider graduate students employees and oppose unionization.
GESO leaders have said they hope this year will mark the turning point in their organizing efforts. Last spring, GESO leaders announced that they had the support of a majority of graduate students.
The group has continued its close alliance with Yale’s two largest recognized unions, locals 34 and 35. Locals 34 and 35 are currently negotiating their own contracts with the University, and union leaders have said that University recognition of GESO is a priority for them.
With negotiations between Yale and locals 34 and 35 floundering, union leaders have tentatively scheduled a strike authorization vote in September, and union members have indicated GESO may also hold job actions in the fall.
Seth said the group planned to hold a “convention and teach-in” at the end of September, and might plan other events. But Seth said the group would not hold a grade strike, as it did in an unsuccessful bid to win recognition in 1995.
Yale and Cornell are only two of the schools where graduate students are attempting to form unions.
A major provision of the Cornell agreement would allow Cornell and CASE to change their agreement should the National Labor Relations Board reverse precedent in cases involving Brown and Columbia universities.
At stake in the NLRB cases, administrators say, is the legal future of a movement that has gained tremendous momentum since a landmark 2000 decision that said New York University TAs were employees and could unionize.
Brown and Columbia asked the NLRB to reconsider the NYU decision as part of appeals they filed after TAs at both universities held union elections. The ballots from both elections have been impounded pending the results of the appeals.
Administrators at many schools have said they hope the NLRB will overturn the NYU decision. With two new members appointed by President George W. Bush, administrators at several universities said the NLRB is now significantly different – and more conservative.
NLRB officials said they did not know when the labor board would issue decisions, and administrators at Columbia said they had not received word about a timeframe. The last briefs were filed in the Brown case in February and in May in the Columbia case.
A reversal of the NYU decision would be a major legal setback for the TA union movement, which has gained momentum in the last two years.
TAs at the University of Pennsylvania have filed to hold a union election, and organizing efforts are ongoing at Harvard University as well.
Cornell spokesman Henrik Dullea characterized the agreement between Cornell and CASE as a pragmatic compromise rather than an admission that administrators consider graduate students employees. But he said administrators believed a peaceful resolution to the union efforts would be best for Cornell.
“We felt that it was in neither the university’s interest nor the students’ interest to have lengthy and expensive administrative hearings before the NLRB if there was a means of avoiding that,” Dullea said.
Under the agreement between Cornell and CASE, the potential union could bargain over economic but not academic issues. Cornell officials also retained the right to express opinions about unionization before the election.
Ariana Vigil, a graduate student in Cornell’s English Department and a member of the CASE organizing committee, said she considered the agreement a surprise victory reflective of the good relations between the would-be union and the Cornell administration.
Vigil said CASE expected to spar publicly with administrators over the desirability of forming a union, and said the group was planning a formal debate with administrators on the issue.
“They’re probably banking on the fact that either we’ll lose the election, or [that the 2000 NYU precedent will be] overturned,” Vigil added.
While Cornell TAs will seek unionization through an NLRB election, GESO leaders have criticized NLRB elections as unfair and are seeking to win recognition through a card-count neutrality agreement.
Under card-count neutrality, the University would agree not to make any statements regarding unionization and would recognize a TA union if more than half of all members of the potential bargaining unit signed union cards.
University leaders have said repeatedly that they oppose card-count neutrality because it would stifle debate and does not allow for a secret-ballot election.
Last spring, NYU and its TA union signed the first ever private school TA union contract. It takes effect this fall for 1,300 TAs, and will be closely watched by organizers and administrators across the nation.
Graduate students at Cornell, NYU, Columbia and Brown are all organizing under the United Auto Workers, which has campaigned aggressively across the nation to unionize TAs. TA unionization has been a major source of growth in recent years for the otherwise declining union. The UAW also currently represents graduate students in the University of California system.
Graduate students at public universities have been able to form unions for more than 30 years, because they are government employees eligible to unionize under state law.
GESO is the only TA group organizing under the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, which is the parent group of locals 34 and 35.