Graduate students at Cornell University will decide today and tomorrow whether to form a graduate student union.
If a majority of the school’s 2,317 eligible graduate teaching and research assistants vote in favor of the proposal, the union would be the second-ever of its kind at a private university.
The Cornell Association of Student Employees, or CASE, would become the sole bargaining agent for economic issues and terms of employment.
Cornell officials agreed this summer to hold the election without contesting the results, marking the first time a private university has amicably agreed to recognize a graduate student union. Graduate student unionization efforts have gained momentum at many private schools since TAs were declared eligible to form unions in 2000.
The elections will take place as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which has been trying to form a graduate student union for over a decade, continues its organizing efforts at Yale. University administrators have opposed unionization, maintaining that graduate students are not employees.
GESO leaders said the Cornell election provides an example of cooperation between administrators and union supporters for Yale to follow.
“The basic thing with Cornell is that it’s a model of what can happen when the administration is willing to [talk to] the graduate students,” GESO Chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said. “That’s exactly the kind of thing that could happen at Yale.”
Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the University remained opposed to unionization.
“The fact that there are activities at other schools on that issue hasn’t changed the University’s fundamental position,” Conroy said.
At Cornell, administrators have opposed unionization but said they recognized the right of graduate students to choose a union under current NLRB law.
Cornell spokesman Henrik Dullea said the environment at Cornell leading up to the elections has been one of “healthy debate.” Dullea said the two sides had held public panel discussions, including one last week that more than 650 people attended.
“Our interest has been to encourage our graduate assistants to have the fullest amount of information available to them,” Dullea said.
Ariana Vigil, a Cornell graduate student and a member of the CASE organizing committee, said that she believes a majority of graduate students have supported CASE’s efforts and will vote in favor of unionization.
“I think we’re going to come out on top,” Vigil said.
While Cornell teaching and research assistants will vote on unionization through an NLRB election, GESO leaders said they want to be recognized through a card-count neutrality agreement. Under this arrangement, the University would agree not to make any statements regarding unionization and would recognize a TA union if over half of the bargaining unit signed union cards.
Yale leaders have maintained that card-count neutrality would stifle debate and have said they advocate a secret ballot NLRB election instead.
Seth said GESO is not necessarily committed to a single method of getting a union and that the issue could be discussed if the University agrees to engage in dialogue with the graduate students.
GESO leaders said last month that the organization’s members may strike this fall if the University does not hold discussions with them. University leaders have developed a contingency plan in case of strikes or other job actions but have declined to comment on specific plans.
For the last two years, TA groups at other schools have also been trying to form unions through the NLRB, following the board’s landmark declaration that TAs were eligible to unionize.
Graduate students at Brown and Columbia universities held union elections last winter. Both universities appealed the results and ballots from both elections have been impounded pending the results of the appeals. Both schools also asked the NLRB to reconsider the 2000 NYU decision.
A major provision of the Cornell agreement is that the university can reevaluate its options if the NLRB alters the NYU ruling.