Beginning today, graduate students at Cornell will cast ballots in a National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election to determine if they will be represented by a union.
In doing so, they will be participating in the first orderly, peaceful and efficient process for settling what has become one of the most volatile issues in academia.
Breaking tradition with its Ivy League counterparts, the Cornell administration agreed in July to hold a union election rather than contesting the group’s right to organize. Instead, the university and potential union spent the last two months engaging in intense public discussions over whether unionization is the optimal way to address graduate students’ economic concerns.
At Yale, where administrators and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization have fought fiercely over unionization for more than a decade, such a calm process and informed debate seem unfathomable. Rather than welcoming open discussion or allowing graduate students to decide, the two sides have spent most of the last 12 years confined to narrow arguments, with little openness to change.
Instead, the two sides have turned legitimate issues of graduate student responsibilities, employment, and the changing nature of academic jobs into a battle of epic platitudes and entrenched ideologies.
Fearing the encroachment of the national labor movement staking its turf in academia, administrators have cast graduate student unionization as a threat to the open nature of the University. By merely issuing periodic statements warning of the threat unionization would pose to Yale’s “unique academic atmosphere,” administrators have refused to engage in any meaningful or progressive discussions.
Meanwhile, in addition to TA stipends and health care, GESO has tacked on intellectual property rights and the release of the patent on an AIDS drug into the realm of problems the union would solve. The group has said a union is necessary to protect graduate students from intimidation at the hands of faculty members and administrators. Yet GESO’s picture of a fair process involves silencing any opposing voices from the administration. The group has polarized graduate student life to the point of alienating many graduate students who disagree or prefer not to take a side.
This may be the result of 12 years in a vacuum without any examples of what a TA union would address, how the union model would affect the University, or whether graduate students even wish to be represented by a union.
We hope the University and GESO will use the Cornell example as an opportunity to address unionization by emphasizing information over preconceived views on the issue. There are many legitimate issues to be addressed in graduate education. But by remaining focused exclusively on their own narrowly defined objectives, GESO and the University have already denied the campus a legitimate academic debate and freedom from intimidation.