Cornell University graduate students resoundingly defeated a unionization proposal in a two-day election last week, disappointing the leaders of would-be graduate student unions at other private universities.
Cornell’s teaching and research assistants rejected representation by a United Auto Workers union last Wednesday and Thursday by a vote of 1,351 to 580. The 2,049 ballots cast represented 88.4 percent of the 2,318 graduate students who were eligible voters.
The election marked the first time that a private university had amicably agreed to hold a graduate student unionization election without appealing the results. If the Cornell Association of Student Employees, or CASE, had won the majority vote, the organization would have become the sole bargaining agent for economic issues and terms of employment. The union will be eligible to hold another election in one year.
Sze Wei Ang, a Cornell graduate student who has been helping CASE’s organizing efforts, said she was “very surprised” by the outcome of the elections.
“I think a week before the election, we were still pretty confident,” Ang said.
At Yale, where the Graduate Employees and Students Organization has been trying to form a graduate student union for more than 12 years, administrators and GESO leaders said they were not certain about the vote’s impact on the University.
GESO chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said she was disappointed but maintained that the situations at Yale and Cornell are different. She said GESO has developed strong community support in more than a decade of organizing, while CASE is a relatively new organization.
“We’ve been doing this for a very, very long time,” she said. “One of the things that makes us strong is our alliance with the other unions and with the community.”
Yale President Richard Levin said the large margin by which CASE lost was unexpected. But he said he did not think the overall decision was a shock.
“I think it wasn’t a huge surprise that unionization was voted down,” Levin said.
Levin said that he believes the results of union elections at Brown and Columbia, which have been impounded pending appeals from the schools, would show the same opposition to forming graduate student unions.
Yale administrators have opposed unionization based on the claim that graduate students are not employees.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2000 that graduate students are employees and are eligible to form unions. Since then, unionization efforts have grown at numerous private schools.
New York University became the first private school to have a union contract with graduate students last spring. NYU remains the only private school with a graduate student union, despite efforts at several schools to hold elections and form unions.
Cornell spokesman Henrik Dullea said university officials tried to keep students “fully informed” about the vote, though it had been unclear which side would win.
“I don’t think we had any estimate of how it would go,” Dullea said. He also said, results aside, that the administration was very pleased with the voter turnout.
Dullea said he believes each university is unique, which might account for the fact that eligible voters at Cornell did not follow NYU graduate students’ decision to form a union. He said he thinks CASE did not have a particular focus to its campaign that could have helped win support and interest.
“I don’t think there was a single burning issue that attracted attention,” he said.
CASE’s Sze Wei Ang said she believes that many previously pro-union students changed their minds right before the election because of last-minute scare tactics employed by groups that opposed unionization. She said she received a number of e-mails from a mailing list for international students containing “half-truths” about how unionized international students might lose their visas.
Ang said CASE organizers learned a lot from the election and will continue to push for graduate student unionization in the future.
“I don’t think people are going to give up,” she said. “If we do decide to start again next year, I think we’ll be a lot more prepared.”