In a closely watched election, Cornell graduate students overwhelmingly voted against unionization last week, surprising many observers in the labor movement and academia.
Prior to the vote, many expected a union victory — in part because of Cornell’s union-friendly atmosphere and in part because of the building momentum of the graduate student union movement across the country. Yet when close to 90 percent of Cornell’s graduate students cast ballots, 70 percent voted against the union. It is too early to know how Cornell’s election will affect Yale and other universities still entrenched in the fight over gradute student unionization.
Certainly, the circumstances at Yale and Cornell are not identical. The Cornell administration dealt amicably with the potential union, while Yale’s administrators have spent the last decade fighting unionization. In addition, the Cornell union has been organizing for only a short time, while Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization has been on campus for more than 12 years. But the Cornell vote demonstrated how difficult it is to discern the graduate student body’s true feelings about unionization.
At Yale and other campuses, it is impossible to know whether a large but silent group of graduate students exists between the two vocal extremes because there are few avenues for nonaffiliated students to express themselves. Despite GESO’s claim that a majority of students support the group and the administration’s insistence on considering GESO a fringe organization, there has never been an objective way to gauge current graduate student support for a union.
More importantly, there has been little attempt to objectively discuss many of the graduate life issues a union would purportedly address — funding, expectations for teaching and research assistants, and the nature of academic jobs.
In such a charged atmosphere, it is imperative for a neutral body to facilitate discussion and provide unbiased information. The News urges the Graduate Student Assembly, the graduate school’s elected body, to play a more active role in the debate. The GSA, with its officially neutral stance toward unionization, can sponsor a series of public meetings and information sessions on the issue.
Last year, the GSA held a town meeting on unionization, which quickly became a GESO-dominated shouting match. Yet the high attendance at the meeting demonstrated the amount of interest in the issue. In the future, the GSA should focus on less-heard voices by holding panels featuring nonaffiliated students who still wish to discuss graduate student concerns. Ultimately, an objective referendum would provide a sense of where the graduate student body stands on unionization and how the debate can be most productive.
Unionization has already proven to be a significant and often divisive issue in graduate student life. Examining its causes, effects and merits falls squarely under the jurisdiction of a body charged with addressing student life issues. At the end of it all, graduate students might not be closer to endorsing or rejecting a union. But a program of renewed GSA involvement would succeed in fostering a productive and grounded debate involving previously silenced voices.