ITHACA, NY – While Cornell has been more accepting of its grad students’ push to unionize than some other Ivies, a recent statement from Interim President Hunter Rawlings indicates that there’s still conflict to be resolved.

Back in August, the National Labor Relations Board overturned a 2004 decision that had classified graduate students as non-employees. With that decision changed, grad students were now free to pursue unionization. Many grad students have been pushing for a union in order to gain leverage in resolving issues such as lack of job security and low wages compared to their workloads.

Last week, Cornell Interim President Hunter Rawlings issued a statement to the Cornell community, expressing several concerns about the unionization push.

After a preamble touching on how integral Cornell’s graduate student assistants are to the University — and noting that a previous unionizing effort was shot down in 2002 — Rawlings talks about the impact a grad student union could have on the institution.

Rawlings mentions three specific issues:

  1. A potential clash between Cornell’s current shared governance system and a union
  2. Complications arising from individual students whose needs clash with the goals of the union and
  3. The potential for collective bargaining negotiations to interfere with grad students’ academic needs

“If a union represents our graduate students at Cornell, I believe there will be a negative impact on the flexibility, individuality, and inventiveness of students and their faculty advisors in structuring the academic environment,” Rawlings wrote.

“I believe that graduate students and their faculty committee and mentors are best able to make critical decisions regarding the components of each student’s graduate program without potential constraints imposed by collective bargaining agreements,” he continued.

Rawlings also noted that grad student unions that exist at many public institutions are regulated by more restrictive state laws, a union regulated under federal labor law has fewer restrictions on what can be bargained for and what sort of actions can be taken — for example, public employees cannot strike. Rawlings concern here is that issues of labor can interfere with academics.

Rawlings closed by encouraging all grad students, regardless of which side they were on, to do their due diligence in researching the impacts and to exercise their right to vote if and when a union election occurs — because if a union vote succeeds, it affects all grad students, even those who vote against the measure.

Letter prompts responses

Cornell Grad Students United, the organization that has been leading the effort to unionize Cornell’s grad students, responded to Rawlings letter. Paul Ahrens, writing on behalf of CGSU, attempted to refute Rawling’s concerns.

On the issue of shared governance, Ahrens wrote that it has long been common for unions to take part in the shared governance process in other universities and that the affiliate union of CGSU represents 25,000 grad student workers which have functional student government groups. A labor union, he argued, provides power to negotiate a binding contract with Cornell for student employees, something which other forms of student governance cannot.

Against the concern of the impact a union would have on relationships between faculty and student employees, Ahrens points to research originating out of Cornell itself. A 2013 report that examined the impact of grad student unions revealed that students had the same or better relationships with faculty and no negative impacts on academic freedom, while also getting better professional support and pay.

Ahrens also says that while Cornell does provide some benefits to its grad student workers, the lack of a union means gives the University the leeway to apply these benefits selectively and in ways that “benefit the Administration’s interests over those of graduate workers.”

“We have heard horrible stories from parents who have been shamed for taking parental leave, workers who have had to pay thousands of dollars to get dependents covered under Cornell’s health insurance, and injuries where workers’ compensation claims have been dragged out in court and required government intervention by the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board,” Ahrens writes. “This is unacceptable.”

Rawling’s statement also drew some criticism for the method with which it was delivered.

“This usage of the mass email system as President Rawlings did today is a stain on the Office of the President,” wrote undergrad Christian Brickhouse in a letter to the Cornell Daily Sun. “Regardless of our personal opinions on unionization as undergraduates, faculty, or staff, this is a matter for graduate students to decide. President Rawlings’ actions are an insult to our intelligence and transparent propaganda.”

While Rawling’s statement has clearly aroused some anger, there are students who are with the administration in recognizing some concerns about the unionization effort. A website called “At What Co$t?“, which represents Cornell grad students who are worried about the impacts, has put together a collection of resources and FAQs offering a counterpoint to CGSU’s arguments.

(Featured photo from the Cornell Chronicle.)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.