Cornell Grad Workers Tackle Administration’s Union-Busting, Form CGSU-UE

December 16, 2023

From November 6 to 9, graduate workers at Cornell University voted with a 96 percent majority to form a union with United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. 1,873 grad workers voted yes, and 80 voted no; 60 percent of eligible voters voted. The results were ratified by the NLRB on November 20. Cornell Graduate Students United-UE now represents over 3,000 graduate workers in Ithaca, Geneva, and New York City.

This victory follows an unsuccessful campaign in 2017, in which Cornell grad workers voted not to unionize with American Federation of Teachers (919 voted no; 856 voted yes). The NLRB later ruled that Cornell violated the National Labor Relations Act requirement for fair “laboratory conditions” in a union election. Graduate School Dean Barbara Knuth sent out an email on the eve of the election which implied grad workers could lose their jobs for voting in support of the union. Dean Knuth stayed on as Dean of Students for another two years. Other administrators and faculty expressed similar sentiments through many different channels. Faculty in multiple departments told grad workers that they would be removed from their programs if they voted yes for a union. The anti-union campaign run by Cornell was incredibly damaging, and its impact pervaded throughout grad consciousness for years.

Inadequate and Unfair

While grad workers held some smaller campaigns in 2018 and 2019 around mental health, healthcare, and other issues, our organizing began in earnest in fall 2020 due to Cornell’s increasingly blatant unfair treatment of grad workers. During the height of the pandemic, Cornell graduate workers were forced to return to on-campus teaching and research without adequate protections. The university also denied requests for accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In spring 2021, over 500 grad workers participated in a photo campaign to call for Cornell to increase protections during COVID-19. 

Cornell was also failing grad workers with respect to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in a particularly noticeable way after 2020. Predominantly white institutions have been struggling to ensure that students from historically excluded racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, ability, and sexual orientation identities have the same opportunities, support, and protection as their white, upper class, able-bodied, cis-gender, male, and heterosexual peers.  Cornell relies on marginalized grad workers to do the labor to transform Cornell into a habitable place for other marginalized workers. These essential workers are also those more likely to face harassment and discrimination due to this unpaid work, yet often have even less protection. Furthermore, the university attempted to pit workers from different DEI organizations and marginalized backgrounds against each other to compete for limited support and resources. Many student activists, watching the world demand change after the murder of George Floyd, became disillusioned with Cornell's internal mechanisms of change when they were denied even the most milquetoast changes.

Amid myriad unfulfilled promises with respect to DEI initiatives, in spring 2021, grad workers rallied for compensation for DEI work and other diversity issues. For many grad workers, this rally was one of the first times they were able to connect with other workers around their shared concern and to see the breadth of their struggle. It became abundantly clear that we as grad workers had the solutions to these pervasive problems, but lacked the legal apparatus to make the university implement them.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, grad organizers worked diligently to better understand the issues facing grad workers and build connections across campus. We also talked through our co-workers' reservations from the administrations’ anti-union rhetoric in the previous election. 

In the 2022-2023 academic year, we held two issue-based campaigns that connected grad workers. On November 11, 2022, over two hundred grad workers rallied in the cold and rain for two hours for fair wages. Speakers discussed financial precarity they faced without guaranteed summer funding, unclear rules about payment of outside fellowships (that cost students who won prestigious fellowships thousands of dollars), and other issues. Many students expressed that they would not be able to afford to work for Cornell without some sort of financial safety net or going into debt, which directly contradicts Cornell’s motto of “Any person, any study.” Shortly after, the university announced increases to funding, primarily an eight percent raise, the largest they had given grad workers since 2006. The raise was insufficient: it did not go into effect until fall 2023, inflation had been at over seven percent for two years, housing costs in Ithaca had increased by 12.3 percent for two years, and the stipend amount had been below a living wage for years. Furthermore, the eight percent was an increase from the minimum Cornell grad stipend, meaning that for any worker on a higher stipend, such as in certain STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, it was closer to a five percent increase.

March of Over a Mile

Cornell grad workers rally with sign reading Grads Do the Greatest Good
Grad worker rally March 2023. Photo: Jess Ness.

On March 24, 2023, over 400 grad workers rallied to show that eight percent is not enough. Workers from across the university marched over a mile, meeting up in a single line, to protest in front of the Board of Trustees meeting. Grad workers filled the plaza in front of the building while suit-clad trustees watched our rally unfold through the glass walls of the Vet School atrium. Speakers shared their experiences struggling to afford basic necessities — settling for unsafe housing in Ithaca, being unable to afford disabled parking passes while healing from a broken leg — as hundreds of grad workers chanted and held signs behind them. Within a single business day, Cornell announced that it would offer more parking for grad workers on assistantships, and the department of Literatures in English announced that it would guarantee six years of funding instead of the previous five years.

In summer 2023, we launched a survey to understand the problems faced by grad workers across campus. Over 1,200 grad workers responded. Those responses as well as our organizing conversations from the previous three years became the basis for our six-point platform. Despite the vast diversity in types of research, teaching, and service across over 100 graduate fields, Cornell was failing grad workers in similar ways. We are fighting for Comprehensive Healthcare Coverage and Accessibility, Safety and Equity in the Workplace, Fair Wages and Compensation, Accessible Housing and Transportation, Support for International Workers, and Support for Parents and Caregivers.

On September 6, CGSU officially began a drive to collect UE membership cards at 7am and held a card-signing rally under the noon sun in 90-degree heat. Within six hours, over one thousand grad workers had signed their cards; over 1,700 signed cards before the end of the first day. Proud and excited grad workers flooded campus and social media. In twenty days, over 2,500 grad workers, a supermajority of the bargaining unit, had signed cards. On September 29, we simultaneously asked Cornell to recognize our union voluntarily, which they did not, and filed with the NLRB for an election. The organizing didn’t stop there. Following the example of MIT, the University of Minnesota, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins University, and other UE grad shops, we launched our Vote Yes Petition, and over 1,600 grad workers — a majority of eligible voters — signed. Grad workers continued to organize conversations with other grad workers and discuss issues on social media. 

Grad worker rally to begin union membership card drive
Cornell graduate workers launching their membership drive. Photo: Gina Goico.

On November 6, exactly two months after we began our card drive, the polls opened. On Thursday, November 9, NLRB officials read 1,873 “yes” ballots in front of university administrators, grad organizers, and other supportive grad workers.

Union-Busting Busted

At every stage of our campaign, one-on-one conversations with grad workers across the university were crucial. Since 2020, we’ve had many dedicated and effective organizers in STEM fields, where Cornell concentrated much of its union-busting efforts in 2017. UE is the union for everyone, and our successful efforts to engage STEM disciplines in the face of constant efforts to splinter grads into factions show the importance of this work and the threat of a positive example. We are especially thankful to the Tompkins County Workers’ Center for allowing us to use their space so that we could call our workers about upcoming actions and train new organizers.

We chose to affiliate with UE because they share our commitment to rank-and-file autonomy and because they have an impressive track record with grad worker unions, including pushing for fellows to be included in the bargaining unit at Johns Hopkins University for TRU-UE. CGSU-UE is thrilled to join UE grad worker locals at twelve campuses in nine states and to learn from their organizing. We look forward to a productive bargaining relationship with Cornell. We are excited for grad workers to have the material conditions they need to do the incredible research and teaching that brought them to Cornell. We are thrilled to be joining the wider labor movement with UE.


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