AFT Considering Challenge to Results of Cornell Union Election

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Clear pattern of administrative misconduct polluted grad union election results, chilled voters

For Release: 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Andrew Crook

ITHACA, N.Y.—The American Federation of Teachers questions the validity of the Cornell graduate union recognition election held this week, after the administration committed a glaring swathe of labor law violations in the days leading up to and during the vote.

Cornell engaged in a series of election violations that compromised the ability of graduate students to make a free choice over whether they wanted to be represented by the AFT and the New York State United Teachers, the national and state affiliates of Cornell Graduate Students United.

There were 856 votes cast in favor of CGSU, 919 against and 81 challenges. The challenges have yet to be resolved.

Cornell’s conduct is made worse by the fact that, in May 2016, CGSU signed a code of conduct with the administration to ensure a free and fair election process. In the months and particularly days leading up to the vote, the code was repeatedly violated by Cornell management. Under the terms of the code, an arbitrator has the authority to rule on the AFT’s claims against Cornell.

On election eve, the administration distributed an email claiming a union would mean “reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell.” On the first day of voting, Cornell sent, without evidence, a mass email claiming CGSU campaigners were telling people who were not supporters of the union not to vote.

Later that evening, Cornell notified the graduate student body that it would drastically cut healthcare costs during the 2017-18 school year—a major issue in the campaign because of Cornell’s refusal to act beforehand—to induce graduate students to vote against the union.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “As an alumna of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, I want to say how deeply disappointed I am with the egregious conduct of the university. Cornell flagrantly violated the spirit of both the code of conduct we negotiated and federal labor law.

“The university sent communications on the eve of and during the election with the intention of chilling and intimidating voters. The weekend before the election, I heard firsthand about the ongoing whispering campaign and saw the administration feed it, rather than thwart it.

“Cornell management sent a clear message in violation of the negotiated code of conduct and federal labor laws that the ends justify the means. There should be no place for this kind of outright animus against colleagues in higher education. The administration has failed the entire Cornell community, and Cornell itself.

I am honored that the Cornell graduate assistants came together to fight for this union. The grass-roots passion that animated their struggle was there from the beginning, and for three years they stood strong. The CGSU organizing committee will continue to chart its own path and will prevail in this fight.

Jane Glaubman, a Teaching Assistant and fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in English, said: “To its discredit and shame, the administration engaged in conduct that unfairly influenced the outcome of the election. They signed a code of conduct expressly prohibiting those very activities. The election results are therefore tainted.

“There is a reason graduate workers are organizing all over the country, and that’s because unions are the only way to defend our rights and protect our research. The administration’s actions show just how keen it is to deny us that power.”

Matthew Fischer-Daly, a Teaching Assistant and first-year Ph.D.  candidate in Industrial and Labor Relations, said: “As an ILR student, I am honored to be learning from and working with the field’s leading scholars.

“It is deeply troubling to observe blatant flouting of norms and law by the university, while its faculty and graduate student workers teach employers and unions to recognize each other’s legitimacy and build stronger organizations based on their respective interests.

“CGSU will continue growing, and I look forward to the day when Cornell is prepared to engage in productive negotiations and work with CGSU to build a relationship based on trust and respect.”

Founded in early 2014, CGSU unified behind a core message of fairness, respect and democracy. Members stood up to win workplace safety protections, affordable healthcare for dependents and grad assistants with families, dental and vision insurance, sexual harassment protections and funding stability.

Last year, the National Labor Relations Board formally identified private colleges’ graduate teaching and research assistants as workers protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Grad workers are currently organizing with the AFT at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The AFT, the largest U.S. higher education union, already represents more than 25,000 grad employee members across 23 institutions in nine states.

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The AFT represents 1.6 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.

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