ITHACA, N.Y. —In what may be a massive irony, the union certification election among graduate teaching assistants and research assistants at Cornell University, which is nationally known for its school of labor and industrial relations, turned up inconclusive results.
But with “no” votes narrowly in the lead, the Cornell Graduate Students Union (CGSU) is considering filing labor law-breaking charges, formally called unfair labor practice charges, against the university administration. If upheld, such charges could lead to an election rerun.
CGSU says the administration may have illegally skewed the vote at the Ithaca, N.Y.-based university against recognizing the American Federation of Teachers to represent Cornell’s TAs and RAs. If it files, the case goes to the National Labor Relations Board’s office.
As of April 14, the American Arbitration Association has yet to formally certify the Cornell election outcome, but unofficial results from the March 29 balloting show CGSU won 856 votes (46.1 percent), while 919 TAs and RAs (49.5 percent) voted “no.”
The other 81 ballots – 4.4 percent, enough to determine the final result – “are either challenged ballots, unresolved marking-related challenges, or absentee ballots that need to be verified,” CGSU said. Western New York Labor Today first reported the results.
“Although a clear majority of voters didn’t vote ‘yes,’ we remain proud of what we’ve accomplished together. In 2002, only 30 percent of us voted ‘yes’ for union recognition. Today, in 2017, we made it right to the precipice,” the CGSU organizers said. “Regardless of recognition, we’re not going anywhere.”
The outcome is ironic because Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations is generally recognized as one of the top labor relations schools in the U.S., and the fount of ground-breaking work in the field. Its noted scholars include Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, author of studies on the outcomes of NLRB-run voting and employer intimidation.
“Between months of ‘Ask a Dean’ and public, unverifiable accusations during the election, the Graduate School has used their position of power as our employer to try and influence results in a way that violates the spirit of our Code of Conduct agreement and has garnered national scrutiny,” CGSU said of management’s misconduct.
“This confirms the position Cornell took when it signed an amicus brief last year directly opposing our rights as workers. Our hard work in teaching and research produces Cornell’s value. We pay taxes on our income, write grants, and sign away intellectual property rights. Cornell doesn’t always share our interests, which is why we must keep advocating for them.”
And Cornell “sweetened” out-of-network health care benefits, outside the Ithaca area, the day before the vote, the committee said. It was an obvious attempt to influence the balloting’s outcome.
The union campaign included an appearance by AFT President Randi Weingarten – a Cornell grad — statements from the TAs and RAs about why they need the union, and support letters from Ithaca’s Mayor, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and State Rep. Barbara Lifton (D), whose district includes Cornell and Ithaca.
“This past August, the National Labor Relations Board made a significant decision that restored the rights of graduate student research and teaching assistants (RAs and TAs) to collectively bargain at universities. It is a decision I strongly supported because I believe in the right of employees to organize and to collectively bargain for fair contracts,” Schumer wrote.
“It has been my experience that workplaces function most effectively when there is a proper balance between workers and management. From Day One, the American labor movement has been a springboard for advancement, economic equity and fair representation in the workplace.
“But perhaps most importantly, unions build the middle class by affording hardworking people fair wages, decent benefits and a say over their work lives. I have worked for many years with the American Federation of Teachers and can say that they are a first-rate institution that knows how to advocate for its members and build positive, win-win relationships with employers, especially in academic settings,” Schumer said.