September 2016 Issue - Labor Issues
September 28, 2016

NLRB ruling revs up union organizing effort at Cornell

Author: By Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
Cornell Graduate Students United members Mohammed Alhashim and Mariana Alarcon.
Caption: Cornell Graduate Students United members Mohammed Alhashim and Mariana Alarcon.

A new federal ruling that graduate students working as teaching assistants at private universities have the right to bargain collectively is a significant shot in the arm for the NYSUT-represented graduate assistants seeking to organize at Cornell University.

The decision by the National Labor Relations Board comes in response to a petition filed by the Graduate Workers of Columbia, which has been aiming to organize at Columbia University under affiliation of the United Autoworkers Union.

The Columbia effort mirrors one taking place at Cornell, where Cornell Graduate Students United has been working to organize in affiliation with NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers. The CGSU reached an agreement with the university in June to allow the fledgling union to hold an organizing campaign and election. Viewed as a significant step then, the NLRB ruling in late August has since provided considerable fuel to CGSU's effort.

NYSUT President Karen E. Magee applauded the NLRB ruling, saying the graduate workers at Cornell "now have one less hurdle to be recognized for the labor they undertake every day.

"Graduate assistants at private schools across New York State are coming together so their voices can be heard, and we're behind them every step of the way," Magee added.

Nationwide, the number of full-time professors on college campuses continues to shrink as administrations controversially rely more and more on low paid part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants. As such, the voice of adjuncts and grad students has been growing louder, as they fight for higher wages and job protections. Graduate students are also organizing at universities such as Harvard, Yale and Duke.

The NLRB's latest ruling reverses its 2004 decision that determined graduate assistants at Brown University were "primarily students" rather than employees. AFT President Randi Weingarten praised the NLRB for recognizing its "flawed reasoning" and called the Columbia decision "a great day for workers."

"Graduate employees at private institutions, just like their peers in public universities, deserve the right to organize to have a real say over their wages and conditions," Weingarten said in a statement released after the NLRB ruling.

"The truth is graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together."

That most certainly is the case at Cornell, said Magee. "Without the valuable labor of its graduate employees," Magee said, "Cornell would struggle to fulfill its obligations to its students, the community and New York State."