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Graduate student unions on a number of private campuses have for years sought recognition from their universities and federal officials, to little avail. But organizing efforts at Cornell University are moving forward, in the form of an agreement on how to proceed until and if a legal barrier to collective bargaining is reversed.

The development sets Cornell apart from most other elite privates institutions, which have maintained that teaching and research assistants are students -- not employees entitled to collective bargaining rights -- ahead of a major decision on the issue from the National Labor Relations Board.

“Should current federal labor law change to deem graduate students at private universities employees, we believe the terms of this agreement will assist our graduate assistants as they make their own decisions about whether or not to join the union,” Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer at Cornell, said in a statement Wednesday. “Our goal is to provide them with an open environment to make that decision that ensures dignity and respect for all parties involved.”

Cornell’s new agreement with its American Federation of Teachers- and National Education Association-affiliated graduate student union does not signal voluntary union recognition. So it’s not the kind of decisive agreement that New York University reached with its United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate student union outside of NLRB channels in 2013. Nor does Cornell express neutrality about the campaign, despite union requests that such language be included.

But the new agreement does outline a possible path to Cornell having one of the few graduate student unions among private institutions, and establishes formal communication and election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines, and a dispute resolution mechanism. It offer protections for those involved in union organizing and says that a fair and expeditious election will be held outside of NLRB channels should the board decide that graduate students at private institutions are entitled to collective bargaining -- a decision that other institutions have indicated they would fight in court. Cornell would grant “immediate” recognition in the event of a majority vote.

An NLRB ruling in favor of the right of graduate students to unionize is expected in the coming months.

A joint union-management committee also will be formed to answer questions as they arise.

The union praised the agreement in a separate statement Wednesday, saying that it sets up “concrete steps to achieving a productive labor-management relationship as the graduate assistants move toward recognition as Cornell workers with a real say over the terms and conditions of their employment.”

Michaela Brangan, a Ph.D. candidate in English who helped draft the agreement, said in an interview that there was “good faith” all over it. Cornell seems to have “seen the writing on the wall as far as momentum for organizing at private universities, not just among graduate students but also for adjuncts,” she said. Brangan and other union organizers also noted that Cornell houses the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, a major labor research hub.

Brangan said the union expects that the NLRB will soon rule in favor of graduate student unions in cases concerning Columbia University and the New School; such a ruling would reverse a precedent against such unions dating back to 2004 in a case concerning Brown University. The board has historically flip-flopped on the question of whether graduate students are employees entitled to collective bargaining rights, but in the Brown case the board decided that they’re students, without such rights. (The NLRB deals with private institutions only; graduate student unions at public universities are handled by state boards and are much more common. While some Cornell colleges are units of the State University of New York, the university as a whole is considered private.)

Graduate students on many campuses say they’re not sufficiently compensated for the amount of work they do, in teaching and in research, beyond their own studies. Brangan said that Cornell students are organizing in part around better benefits. Their campaign is focused on having a say in policies that affect their working conditions more broadly, she added.

The union has some basis for expecting a ruling in the near future in graduate students’ favor. The term of a key board member, Kent Hirozawa, a Democrat, ends this summer.

William Herbert, executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, which sponsored the conference, didn’t opine as to timing. But he said the Cornell agreement is notable in that it “expressly recognizes that the NLRB is currently reconsidering the status of graduate students” under the National Labor Relations Act. And any decision by the NLRB in favor of graduate students “will likely lead to a nationwide resurgence of graduate student organizing on par with the scope of adjunct faculty organizing efforts over the past three years,” he added.

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