Cornell Violated Federal Labor Law in Grad Assistant Union Election

May 18, 2018

Cornell University violated federal labor law during last year’s union election for graduate assistants, but the election results will stand, an arbitrator said this week. Some 856 students voted in favor of unionization in 2017 and 919 voted against it, with an additional 81 ballots unresolved. The American Federation of Teachers, with which the would-be union is affiliated, contested the results of the election, alleging administrative interference.

Howard Edelman of the American Arbitration Association dismissed some of the union’s claims. But he said in his award that Barbara Knuth, graduate dean, was wrong to write in a newsletter just prior to the vote that unionization could affect the number of graduate assistantships on campus. Students would “have to believe” that their positions were “in danger” after reading that statement, which did not include the “objective fact” that voters are protected by typical funding guarantees, Edelman said. Cornell therefore must create a posting noting its violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Still, it’s unlikely that the comment impacted the election outcome, he said. The union will have 12 months from the election certification to petition for a new vote.

Joel M. Malina, university spokesperson, said in a statement that some 80 percent of eligible Cornell graduate assistants participated in the election, with “the majority voting against unionization. A handful of ballots remained uncounted pending the outcome of this decision, and we are confident their inclusion now will reaffirm the original result.” Cornell worked with the unions seeking to represent graduate assistants prior to the election to establish a set of campaign and election guidelines, he said, "and we are proud of our efforts to honor that commitment. We understand that this issue has created divisions within our graduate student community, whose daily contributions to Cornell’s teaching, research and engagement mission cannot be overstated, and agree with the arbitrator that it is time to certify the results of the election so we can move forward together and continue our collective work to strengthen graduate education at Cornell.”

Aubrie James, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, said in a statement, “I feel relieved that we have a path forward for how to resolve last year’s election. We are working so hard in organizing for labor rights at Cornell, and this decision is another thrust forward in those efforts. I also feel energized by the unionization movements of grads like us across the country."

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