Union Representation FAQ

Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU), a group of graduate students interested in achieving labor union representation for graduate assistants at Cornell, has affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). CGSU/AFT/NYSUT have been conducting since 2014 a union campaign throughout Cornell’s Ithaca and Geneva campuses.

In Spring ’17, CGSU/AFT/NYSUT filed for a union representation election, seeking to have CGSU/AFT/NYSUT recognized as the exclusive representative for purposes of negotiating terms and conditions of Cornell graduate assistants. 

On March 27 and 28, 2017, a secret ballot election was held to determine if a majority of eligible graduate assistants selected CGSU/AFT/NYSUT to serve as the exclusive collective bargaining representative for Cornell University Graduate Assistants on the Ithaca and Geneva campuses who hold titles under University Policy 1.3.

About 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, with 919 voting against representation by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, and 856 voting for representation by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, with 81 ballots unresolved (challenged) based on questions of voter eligibility.

Although neither the University nor CGSU/AFT/NYSUT have asked the Arbitrator overseeing the election process to resolve the challenged, the most likely outcome of such a process, given the current margin, would be that a majority of those who voted decided against the formation of a union. 

CGSU/AFT/NYSUT retains the right to seek a future election whether the March ’17 election remains unresolved or if it is formally determined that the majority of graduate students voted against unionization.  Cornell is currently negotiating with CGSU/AFT/NYSUT for an updated pre-election agreement building off of the May 2016 Agreement (PDF) signed by both parties to provide parameters for a mutually respectful relationship through another union campaign and election should CGSU/AFT/NYSUT file another election petition.

Information about graduate student benefits and policies is available through the Graduate School’s Policies Search page and the Ask a Dean archive.

This website is intended to address information needs of the Cornell community related to this important issue. The list of Frequently Asked Questions reflects many of the questions raised about union representation. The Communications and Resources section includes the set of communications from the Graduate School and the university administration about graduate student union representation to date. 

If you have questions that are not addressed here, please send them to dean_gradschool@cornell.edu.

FAQ Table of Contents

Background information

  1. What is a “union” and a “bargaining unit?”
  2. What does a union do?
  3. Have some Cornell employees elected union representation?
  4. What is Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU)?
  5. Did Cornell ever have an election for union representation of graduate assistants?
  6. Where can I read the August 23, 2016 National Labor Relations Board decision, including the majority and dissenting opinions?

Election process and status

  1. Who decides which union would represent graduate assistants?
  2. What is the Union-University Conduct Rules and Recognition Election Agreement (U-UCRREA) between Cornell and CGSU/AFT/NYSUT?
  3. How would an election process work and what is the timeline?
  4. What are “authorization cards” and how are they used?
  5. If I sign an authorization card and a union representation election is held, do I have to vote in favor of the union?
  6. If I don’t sign an authorization card, can I still vote in an election?

Eligible voters and voting

  1. Who is an eligible voter if an election is held?
  2. What if I was a teaching assistant the semester prior to the election, but I’m on a fellowship for the semester in which the election is held. Can I vote?
  3. Who should vote if an election is held?
  4. I am not eligible to vote in the election because I won’t hold a Policy 1.3 appointment during the semester in which the election occurs, but I will hold an assistantship in a later semester.  If the union is elected, would I still be part of the bargaining unit and subject to the terms and conditions of any labor contract between the union and Cornell? 
  5. Does status as an international graduate student, or as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), affect eligibility to be included in the union or to vote in a union representation election?

Contracts, dues, and eligibility

  1. What is covered in a union contract?
  2. Can I see the proposed contract, including the list of terms and conditions of employment, before I vote? 
  3. What if I object to a specific provision in the labor contract, am I still bound by it?
  4. If union representation is approved, will graduate students move in and out of the union depending on their position at Cornell?
  5. Can Cornell make exceptions to the union contract to accommodate special needs of individual graduate students?
  6. How much are union dues and how do students pay them? 

Conduct during an election

  1. Are union representatives allowed to approach students on campus during the pre-election campaign to talk about the benefits of union representation and solicit signatures on authorization cards?
  2. Who should I contact if a faculty or staff is making inappropriate or inaccurate comments about union representation of graduate students at Cornell or if CGSU/AFT/NYSUT is making inappropriate or inaccurate comments about union representation of graduate students at Cornell?

Special considerations for Cornell students

  1. If graduate assistants vote in favor of union representation, can they vote for a strike or a work stoppage?  Will Cornell be able to lock out such students on Policy 1.3 assistantships and prevent them from working? 
  2. If the union representation election results in representation by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, when could there be another representation election to consider removing the union?
  3. If eligible students vote against union representation, can there be another vote to reconsider union representation?
  4. If the union representation election results in representation by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, what happens if the NLRB acts on another case in the future and changes its stance again, ruling that graduate assistants are not employees under federal labor law, or a court reaches that conclusion?  What happens to the contract and union at Cornell?
  5. Currently, how does the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) represent graduate student interests?
  6. How would a union affect the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and other aspects of Cornell’s model of shared governance?
  7. How would a union affect graduate student roles on department or graduate field or college/university committees?  For example, graduate students currently serve on the university-wide Student Health Plan Advisory Committee and serve as voting members on the General Committee, the legislative body of the Graduate School; would such opportunities for graduate students be affected with union representation?

Examples of graduate student unions at other universities

  1. What are graduate student unions at other institutions like?
  2. What is an example of a private university with union representation of graduate students?
  3. What research-based evidence exists about graduate student unionization?
  4. How can graduate students learn more about varying views on union representation for graduate students at private universities?