Are in absentia and fellowship students included in the bargaining unit?

Date: March 2017



I’m writing you in response to your email that was sent to students on 3/10.  In it, an in-absentia student asks about absentee voting.  Are in-absentia students included in the bargaining unit?  If so, why are fellowship students not included?  If not, why did the answer focus on the impact of the vote rather than inform the student they are not part of the bargaining unit and, thus, cannot vote?

Thank you,

In-absentia-questioning Graduate Student


Dear In-absentia-questioning Graduate Student,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question. 

According to the May ’16 Agreement between Cornell and CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, the bargaining unit includes Ithaca and Geneva campus-based Cornell graduate students enrolled in the Graduate School who hold titles under Cornell University Policy 1.3 as Teaching Assistants, Graduate Research Assistants, Graduate Assistants, or Research Assistants. “Ithaca and Geneva campus-based” refers to their source of assistantship funding, which is the criterion in this case that makes them eligible to be considered as employees (as well as students) under current federal labor law and thus members of the potential bargaining unit.

Students whose assistantship funding source is the Ithaca or Geneva campus can register with the Graduate School in “in absentia” status. Thus, an in absentia graduate assistant could be eligible for the bargaining unit, meeting the criteria above, and thus eligible to vote. In absentia status provides an opportunity for graduate students to engage in approved study in a location at least 100 miles away from the university’s campus during the academic year while continuing to make academic progress under the guidance of the special committee. 

Students on assistantships who are not enrolled in the Graduate School, as well as Graduate School students on assistantships whose source of appointment funding is from another campus (e.g., Weill Cornell Medical College, Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, Cornell Tech) are not included in the bargaining unit per the Agreement.

Graduate School students who hold fellowships are not included in the bargaining unit because fellowships are not named in the Agreement. The Union and Management negotiating teams thoroughly explored this question and the decision was made not to include them for a number of reasons. Unlike assistantships which include a service (work) commitment per University Policy 1.3, fellowships provide financial support to graduate students to pursue their graduate studies and scholarship without the specific service (work) requirements associated with assistantship appointments. 

In fact, the National Labor Relation Board’s ruling in the Columbia University case in August 2016 (which changed federal labor law) explicitly used language throughout their written decision referring to “student assistants” not to fellows. Other schools that have unionized research and teaching assistants (such as the schools in the SUNY system — State University of New York) explicitly do not include fellows in their bargaining units.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School