What would happen if a graduate student union decided to strike?

Date: March 2017


Dear Deans,

CGSU has expressed their support for all labor actions undertaken by the Ithaca College Contingent Faculty, including striking.

  1. If the Cornell graduate student union decided to strike in the future, what would be the implications for graduate students?
  2. I imagine that the repercussions would reverberate strongly down to the undergraduate student body as well. Do classes stop? Would undergraduate seniors potentially miss graduation deadlines?


Observant Graduate Student


Dear Observant Graduate Student,

Thanks for your question. CGSU declared its unconditional support for all labor actions, including strikes, taken by the contingent faculty union at Ithaca College, indicating they “embrace” Ithaca College’s labor actions as their own and committing to further action with Ithaca College contingent faculty. 

As you ask, what might this mean for Cornell’s context? National labor law affirms that employees have the right to strike. Typically, contracts between a union and employer include provisions regarding strikes. A contract may include language allowing strikes, or it may include language preventing strikes. CGSU has indicated in its language and action related to the Ithaca College strike that it is strongly in favor of all labor actions including strikes. 

When unions declare a strike, the usual expectation is that all members of the union will abide by the strike (i.e., not report for work), and unions typically can impose fines on union members who choose to work during the strike, but not all unions impose such sanctions.

If an election is held at Cornell and a union is elected as the bargaining representative for graduate assistants, and the union decided to strike, graduate assistants would typically be expected to abide by the strike, in other words, stop working on their teaching and research assistantship duties. 

Should such a strike occur, faculty, academic departments, and the university would need to consider which activities that involve graduate assistants would be carried out through alternative approaches such as faculty, staff, or other students doing those activities, or would be put on hold for the entirety of the strike. Very few undergraduate courses have a graduate assistant as an instructor of record, so it is unlikely that many, if any, classes would stop due to the absence (on strike) of graduate assistants, but such a situation has not occurred before at Cornell so it is hard to predict what the full set of consequences would be.

Thank you for your question.


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