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 students?
  6. Where can I read the August 23, 2016 National Labor Relations Board decision, including the majority and dissenting opinions?

1.  What is aunion” and a “bargaining unit?”

A labor union is an organization that represents a specific group of employees and acts as their exclusive bargaining representative. This specific group of employees is called a “bargaining unit”. 

Prior to determining who will participate in an election regarding union representation, the members of the potential bargaining unit must have enough in common that they are deemed to share a community of interest in wages, benefits, and other working conditions, for example police officers or skilled trades workers.

2.  What does a union do? 

A union, as a group of employees’ exclusive bargaining representative, negotiates on behalf of the bargaining unit with the employer regarding terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits.

3.  Have some Cornell employees elected union representation? 

Yes, Cornell University has a long and effective history of relationships and productive negotiations with unions representing Cornell staff.  Defined groups of our employees belong to seven (7) unions, such as building trades, police, heating and water filtration plant employees, custodians, and food service staff. See all union contracts.

4.  What is Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU)?

At Cornell, a group of graduate students formed Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU), which is a group of graduate students interested in achieving labor union representation for graduate assistants.  CGSU affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)/New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) as the unions to represent a potential bargaining unit for graduate assistants should a union representation election occur and the outcome is in favor of union representation.

Because of the interest of CGSU/AFT/NYSUT in seeking a labor union representation election at Cornell, the University entered into a Union-University Conduct Rules and Recognition Election Agreement (U-UCRREA) with CGSU/AFT/NYSUT in May, 2016, covering rules and procedures for union-university conduct and pre-election activities with provisions that would guide a union representation election should federal labor law allow student assistants at private universities the right to collectively bargain, as the August 23, 2016 decision of the NRLB established.

The U-UCRREA is not recognition of a graduate assistant labor union; rather, it is a guide to behaviors for all parties, based on the principle of fostering an open and respectful environment in which graduate students are free to learn about the labor union and reach an informed decision should there be an opportunity for them to participate in a union representation election. 

Under the U-UCRREA, the potential bargaining unit at Cornell would include all Ithaca and Geneva campus-based graduate students enrolled in the Graduate School who hold appointments under University Policy 1.3 as teaching assistants, graduate assistants, research assistants, and graduate research assistants.  

5.  Did Cornell ever have an election for union representation of graduate students?

Yes, twice.

In October, 2002, a group of Cornell graduate assistants defined similarly as above (teaching assistants, graduate assistants, research assistants, graduate research assistants) participated in a union representation election.  The end result was that the overwhelming majority of graduate assistants voted against union representation at Cornell.

In 2002, the graduate assistants interested in union representation formed the Cornell Association of Student Employees (CASE) and affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW). 

An ad hoc graduate student organization, At What Cost? Cornell, formed to express opinions questioning the benefits of union representation.

Election results from October, 2002:

  • 88% of graduate assistants on the bargaining unit eligibility list voted in the election.
  • 2,318 graduate students were eligible to vote in that election.
  • 2,049 ballots (88% of eligible voters) were cast.
  • 1,351 (66%) voted against union representation.
  • 580 (28%) voted in favor of union representation.
  • 118 ballots were voided and not counted due to irregularities

In March, 2017, a secret ballot election was held to determine if CGSU/AFT/NYSUT would 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.

As in 2002, an ad hoc graduate student organization, also with the name At What Cost formed to express opinions about CGSU/AFT/NYSUT’s union campaign.

In the March ’17 election, about 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, with 919 voting against representation by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, 856 voting for representation by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, and 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 ballots, the most likely outcome of such a process, given the current margin, would be 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 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

6.  Where can I read the August 23, 2016 National Labor Relations Board decision, including the majority and dissenting opinions?

The full text of the NLRB decision can be found at

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