Today, thousands of graduate students at Cornell University will vote on whether or not to form a union. Fortunately, the school’s deans are on hand to answer all your questions in a distinctly neutral tone of voice.
This week’s vote is the culmination of years of organizing, and Cornell is just one of many colleges and universities where grad student workers and adjunct professors have turned to unions to protect their tenuous position in the higher education industry. On the Cornell Graduate School website is a helpful section entitled “Ask a Dean,” where various deans publish their responses to real questions submitted by Cornell graduate students. (I asked the school if the questions were, in fact, real and submitted by students, and dean and provost Barbara Knuth assured me that they are.) This is a resource for real students to find unbiased answers to union-related questions like this:
In my office, some of the graduate students are in favor of CGSU [Cornell Graduate Students United] and have been actively recruiting in my department.
I am worried about the lies they are perpetrating in order to get more people to sign the membership cards. They portray the plight of grad students as if the support provided by Cornell is lacking.
But above all: should I be worried that some CGSU representatives are not affiliated with Cornell nor are grad students? Should they even be trusted to handle important issues as these, considering that if a union is formed, part of the fees we have to pay will end up in their pockets?
Student distressed about CGSU
“I’m sorry that you, or any students, are feeling distress related to the unionization campaign,” replies Dean Knuth, referring the distressed questioner to the school’s page about union dues. Or this:
If we vote to form a union, where will the money come from to pay for the added benefits? I assume that the university has a balanced budget right now. Would fewer students be admitted?
Cost-conscious Graduate Student
Dean Knuth agrees with this cost-conscious anonymous student that unionizing could impose scary costs—$887,000, “Just to cover dues.” Oh my! Or this:
As an ambivalent supporter of the union, I have been paying close attention to your carefully worded responses to questions about CGSU.
It would help me understand your position and my own if you shared with us what you think of labor movements and unions in general.
Can you offer your perspective on unionization in modern workforces and a few comments of how you understand CGSU in this context?
Ambivalent Union Supporter
Dear Dean, can you please share with us your liberal credentials in order to make yourself appear more sympathetic and likeable during your anti-union campaign? Indeed, Dean Knuth can—but only because you asked, Ambivalent Union Supporter:
Thanks for your question. I’m not sure that my personal views on labor movements and unions in general will be of interest to others, but since you asked, I’ll respond briefly. I support, and have supported in the past, union movements of various types. Prior to working at Cornell, for example, I volunteered for a labor union (the United Farm Workers of America) and continued to be a financial contributor to their efforts.
In my view, labor unions have a key role to play particularly in situations where the workers have no other opportunity for collective impact and effective voice. At Cornell, graduate students are ably represented by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, who have demonstrated themselves to be effective advocates for graduate/professional students, able to clearly articulate strategic goals and to accomplish them. In addition, graduate/professional students have a voting voice on the Board of Trustees through their elected student Trustees, two voting members on the General Committee of the Graduate School, and an active voice on numerous committees and task forces at department, college, and university levels.
I hope you find these thoughts useful.
Wow—a powerful and influential employee at a large university flouting their own labor sympathies while simultaneously opining that a union is not right for here? What a unique occurrence. There is a truly staggering number of “Ask a Dean” questions about union-related topics, and the vast majority of them are similar to those above, although there is at least one very enjoyable letter from a grad student who writes in to say that the “Ask a Dean” column itself is “propaganda” that resembles “the Soviet era” and furthermore that “what you are really doing is taking your very own grad students for lesser than they are: yes we do get the subtext, yes it is so unsubtle that it insults our intelligence, yes it is unworthy of the institution we joined.” lol.
Today, on the day that voting begins, Cornell’s Dean Knuth sent out one final, concern-trolling email blast to all graduate students warning that an unnamed student “felt threatened” by union representatives and encouraging everyone to vote
AGAINST THE UNION PLEASE, THINK OF THE MANY ADMINISTRATORS WHO DESIRE NOTHING MORE THAN A SECOND HOME, A DREAM THAT MAY BE TAKEN AWAY IF YOU INSIST UPON FAIR PAY AND DECENT HEALTH CARE.
Do the right thing Cornell.