CGSU Responds to Cornell Brief against GWC

Earlier this week, Cornell filed an amicus brief along with eight other institutions opposing the right of graduate workers at Columbia University to be granted employee status and gain collective bargaining rights.  CGSU has collaborated on an opposing brief with AFT.  You can read our full response below and check out the coverage in the Cornell Sun.

CGSU Statement regarding Cornell administration’s co-signed amicus brief in the GWC v. Columbia NLRB case

Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC), the Columbia University graduate labor union, has an ongoing case before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that argues graduate employees at private universities work for the institutions they attend and therefore deserve basic labor rights and legal protections. The NLRB case, should it be decided in GWC’s favor, would reverse a precedent-setting 2004 decision by the G. W. Bush-era Board that ruled in favor of Brown University against its then-graduate union. This decision stripped graduate employees of their worker protections and held that the relationship between graduate students and the university was merely educational. Like GWC, Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) believes graduate employees, through their employment as teaching and research assistants, perform labor vital to Cornell’s mission and deserve to be recognized as workers. Close observers of the Board suggest that it will soon rule in our favor.

On Monday, the Cornell University administration, alongside six Ivy-league schools, Stanford, and MIT, co-signed an amicus brief authored by Harvard University lawyers and addressed to the NLRB that argues against the Columbia graduate workers. It suggests, incorrectly in our view, that because these institutions “do not measure teaching and research by graduate assistants in commercial or economic terms, the model of traditional collective bargaining cannot apply to them.” The brief also denies the similarity between the work of graduates at public and private institutions and argues, despite convincing evidence to the contrary, that collective bargaining threatens academic freedom.

CGSU is disappointed by Cornell’s support of the brief and its reticence to acknowledge the work done by graduate workers here in Ithaca. CGSU has contributed to an opposing amicus brief submitted by our national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, in support of the Columbia graduate workers. We concur with and support AFT’s brief, which affirms that graduate assistants are workers and poses collective bargaining as the appropriate intermediary between graduate workers and their university and faculty management. Similar briefs have been filed by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (the national affiliate of Cornell’s Graduate-Professional Student Assembly) and by the major unions representing academic faculty in the U.S.: American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union, Committee of Interns and Residents, and United Steel Workers (GWC maintains a list of briefs both supporting and opposing them). Graduate colleagues at public universities across the nation have been unionized for decades, and evidence has shown that collective bargaining has been a helpful resource for strengthening the relationship between those colleagues and their advisors. Our collective experience as graduate workers has, further, shown just how economic our relationship with Cornell has become, as it continues to become run less like a school and more like a business.

Whether or not Cornell measures teaching and research done by graduate assistants in economic terms, this does not change the reality that we teach a majority of the classes and staff a majority of the labs on the Ithaca campus. The core educational functions of the university are based, to a large extent, on the labor of graduate employees, and their work thus has a real and measurable value. That the university would deny that value is precisely the problem and thus the point of the growing call from hundreds of thousands of graduate employees for bargaining recognition across the country. The graduate unionization movement is based on the notion that the individuals performing these functions should have a say in the conditions of their work and be granted the same rights and protections as their faculty advisors and the people who maintain the buildings in which they labor.

CGSU and GWC are both confident that in its deliberations the NLRB will recognize the functional equivalence between the work of graduate assistants and their faculty and staff employee colleagues, and subsequently the right of these groups to choose union representation.