Frequently Asked Questions

(See also our Faculty FAQs page)

What is a union? What do unions do?

A union is any organization of workers that have come together to collectively advocate for themselves around issues of work. One way to do this is by bargaining a contract between the workers (together as a union) and the employer. This contract can cover a broad range of issues, including wages, workload, hours, vacation time, insurance, safety practices, and many other things. United, workers have more power to negotiate improvements to their working conditions, and can insert themselves into policy discussions where otherwise they would not be consulted.

Graduate students are workers. We’ve been saying it for years, and the National Labor Relations Board just issued a ruling in agreement with CGSU,  opening the door to easier recognition from Cornell. CGSU is bringing Cornell grads together in a union in order to have more control over how our working conditions, and Cornell’s policies, get formed.

What does it mean to be a member of CGSU?

A CGSU member is someone who wants to build power for graduate workers at Cornell, and has signed a CGSU Membership Card (in-person or online). Members of the union get updates about the union organizing drive and invitations to membership meetings, as well as information on how to get more involved. When CGSU makes a big strategic decision, elects members of our Steering Committee, or votes on a collective bargaining agreement, only members can vote on that. Being a member of CGSU is about showing your support for your colleagues, and having a say in your union.

What could a union, and a union contract, do for me as a graduate student?

A union, and the ability to negotiate a contract, means having tangible control over your own working conditions. Right now, graduate students have no meaningful control over University policies. The University can change stipend rates, healthcare benefits, and hour expectations without consulting graduate students. With a union, graduate students could negotiate over the substance of many University policies, and secure them through having a contract. This contract would be legally enforceable.

A union is also a resource center for graduate students. Right now, there is very little done by the University to ensure that graduate students understand their rights as workers. This means that many graduate students don’t know what policies guide their working lives, from sick days and vacation days to programs like the childcare grant. Unions work to ensure that every worker knows what rights they have, and how to make sure that the contract is followed and their rights are protected, because a union is only as strong as its membership. If a graduate student feels like the University has treated them unfairly, the union will help (and is currently helping) grads to explore their options and navigate these processes.

What will a union prevent me from doing?

This is a question you might hear from the administration to make you think that you will have limited autonomy within a union. But a union contract is bargained by graduate students, with the administration. CGSU will never put limits on graduate students’ rights and conditions, because it works for grads. CGSU will make an effort to limit the University’s ability to change policies without grad students’ input and consent.

What is a “bargaining unit”, and am I in it?

The bargaining unit is the group of graduate students covered directly within the scope of contract negotiations. The bargaining unit was decided in an agreement between the University and CGSU in May, 2016, and includes all Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, and Graduate Assistant positions under University Policy 1.3. This does not include hourly workers, nor does it include students on Fellowships (although we fought the University hard on both of these issues).

Every graduate student in the bargaining unit will be able to vote in the upcoming recognition election, and will be covered under any contract that is negotiated between CGSU and the University. We know that graduate students will move in and out of the bargaining unit during their time at Cornell. However, regardless of your job title, if you have signed a union card, you are considered a member of the union, and can participate as much as you see fit.

What’s this election I’ve been hearing about?

Before a union can negotiate with administration and bargain a contract, it needs to be “recognized”. Cornell could have recognized CGSU on its own, but did not, instead calling for a “recognition election”. This is where graduate students in the bargaining unit get to vote YES or NO to being represented by CGSU as a union. If a majority vote YES, then the University has agreed to recognize CGSU as the union representing Cornell grads and begin bargaining a contract with us.

I’m an international student. Can I join CGSU? Are there any problems I will face because I am on a visa?

As an international student you are afforded all of the protections American citizens have when it comes to organizing and unionizing. Your visa will not be jeopardized by being a CGSU member. As a union member, you’ll also be part of an organization that will stand with you if you face any issues at the University.

Why did the union subpoena my information?

We have an agreement with the administration that’s designed to ensure a smooth process over the coming months, and as part of that agreement, the administration agreed to release contact info so that we can reach out and talk to everyone who might be affected. The administration asked for the subpoena before they would release that information.

To make this a truly democratic process, we need to be sure we give every one of our fellow co-workers the opportunity to inform this process and tell us how they would like to improve working conditions at Cornell. The University already has the ability to contact all grad students to dissuade us from unionizing, we have the legal right to be afforded the same opportunity.

What are union dues?

Union dues are money paid by members of the union for the purpose of maintaining a strong union. Collecting dues is one more way to ensure that graduate workers can have a strong union that can win a good contract and defend the rights of grad students. That’s what dues money is used for–winning and maintaining a good contract, and continuing to organize a strong union of grads that will have real power at Cornell and beyond.

The campaign for recognition at Cornell is funded by the dues of union members in New York and across the country. Once we win our contract and have a union local, dues will sustain our union’s activities and service our contract!

So, how much do union dues cost?

Right now, there are no dues, and no cost. Once we win recognition from the University, and negotiate a contract, CGSU members will decide how much dues will be. That’s a decision we make, democratically, as members, and that as a member, you could make too. Union dues do not usually exceed 2% of total compensation.

Do you have any specific numbers on dues?

Yes! Again, right now, there are no dues. However, below is a table detailing the current NYSUT/AFT dues for 2016-17, that more than 600,000 AFT/NYSUT members pay.


But I don’t want to pay any extra money!

We don’t want you to, either. A contract would never be bargained, much less approved by members, that didn’t ensure that we get more in compensation than go to dues. It would defeat a big part of what unions seek to do: to improve the material circumstances of its members.

I’m worried that my stipend will be cut to pay for others’ raises–will it?

Why would you vote to cut your own pay? We have people involved from a wide variety of fields such as Electrical Engineering, Physics, Biomedical Engineering, Anthropology and English. A democratic union like ours reflects the will of its membership, and no one is trying to pit some fields against others. This is about making improvements that benefit everyone and make it possible for us to do our best teaching and research work possible.

We already have GPSA (Graduate and Professional Student Assembly), so why would we need a union?

GPSA is an important part of Cornell’s shared governance system, and we’re not trying to replace that. But we think that concerns around our working conditions, benefits, and compensation are more appropriately addressed through a union, which has a stronger legal framework to negotiate and hold the administration accountable.

Additionally, there are many grads that seek support navigating Cornell’s grievance policies. Having a union assures that grads will have the representation they need to navigate this onerous process, while working to improve it and bargain a more just system of due process for grad workers at Cornell.

My field is unique and we don’t want a cookie cutter approach.

Our goal as union members isn’t to conform every department and field to one exact way of operating. Rather, we want to be able to set baseline standards and expectations–and departmental administrators and faculty can figure out the best ways to meet them! Plus, it’s important to note that some things–like parental leave, dental and vision insurance, grievance policies, and workers’ compensation–simply can’t be resolved at the department level.

We don’t think a cookie cutter approach would work either. That’s why it’s so important that we talk to everyone and have folks involved from every field. We’re building this union from the ground up, so this is an ideal time to get involved in shaping it.

We won’t be able to win anything anyway, right?

Through organizing efforts, grads have already won modest increases to the stipend, mandated that Cornell follow worker compensation laws, and improved and lowered health-care costs for grad spouses. This was all won through the modest pressure of student conversations about unionizing, imagine what we can win when Cornell is legally mandated to bargain with us over the conditions of our employment.

I don’t want to be adversarial or antagonistic. It seem like you guys are always trying to fight with administration?

We don’t want to be adversarial or fight with administration either. We want a dialogue with administration on an even playing field that assures they listen to our concerns about our working conditions.

Grads at public universities and NYU have long been unionized, and it has not interfered with their institution’s reputation or ability to put out top-level research. We don’t think it is subversive or antagonistic to ask for the same rights and protections here at Cornell. We hope that Cornell administrators will continue to enter into a respectful dialogue with us about unionization.