Cornell Graduate Students United: At what cost?

On Monday and Tuesday, we graduate students at Cornell will be voting on whether or not we want to unionise. Actually, scratch that, only graduate students who hold a TA, RA, or GRA appointment can unionise.

This is a shitty arrangement, and I will be voting against it.

For those of you who are not aware of how graduate school works at Cornell, you could be on one of many appointments.


A graduate student on a fellowship gets a stipend and tuition paid without associated teaching or research opportunities. Graduate students on a fellowship typically work towards their own theses, but will be excluded from the union

Graduate research assistantships

A GRA gives a graduate student stipend and tuition without teaching responsibilities. However, this money comes out of a specific project grant, and the students typically work on their own theses. Students on GRAs magically qualify to join the union, whereas there is virtually no difference between a GRA and a fellowship for the most part.

Research assistantships

An RA appointment provides stipend and tuition without teaching responsibilities, but with research responsibilities. Students on an RA appointment must work on projects that may not be their own theses. RAs qualify to form a union

Teaching assistantships

A TA appointment provides stipend and tuition with teaching responsibilities. TA appointments qualify to form a union.

This breakdown shows that the union organisation is already on tenuous ground, as students could move in and out of these various appointments on a semester-by-semester basis. Receiving and losing union protection every four months is like not receiving any protection at all. If the union truly believes that students are exploited by professors (which I must categorically state, I am not. I love my job, I love my lab, and I love my advisor), then they are leaving a gaping loophole wherein a professor could simply move a student out of one of the protected appointments to an unprotected appointment, then crap all over them.

But that’s not the primary reason I am opposed to the union. At every stage in campaigning for our votes, the union has been shifty and deceitful, sometimes resorting to outright lies that could be easily disproved. For instance, the union always brought up a case of a student in the department of chemical engineering who lost his appointment at a lab following an accident that allegedly left him unable to control his right hand for a couple of years. The union’s position was, well, if only there were a union to fight for workers’ compensation, that student would still be at Cornell. Here’s the lie – students on a GRA, RA, or TA are already protected by workers’ compensation. That particular student was on a fellowship, and this underscores my point about the shittiness of students receiving different protections for the same work based on an arbitrary status. In this student’s case, the union would have simply walked away with a ‘Not my problem’ statement.

Now, I am a fan of collective bargaining. I believe that we students may still get a lot done through collective bargaining, but the union in its current form is not the way to do so. For starters, the union will not cover all graduate students, and I abhor the idea of leaving some fellow students in virtually the same position as myself without the protections of collective bargaining simply based on a technicality. But this is ignoring the fact that Cornell has an organisation that could achieve collective bargaining for graduate students, the Graduate and Professional Students Assembly (GPSA), which has successfully managed to achieve many things in Cornell, such as negotiating our wages to be raised at 2% a year, above the current inflation rate of 1%. The last president, Elizabeth Garrett also increased graduate student salaries across the board, making RA and GRA salaries the same as TA salaries. Now, asking us to put $500–1000 towards union dues is stupid, considering that we make $30,000 a year before state and federal income taxes. What’s also crazy is that the union apparently will have a two-tiered structure, wherein we may be expected to pay more in order to have a vote (a voice) in the union. This is taxation without representation, and I will always vote against such an arrangement on a matter of principle.

Additionally, the union seems like a power grab by a bunch of sloppy students. The entire process was undemocratic to say the least, and seemed just like a page out of Catch-22. Sign the union authorisation card. Well, what am I signing up for? Come to our meetings and find out. Cool, how do I do that? You must sign the card to come to our meetings. The process was secret, with no voice from graduate students who may have been on the fence, and with further amendments to artificially inflate the voices of some students. Take, for instance, this amendment, which grants equal voice on the negotiating committee to students from the six jurisdictions, whereas the number of students in these jurisdictions are by no means the same.

Further, some of the provisions on the Cornell GSU constitution defy logic, and show that they were probably written by monkeys on typewriters. See, for instance, Section IV.A.A2, which states that any grievance against any member of the union will be shared across all members of the union. I do not see this as helpful. While transparency is good, it should be balanced with privacy. Publishing a list of grievances without verification of the claims is irresponsible, and promotes a lynch-mob mentality which will make the environment at Cornell a lot more hostile and toxic. I realise that I am not providing evidence to support this claim – the fact is that I am basing this off an existing incident which I do not wish to publicise, firstly, because I heard this account second-hand, and in order to protect the privacy of the persons that may have been involved.

Lastly, the process of getting rid of a dysfunctional union will be much, much harder than the process of voting one in. So, to my friends who say that they want to ‘try it out’, let me remind them that this is the equivalent of ‘trying out’ arson. You will probably get burned, and you’ll be leaving a whole future generation of graduate students with a mess that they’ll have to deal with for the entirety of their graduate student life.

To conclude, the union in its current form is a juvenile power grab without a stated objective, a mission, or a plan to achieve its objectives. Voting for the union is the equivalent of voting for Donald Trump, and I hope that my friends can now see how that’s working out for the USA. Do not, do not vote for the union. Vote against it, let them come up with something better instead of an empty promise for something better. We can always vote for a better union next year. But we cannot vote out a shitty union once it’s formed.

Skand Hurkat
Hardware Engineer


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