Cornell Grads’ Union Vote In Question, Re-Vote Possible

Categories Education, Ithaca, Labor

By Josh Brokaw

In the ideal representative democracy ready-made for academic schemata, an election campaign leads to a vote and then a decision. The people take some time to discuss the pluses and minuses of an action or a candidate, they register their rational choice in the ballot box, and a resolution is reached based on the votes.

Real-world democracy isn’t so simple. The Cornell administration and graduate student community is learning that the hard way this week.

Nearly three years of organizing by Cornell Graduate Students United [CGSU] culminated in a two-day vote on March 27 and 28. The vote was to decide whether graduate student-workers at the university should be represented by CGSU as an official affiliate and bargaining unit of the American Federation of Teachers and its subsidiary New York State United Teachers [AFT/NYSUT].

Support more Truthsaying reporting with a donation today.

The result of the unionization vote is inconclusive so far, with enough contested ballots to make the outcome in doubt. An email sent out to graduate students at 3:30 a.m. on March 29 by graduate school Dean Barbara Knuth announced that 919 voted against unionization, 856 voted for unionization, and 81 ballots were unresolved either because their eligibility was challenged by the union or university, or the intent on the ballot was unclear.

Read More: Cornell Grads Filing For Union Election

“It is anticipated that the review process and determination of final outcome will occur within the next month,” Knuth wrote. “The Arbitrator will notify both Cornell and union representatives when the challenged ballots have been resolved and a final outcome has been reached.”

The delayed results have been served with a sidecar of controversy: both CGSU and the Cornell administration have filed grievances with the American Arbitration Association, the election’s arbiter, alleging actions that violate the union/university conduct agreement signed in May 2016. According to that agreement, the arbitrator is authorized to handle charges of misconduct in this election, rather than the National Labor Relations Board.

The Cornell administration made its allegation in an email from Knuth and chief human resources officer Mary Opperman addressed to “Dear Eligible Voter Graduate Student.” The email was sent just before noon on Monday, March 27, after polls opened. The administration claimed it had “received a report that a number of CGSU/AFT/NYSUT representatives have told eligible voters who don’t support the union not to vote. The student making the report noted he felt threatened by the representatives.”

That email, entitled “Election conduct,” is one of three that has the AFT considering a challenge to the election results, according to a press release sent out by communications director Andrew Crook around 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30.

“The American Federation of Teachers questions the validity of the Cornell graduate union recognition election held this week, after the administration committed a glaring swathe of labor law violations in the days leading up to and during the vote,” the release begins.

“What was interesting about that was this email gets sent out to the entire university listserv, the two thousand plus people in the bargaining unit, without any substantiated information whatsoever,” Paul Berry, a CGSU member in the development sociology department, told this reporter on Tuesday afternoon. “We have certainly no reports of anything remotely consistent with anything resembling the allegations made in the statement.”

CGSU had already filed a grievance with the arbitrator about an “Ask a Dean” email sent out by Knuth on Sunday night. That email included speculation by Knuth that it “is possible that significantly increased costs” for stipends and health care negotiated in a union contract might lead to less grad students being admitted into Cornell programs. That line was later struck from an online version, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.

The “Ask a Dean” email feature started within the last year and has more than 40 archived and anonymized questions relating to unionization, with less than 20 questions answered on all other topics – including a few regarding pie. [Hamilton Nolan, of the blog network formerly known as Gawker, took an acerbic stab at the “Ask a Dean” feature in a March 27 post.]

The third administration email on which AFT might base a challenge to the election results was sent out at 6:45 p.m. on Monday, March 27. The lead item of a Graduate School Announcement email, it was reported that in 2017-18, the Cornell student health plan “will reduce the cost for care received outside the Ithaca area for graduate and professional students who see Aetna participating providers. The cost will be reduced from 20% to 10%.”

“Cornell notified the graduate student body that it would drastically cut healthcare costs during the 2017-18 school year—a major issue in the campaign because of Cornell’s refusal to act beforehand—to induce graduate students to vote against the union,” the AFT release reads.

“It’s very worrisome that we’re at a university where there just isn’t evidence behind these claims the university is making and if there is, I’d like to see it,” Berry told me on Tuesday. “It seems the bar they have to meet to send out these mass communications is very low. Their willingness to compromise on rules and the union-university code of conduct, they’re very willing to do anything that could possibly give them a small advantage in this election.”

Lindsey Hadlock, of Cornell media relations, referred me to Knuth’s email of March 29 as the university’s only statement of record, so far, when I requested comment on the CGSU and AFT complaints.

“We’ve been very careful to conduct ourselves well in this campaign,” Michaela Brangan, CGSU liaison to administration, told WRFI News on Thursday, March 30. “The accusation of voter intimidation was particularly hard, especially because there’s been zero evidence.”

Four graduate students complained of CGSU tactics, including home visits in this November Daily Sun article; the university has not yet shown proof that any of those tactics or the more recent allegations of intimidation violated the union/university election agreement. Under that agreement, the union filed a subpoena to receive the contact information of bargaining unit members from Cornell, a standard practice in American labor elections.

Members of CGSU will be consulting with AFT representatives over the next few days to determine if a challenge will be filed with the arbitrator to the vote as it currently stands. A range of possibilities is available to the arbitrator.

“What we’re hoping is that there is a result that we believe is a fair and accurate result,” Brangan told WRFI on March 30. “Obviously the biggest thing that could potentially happen in this case is the arbitrator imposes a union if he finds the interference to be egregious. Or he could throw out the results, or let the election stand. If we have another election, it wouldn’t be for another year.”

[Update: Brangan clarified on March 31 that if the arbitrator does throw out the results, another election could be held immediately. If the results stand as they are after the challenged ballots are resolved, any future attempt at an election, if any, would not take place for another year, she said.]

Are you a graduate worker at Cornell? Did you vote? Why or why not? Did you change your mind from pro-union to anti-union, or vice versa?

Explain your reasoning – drop your answer in the comments here or email josh.brokaw at

And if you’ve got a story to tell about all these allegations we just reported on, you can let us know about that, too. Pretty please. Same goes for any other good Cornell stories you’ve got  to tell.

Scroll down below the inevitable independent-media-begging-for-cash boilerplate to see text of the three emails to which the union takes exception.

Consider clicking on this sentence and donating some cash money to my reporting via PayPal. Follow TruthSayers on Facebook and/or Twitter for more stories.


The ‘Ask a Dean’ in which reductions in grad positions was speculated

From: Graduate School News <>
Date: March 26, 2017 at 8:40:55 PM EDT
Subject: Ask A Dean Fifth Edition – Union-related Questions

Dear Deans,

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
Dear Cost-conscious Graduate Student,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question.

I agree with your concern that it is important to consider in advance the possible sources of funds that could be used to cover costs of additional benefits that CGSU/AFT/NYSUT would seek to negotiate in the collective bargaining process.  Different costs are typically linked to different sources of funds, so making predictions is challenging.

For example, the combined cost of a student’s research assistantship stipend, tuition, and health insurance is, in most cases at Cornell, paid for by a faculty member’s externally-funded grant (e.g., from NSF, NIH, DOE, USDA, USEPA, etc.).  The combined cost of a student’s teaching assistantship (stipend, insurance, tuition) is, in most cases at Cornell, paid for through academic department or college funds.

All of these funds (external grants, and department and college budgets) are limited.  It is possible that significantly increased costs for these items could lead to reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell, but faculty, departments, and colleges would need to make those decisions.

Those overseeing grant and academic budgets would need to decide what tradeoffs would be made to cover increased costs for stipend and health insurance.  Cornell has held research degree tuition constant (no increases) for about a decade, in part to moderate increased budget demands on faculty grants (and only ½ of research degree tuition is included in the grant budget; Cornell covers the other half).

What might this look like in dollars, for stipends?  The base stipend rate for an academic-year assistantship at Cornell is $25,780/year (not including increases provided routinely in some disciplines, and not including summer stipend which is also provided routinely across the university).  CGSU/AFT/NYSUT have advertised their dues for the AFT/NYSUT component (not including CGSU dues) for that annual stipend amount as $397.68/year.  There are about 2,230 eligible voters in the bargaining unit.  Just to cover dues, this minimum converts into $887K, just to stay even, based on the current dues rate; a real stipend increase would of course have higher costs.

What might it look like for health insurance?  That’s a complicated question.  Health insurance costs are based on a combination of factors, including the costs of care, level of coverage, and the number and composition of people that makes up the pool to be insured.  Typically, the larger the pool of participants, the lower the costs (and the younger and healthier the pool, the lower the costs).  Currently, Cornell pays for and provides the Student Health Plan, a platinum-level health plan, for all graduate students on assistantships.  The participant pool for the Student Health Plan includes all Ithaca and Geneva students – undergraduates, graduate, and professional.

What might happen to costs if graduate students on assistantships were pulled out of this pool to be part of a stand-alone health insurance pool?  The graduate assistant participant pool would be much smaller – roughly one-tenth the size of the existing pool.  Might that cause health insurance costs to rise, even without additional enhancements to insurance coverage?  It’s not possible to predict in advance what these costs might be, without more details about who would be included in the participant pool and for what types of insurance coverage.  But, again, the fund sources would be faculty grants (for research assistantships) and department/college budgets (for teaching assistantships).

What about funds to support special populations?  Currently, Cornell allocates $250,000/year to provide childcare grants to students with children.  That’s an annual allocation that comes directly from the central university budget, which in turn receives its funds largely from an allocated cost charge to each of the colleges (colleges at Cornell are the primary revenue generators of tuition, grants, gifts, etc., and central university functions are funded through an annual cost charge to each of the colleges based on various metrics like the number of students, faculty, and staff).

Increases for special population funds would need to be covered by the central budget, which ultimately means increased cost for colleges, so, again, colleges would need to carefully consider the tradeoffs and determine what to fund less to be able to fund these initiatives more, or the central budget would need to reduce spending in other areas to provide increases of this type.

This is a high-level window into some of the very detailed issues we consider every time we discuss, analyze, and implement additional benefits for graduate students and graduate education at Cornell.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth, Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School

Regarding allegations of union intimidation

From: Mary Opperman, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, and Barbara A. Knuth, Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School <>
Date: Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 11:54 AM
Subject: Election conduct

Dear Eligible Voter Graduate Student:

We received a report that a number of CGSU/AFT/NYSUT representatives have told eligible voters who don’t support the union not to vote.  The student making the report noted he felt threatened by the representatives.

We are currently investigating this matter and will bring this report to the attention of the Arbitrator selected by Cornell and CGSU/AFT/NYSUT to  ensure this election is conducted fairly.

It is important that each eligible voter vote.   The voice of every eligible voter should be heard.

This election will be decided by a majority of those students who vote.

If you have experienced any type of conduct that suggests or encourages you not to vote, please report it immediately to Laurie Johnston,, Cornell’s labor relations director.

This is a secret ballot; please do not let the actions of others prevent you from exercising your right to vote.

Mary Opperman, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer

Barbara Knuth, Senior Vice Provost and Dean

Regarding health care costs

From: Graduate School News <>
Date: Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 6:45 PM
Subject: Announcements – March 27, 2017

Update on Student Health Insurance
In conversations at Friday’s Board of Trustees meeting, Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth affirmed the recent guidance from the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services that enables Cornell to continue offering our platinum level health plan, the Student Health Plan (SHP), to graduate and professional students. In addition, Cornell has enhanced the benefit for students traveling outside the Ithaca area.
Starting in 2017-2018, Cornell SHP will reduce the cost for care received outside the Ithaca area for graduate and professional students who see Aetna participating providers. The cost will be reduced from 20% to 10%.  This enhancement is a direct response to concerns about how to improve access to care for students who are studying or performing research away from campus.
The platinum level Student Health Plan was designed with substantial input from undergraduate and graduate students who serve on the Student Health Benefits Advisory Committee and offers the highest level of coverage available through the Affordable Care Act, which continues to be federal law after an alternative health care bill was removed on Friday from further consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Highlights of Cornell’s SHP:
  • Provides coverage 24 hours a day, anywhere in the world
  • Covers pre-existing health conditions
  • Meets or exceeds all F-1 and J-1 visa requirements
  • Includes world-wide travel assistance and emergency air transportation services
  • Guards against catastrophic expenses
  • Offers optional dental and vision plans
  • Continues coverage when students take a leave of absence
  • Exceeds the requirements of the U.S. Affordable Care Act
  • Meets or exceeds all Federal, State, and American College Health Association standards for health insurance [view SHP vs NY Exchange price and coverage comparison (pdf)]
  • For students in Ithaca, provides coordination of services by Cornell Health and a preferred provider network that includes the local hospital
  • Provides convenient assistance with enrollment and claims submission through the Office of Student Health Benefits
Students who are interested in providing future input are encouraged to contact the Student Health Benefits Advisory Committee (SHBAC), which is charged with reviewing and advising on the Student Health Plan and Student Health Fee, and facilitating communication between the University and students served by Cornell’s health plan and health fee.  The SHBAC conducts an annual review of the Plan and evaluates the options, coverage, and costs.


Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

Email with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.

Twitter: @jdbrokaw