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labor Cornell Graduate Students United Wins Unionization Election

Cornell graduate students have won their unionization election by a vote of 1,873 to 80, and will federate as Cornell Graduate Students United — an organization fighting for the rights of graduate workers — under the national United Electrical, Radio

Cornell graduate students have won their unionization election by a vote of 1,873 to 80, and will federate as Cornell Graduate Students United — an organization fighting for the rights of graduate workers — under the national United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union. 128 ballots were challenged, but not counted because they would not have determined the outcome of the election. 

Voting occurred on the Ithaca campus between Nov. 6 and Nov. 8, as well as on Nov. 6 at the Geneva campus and at New York City’s Cornell Tech campus. Of the 3,175 eligible voters, 1,953 voted in the election.

The current unionization effort which started in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, kicked off on Sept. 6 with a card drive. Issues that graduate students have claimed to face include issues with funding guarantees, healthcare coverage and worker protections, according to the CGSU website.  

Over the course of the month, over 2,500 graduate workers signed unionization cards, which CGSU claimed was a supermajority of graduate workers at Cornell. Prior to the election, over 1,600 eligible voters pledged to vote yes in support of the unionization election. 

This overwhelming yes vote follows CGSU’s previous attempt to unionize in 2017 under affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers, which failed 941 to 867.

Cornell was found to have violated federal labor laws in 2018, resulting from an email from former Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth 24 hours before the March 2017 unionization election began. The email could have been seen as a threat to students voting for unionization, according to the arbitrator’s award document. 

Prior to the election, President Pollack, in an address to the Student Assembly on Sept. 28, addressed the issue of graduate unionization. 

“[Unionization] is a choice for every individual. We do encourage everyone to consider the question of unionization thoughtfully and carefully and [to] ask questions,” Pollack said. “The University is committed to engaging in a process that is respectful of the rights of all involved and is consistent with the requirements of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Christine Lovely, vice president and chief human resources officer, and Kathryn Boor, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate education, on Nov. 2, sent out a statement to Cornell students that while the administration respects the role of labor unions, they cannot take a stance on the issue. 

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“The University is not taking a formal position during this process and believes that all graduate students should decide for themselves as to whether they wish to be represented by the union,” the statement read. “Regardless of whether or not graduate students join a union, Cornell remains deeply committed to supporting students in their academic pursuits and assistantship roles.”

CGSU celebrated its victory in a series of posts on the social media site X — formerly known as Twitter — expressing its gratitude towards its members and saying they “looked forward” to negotiating with the University.

“This victory belongs to all of us: the thousands of workers who cast their votes, the hundreds of organizers throughout the University who organized a lightning-fast campaign,” the union said. “Most of all, we owe this victory to the enduring relationships we have built over the last few years in every department through one-on-one conversations, office visits and over social media.”

Joel Malina, vice president for university relations said in an email to The Sun that the University’s priority is ensuring graduate students are able to speak their minds and that Cornell “looked forward” to forthcoming negotiations with the union.

“Throughout this process, our priority was ensuring that graduate assistants had a voice through voting. Cornell has long-standing relationships with several other bargaining units on campus, and we now welcome the opportunity to build a relationship with UE,” Malina said in the statement. “We look forward to negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that reflects Cornell’s values and addresses the needs of our students.”

Parties have five business days from Nov. 9 — not including Friday, Nov. 11, which is a bank holiday — to file objections to the election. If there are none, the results will be certified. Cornell must additionally begin bargaining in good faith with CGSU. 

Representatives from CGSU and UE did not respond to multiple immediate requests for comment.