ITHACA, NY – Cornell bucked a trend among private universities on Wednesday by signing an agreement that would allow its roughly 2,300 graduate students to hold an election to form a collective bargaining union.

In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate students did not qualify as employees. That decision is expected to be overturned later this year, opening the door for grad students to unionize.

However, according to the Washington Post, most private universities including other Ivy League universities like Yale and Harvard, have argued strongly against unionization. They believe that teaching is part of the grad student education and that a union could interfere with the flexibility of curricula, since any changes could be subject to union negotiation.

Meanwhile, grad students say that they are not compensated enough for the work they provides as teaching associates and research assistants, especially as the costs of their tuition continue to rise.

Below is a press release from Cornell Graduate Students United announcing the agreement:

[su_note]ITHACA, NY – The labor union for graduate employees at Cornell University, Cornell Graduate Students United, announced today it has signed an agreement with the Cornell administration that sets out a clear path for a campuswide union campaign and election for about 2,300 graduate employees.

The pact could open the way to one of the few collective bargaining agreements for graduate employees at a private university.

The code of conduct, while not granting neutrality as requested by CGSU and its affiliates, New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, creates formal election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines and a dispute resolution mechanism to help guide the election process.

A joint Union-Management Committee, comprising representatives of both the university and CGSU, will be formed to answer inquiries from members of the Cornell community and address issues as they arise.

By clearing a path forward, the agreement sets out concrete steps to achieving a productive labor-management relationship as the graduate assistants move toward recognition as Cornell workers with a real say over the terms and conditions of their employment.

In a joint statement, CGSU and the Cornell administration agreed to a “fair and expeditious” union election, should the National Labor Relations Board decide, as expected, to officially classify graduate assistants as employees later this year.

CGSU member and negotiating team leader Michaela Brangan said: “Reaching this agreement was hard work but, I think, worth it. It will provide our members with needed clarity and protections, and has the added benefit of fostering a mutually respectful relationship between Cornell and CGSU in the months and years to come.”

NYSUT President Karen Magee, who is an AFT vice president, said: “This agreement is a significant step forward in recognizing the critical employment relationship between Cornell’s thousands of graduate employees and the Cornell administration.

“Without the valuable labor of its graduate employees, Cornell would struggle to fulfill its obligations to its students, the community and New York state. By setting out a clear and transparent election process, graduate employees are well on the way to being treated as higher education professionals with an active voice in their work lives.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten, a Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations alumna, said: “Cornell graduate workers have stood up to say ‘let our voice be heard’ and have expressed their interest in being part of the AFT Higher Education community. With this agreement in place, CGSU is now ready to move forward to chart a new path of labor relations with the Cornell administration.

“As a proud graduate of Cornell ILR, I know the huge benefits that positive employee-employer relationships can bring to the academic and broader community. This agreement marks the opportunity for Cornell grads to begin to have a say over the terms and conditions of their employment. I am confident CGSU and Cornell can work together to achieve mutual gains and that the agreement can serve as a guiding light for higher education institutions across the Ivy League and around the country.”[/su_note]

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.