ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) announced Wednesday that the group will be seeking to unionize Cornell University’s graduate students under the representation of the labor union United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

CGSU’s announcement was posted in the early morning hours on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, and was followed by a rally at Bailey Hall on Cornell’s campus. Hundreds of graduate students, or “graduate workers” as CGSU refers to them, attended the rally, bearing signs with messages like “any person, any study, one union!” playing on a founding principle of the university. 

Cornell had over 7,200 graduate students as of the fall 2022 semester, according to the university.

The decision to unionize comes almost seven years after CGSU was founded and, now, on the heels of graduate students unionizing in the last year and half at institutions like the University of Chicago, University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College, John Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“We’re really trying to ride this labor wave right now,” Connor Davis, an organizer with CGSU and a third year Ph.D. student in applied physics, said.

CGSU aims to collect authorization cards, which are being distributed online, with the signatures of a supermajority of graduate students at Cornell. In this scenario, Cornell will have two options as a result of a decision made by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in August: voluntary recognition of the union or filing to allow student workers to vote to demonstrate majority support under NLRB supervision. 

Joel Malina, Cornell’s vice president of university relations, was quoted in a statement sent to The Ithaca Voice saying, “[w]e want Cornell to be a place where students can do their best work, and where they feel that they’re being heard. We are confident that we will continue to address the diversity and variety of student concerns, and we respect the right of students to unionize if they choose to do so.”

Valentina Luketa, UE’s national coordinator for higher education, said the union was approached by organizers at the university. She said “graduate students at Cornell have been working for years for better working conditions.” 

Luketa said Cornell’s graduate students are “joining a national movement” with their work to unionize.

CGSU has outlined a platform of goals they aim to achieve if they successfully unionize and reach the bargaining table. Their objectives include securing bus passes for graduate workers at the university, enhancing support for parents and caregivers in Cornell’s graduate school, improving services for international students and aligning compensation with the cost of living in the Ithaca area.

The living wage in Tompkins County is $16.61 per hour, equating to an annual income of $34,548, according to the 2022 Tompkins County Living Wage Study by Alternatives Federal Credit Union. Alternatives states on its website that a living wage is meant to “support a person above the poverty level.”

Stipends for graduate students vary based on several factors, like program-specific teaching requirements and whether the student is in the sciences or humanities. Additionally, stipends differ between 9-month stipends for the academic year and summer stipends.

The minimum standard 9-month stipend for graduate students is between $32,494 and $40,294, according to Cornell’s Graduate School website.

Cornell graduate students and their supporters rally at the launch of a drive to unionize the university’s graduate students. Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Speakers at the rally included Ithaca Alderperson Robert Cantelmo, the Democratic nominee in this year’s race for mayor and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University in government. 

“Every one of you is entitled to a living wage, and benefits that allow you to survive and thrive in this community,” Cantelmo, who also works as the associate director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell, said during the rally.

“My problems might not be your problems, yours may not be mine, but together we can make sure we have one another’s backs and together we can succeed,” Cantelmo said.

Every graduate student “has a different story as to why they want a union,” Davis said. For him, improving the university’s work compensation procedure is a top priority. He described the process as difficult to navigate.

Davis said that he works with “one of the most powerful tabletop lasers in the country,” which he uses to investigate “ultra fast chemical reactions.”

Davis highlighted the serious risks of working with the high powered laser, like going blind or suffering burns on his hands. He said he thinks “Cornell’s worker compensation program is a bureaucratic nightmare.”

To Davis, the bargaining table represents the only viable avenue to reform the university’s worker compensation process. 

“Establishing robust worker compensation procedures would greatly enhance my confidence and productivity as a researcher, Davis said. “And I believe that unionization is the sole path to achieving this goal.”

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn