Cornell, AFT Reach Deal on Grad Assistant Organizing

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By Michael Rose

June 1 — Cornell University and an American Federation of Teachers affiliate have reached an agreement setting out procedures for a representation election in which some 2,300 graduate research and teaching assistants could choose union representation, the AFT announced June 1.

The agreement comes as the National Labor Relations Board is slated to determine soon whether to reverse current precedent on graduate assistant organizing.

If assistants at Cornell were to unionize, they would be only the second group of graduate employees to do so at a private U.S. university. Graduate assistants at New York University voted for United Auto Workers representation in 2013 (240 DLR AA-1, 12/12/13).

The Cornell-AFT agreement sets out conditions for an election to be held if the NLRB finds in the UAW's favor in either of two pending cases at Columbia University and the New School (44 DLR C-1, 3/7/16; 35 DLR C-1, 2/23/16).

NLRB Precedent Could Change

Under current law, graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities are primarily considered students rather than employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and aren't able to unionize. In the Columbia and New School cases, the NLRB is considering whether to reverse that standard. A decision is expected in the coming months.

Other private universities have actively opposed graduate assistants' efforts to unionize. For example, a Harvard University spokeswoman recently told Bloomberg BNA that the university believes “that the relationship between graduate students and a university is fundamentally about education, not employment, and changing that relationship could be damaging and disruptive to graduate education and the graduate student experience” (83 DLR A-8, 4/29/16).

Among other things, the agreement between Cornell and AFT affiliate Cornell Graduate Students United specifies that if the NLRB decides that graduate assistants are able to organize under the NLRA, the CGSU will be required to show that 30 percent of employees in the proposed bargaining unit have signed authorization cards.

Election Would Be Overseen by AAA

Such a showing by the union would trigger a representation election overseen by the American Arbitration Association, the agreement specifies.

The agreement also provides for the creation of a joint union-management committee, to “answer inquiries from members of the Cornell community and address issues as they arise,” the union 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,” Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers and an AFT vice president, said in a statement. “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.”

In an e-mail to the university community signed by Cornell officials and a union representative, Cornell and the union said they are “committed to ensuring that graduate assistants are able to make their own decisions about whether to join the union or not in a free and open environment, one that ensures dignity and respect for all parties involved.”

“We believe this agreement provides a fair and expeditious process to determine whether a majority of graduate assistants wishes to unionize and select CGSU as its collective bargaining representative should federal labor law change,” the e-mail said.

Mary Opperman, Cornell vice president and chief human resources officer, said the university sought to provide graduate assistants “with an open environment to make that decision that ensures dignity and respect for all parties involved.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Rose in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at

For More Information

Text of the agreement between Cornell and the AFT is at A summary of the agreement is at The e-mail sent to students is at