Graduate Student FAQ

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process, recognized and protected by federal law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. Under collective bargaining, we elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with Cornell and put the terms of our employment into a legally binding contract. Through collective bargaining, graduate employee unions have successfully negotiated improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.

Without collective bargaining, Cornell has unilateral power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements. For example, Cornell currently decides unilaterally whether or not to make sure we get paid on time or whether our stipends keep up with the cost of living increase in Ithaca.

Why are we forming a union?

As TAs, RAs, GRAs, and GAs, we do a large amount of the teaching, grading, grant-winning research, and administrative work at Cornell, often under precarious conditions regarding compensation and benefits. Through collective bargaining, we can ensure livable wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations, and consistent and transparent employment policies that will enhance our conditions and our work – and ultimately, enhance Cornell.

How does bargaining work?

How can we benefit from collective bargaining? What have grad students at other universities negotiated?

The collective bargaining process allows us to decide democratically what issues to prioritize in these negotiations.  As such, what grad students have won through collective bargaining at other universities varies, but in general, gains have been made in minimum stipends, health benefits, workload protections, and family benefits.  For example, Oregon State's wins since their first contract in 2001 are detailed below.

Since NYU's first contract in 2002, they have won

  • 38% increase in minimum stipends (which also led Columbia to increase stipends at the time), and a 15% increase for the small number already making more than the minimum,
  • elimination of health insurance premium sharing (a savings of $1000 annually),
  • guaranteed tuition/fee waivers for all graduate employees covered by the contract,
  • a fair grievance procedure,
  • protection against having RA/TA appointments withdrawn at the last minute,
  • workload protections,
  • increased child care subsidies,
  • $100 per day for required pre-semester training or orientation,
  • guaranteed annual minimum increases on total compensation, which protects and insures increases in stipends and other pay. During the current academic year, funded PhD TAs who teach both semesters will receive at least $37,783,
  • implementation of a family healthcare fund to provide up to 75% of premium subsidies,
  • implementation of a childcare fund, which provided a benefit to bargaining unit members of $2,140 per child in the first year of the contract, and
  • an improved dental benefit amounting to a savings of $240 per year to each graduate employee covered by the contract.

Examples of the types of benefits won by graduate student unions at other universities are listed below. Follow the links to find more detailed information, including online versions of ratified contracts.

Temple (2014-2018)

  • Extended health care coverage (year-round instead of just 9 months.
  • 3% cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) over the life of the contract

Oregon (2014-2016)

  • “Graduate Student Assistance Fund” established to provide funds to students facing financial hardship
  • SEVIS fee reimbursement for international students
  • Paid graduate student position for working on issues related to grad students with children

Florida (2014-2017)

  • Formal disciplinary procedure to protect graduate workers from unfair termination
  • More robust grievance procedure
  • One-time $40 fee rebate

NYU (2014-2020)

  • 2 weeks paid vacation time for PhD students who work 26 consecutive weeks, 1 week paid vacation time for all other grad students who work 26 consecutive weeks
  • Paid sick leave for spouse’s or child’s illness, religious observance or for bereavement due to the death of a parent, child, spouse, domestic partner, sibling or grandparent
  • Child care subsidies provided by the University and distributed by the Union ($60,000 in 2016; $70,000 in 2017; $80,000 in 2018; $90,000 in 2019; $100,000 in 2020 “and thereafter”)

Oregon State (2016-2019)

  • Up to $360 of visa costs for international graduate employees reimbursed over the course of graduate career
  • Minimum full time equivalency (FTE) of instructors of record increased from 0.2 to 0.3, resulting in an increase to wages of lowest earning graduate employees

UConn (2015-2018)

  • Promotional stipend increases upon achieving Masters Status and PhD candidacy
  • Student parking permits at 50% of the commuter rate
  • Guaranteed maternity and paternity leave
  • Job security provisions

Michigan (2015-2019)

  • Job security provisions (no arbitrary termination)
  • Flexible training requirements (teaching of subject matter, course goals, grading criteria and practices, etc.)
  • Adoption or parental leave (one week paid)
  • Minimum stipend increases (10% in 2015; 5% in 2017)
  • Guaranteed tuition waiver during period of employment and exemption from out-of-state tuition
  • University contributes a total of $2,500 toward the cost of covering a spouse, other eligible individual (OEI), or child, or a total of $2,200 toward the cost of covering a spouse or OEI and dependent(s), or multiple dependents, up to a maximum of 70% of the total premium cost
  • Employees covered in any consecutive Fall and Spring Semester shall be covered as employees for the remainder of the full enrollment year

UC System (2014-2018)

  • Childcare:  up to $900 per quarter or $1,350 per semester for expenses incurred ($900 for the Summer Session)
  • Eligibility for retirement plan coverage
  • Early posting of appointment opportunities

How does the recognition election work?

Voting to recognize CGSU as an official union will take place this semester. Graduate students who are eligible to vote are TAs, RAs, GRA, and GAs. Students on external fellowships or who pay their own tuition will not be eligible to vote in the recognition election. Voting will be in-person. Of the graduate students who vote, if a majority vote “yes” for a union, then CGSU will become official!

I'm an international student—can I join CGSU?

As an international student you are afforded all of the protections American citizens have when it comes to organizing and unionizing. International graduate student workers have played a central role in organizing and running unions at more than 60 university campuses across the US. Your visa will not be jeopardized by being a CGSU member. As a union member, you’ll also be part of an organization that will stand with you if you face any issues at the University. As a result of the recent executive order passed by the Trump administration affecting international students, AFT has compiled a list of resources. We’d like to hear from you if you or someone you know has been affected.

Where will the money come from to pay for the things we negotiate?

According to Cornell’s 990 tax form, Cornell makes an average of $4.3 billion per year, on top of their $6 billion endowment. The salaries of the three administrators at the top are around a million dollars a year, and they give themselves 20% increases each year (President ~$1.5 million, CIO ~$1 million, CFO ~$650k.) Out of every grant procured on behalf of a department, on average 55% goes towards “overhead fees” while only the remaining 45% goes back to the department. Meanwhile, graduate students make an average of $30k per year, while they’re the ones helping to teach the classes, grade the papers, do the research, and contribute to Cornell’s core mission. Dividing $30k by $4.3 billion, each individual grad students makes 0.001% of Cornell’s annual revenue. There’s a lot of wiggle room for negotiating better wages, healthcare, and benefits for graduate students!  

What are dues? How much will they cost me?

Union dues are money paid by individual graduate students for the purpose of creating better working conditions. It’s important to keep in mind that benefits such as stipend increases, better access to healthcare such as dental and vision, and other benefits will likely outweigh the cost of dues, and that no one pays dues until there is a ratified contract in place that a majority of graduate students have voted to approve. No graduate student will approve a contract in which they lose money, and all graduate unions heretofore have bargained a contract in which stipend increases at least compensate for the cost of dues. There are only things to be gained from a contract!  Dues paid to the union are split between the local and AFT, who supplies us with lawyers and other support staff it would be difficult to arrange ourselves. The cost of local dues is entirely up to us and won't be fixed until we bargain a contract, but other grad unions typically set local dues such that total dues payments are 1-2% of annual stipends. The estimated cost of dues to our national and regional affiliates are in the table below.

Won't dues negate any raises won in a contract?

No. It's often said that if CGSU negotiates a 4% raise but takes 2% in dues, this will be equivalent to the roughly 2% raises Cornell gives us without a contract. This reasoning betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of geometric accumulation. In fact, even 3% raises with 2% dues quickly results in better net wages than 2% raises alone. With dues and regular yearly raises, net wages rise according to the following function:


This equation gives the net wage \(\color{blue}{w}\) as a function of year \(\color{red}{y}\) with starting wage \(\color{purple}{w_0}\) and starting year \(\color{orange}{y_0}\). The proportion of wages taken for dues \(\color{green}{d}\) removes a constant factor from the net wage, but the proportion yearly raise \(\color{magenta}{r}\) is applied geometrically. The result is that 4% raises with 2% taken for dues (\(\color{magenta}{r}=0.04\) and \(\color{green}{d}=0.02\)) results in much higher wages than 2% raises in only a few years. Net wages as a result of several scenarios (assuming a contract that starts in 2018) are plotted in the figure below.


What is AFT?

The American Federation of Teachers is a national union that CGSU has chosen to affiliate with, due to the amount of autonomy AFT provides to its locals. A portion of dues go towards AFT while a portion of dues go towards the local (CGSU) to pay for meeting space, events, food and beverage, and other expenses. The resources AFT provides are

  • staff to help with the unionization effort providing knowledge, expertise, and resources to grad students,

  • lawyers during the contract negotiation process (contracts are also renegotiated every few years), and

  • lobbying on behalf of higher education to protect grants and fellowships that graduate students receive.

Why AFT?

CGSU decided to affiliate with AFT at a point when it was recognized that we need outside help to reach out to graduate students on campus. If we win recognition elections, we will become an AFT local. We decided to affiliate because It is extremely difficult to have a large sustained organizing effort on a volunteer basis. So the strategic decision to affiliate with a larger federation was proposed to the membership, and was democratically approved.

The decision to choose AFT rather than other unions was based on several reasons. AFT was the only union that guaranteed CGSU an independent local charter. This was important for us to have a union with genuine, functioning democracy. The only members of our local will be graduate students who are CGSU members. They also allowed us freedom in deciding who our membership was going to be. CGSU has decided to include fellows as part of our union even if they are not part of an eventual bargaining unit. Finally, our eventual affiliation agreement gave us access to our communication channels, our membership database and, perhaps most importantly, gives CGSU control over the collective bargaining process. We get to decide the structure and function of the
committee which will bargain with Cornell. Professional and material resources like a labour relations specialist, staff attorneys, strike funds will be available to us on request.

How can CGSU and GPSA coordinate?

GPSA is an important part of Cornell’s shared governance system, and we’re not trying to replace that. But through a union, concerns around graduate students’ working conditions, benefits, and compensation have stronger legal frameworks to negotiate and hold the administration accountable. The graduate student body will have a stronger voice at Cornell with CGSU and GPSA working in coordination. GPSA represents academic life while CGSU represents graduate students as workers. The two work hand in hand,  and having one does not make the other obsolete.  

How would a strike work?

Strikes are generally a last resort after many other tactics have been exhausted, and the Union can only call for a strike after a democratic vote in which a majority of all grad students at Cornell vote to authorize a strike. Strikes are more effective when there is large participation, but it is an individual choice to participates—no one will be forced to strike!


Faculty FAQ

Why are there limits on faculty speech about grad unionization?

As Cornell grads organize, they are afforded the same rights as any other worker under the National Labor Relations Act, and under the CGSU-Cornell agreement to choose a union freely, without interrogation, coercion, intimidation, or threats by management.

I don’t feel like I’m a manager of graduate students. Why am I being treated like one?

Many of us don’t feel like we are the direct employees of our advisors, either! And recent data shows that there are positive effects on the relationship between grads and their advisors when grads decide to form a union. But there are a few reasons why this stance applies. There is legal precedent, which we can’t help. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that faculty are “management” in the case National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University. Further, many faculty-student relationships at Cornell look like employer-employee relationships, at least in part, as they would in other fields or industries. And even employment in which your boss doesn’t feel like your boss, but more like your friend and mentor, is tricky in regard to coercion.

Now I’m worried that if I say the word “union” everyone will jump down my throat!

Faculty can talk about CGSU and grad unionization amongst themselves and with staff without limitation. We would never ask that you censor yourself in this way. If you have questions about our efforts, or proper protocol for discussing unionization with graduate students, please contact us and we’d be happy to answer.

If you do find yourself discussing unionization with a graduate student, we simply ask that you consider what it might feel like for the grad and with that in mind, choose your language carefully. Coercion can take on subtle forms, and we ask that you are sensitive to the ways in which your comments and personal opinions may be interpreted, keeping in mind that the choice to join a union belongs to grad students, and them alone. Prefacing a statement you make with the fact that it’s a personal opinion is not, in CGSU’s view, sufficient to obviate the Agreement and the rights it is intended to protect.

What would a union mean for us?

As mentioned above, data shows that it likely will have good effects, as far as advisor-advisee relationships go and how grads perceive you in your dual role as mentors and supervisors. The same study also suggests that academic freedom, research, and campus atmosphere is left undisturbed by grad unions. Indeed, the recent NLRB decision on grad unions pointed out that “genuine academic freedom” – that which theoretically has nothing to do with the world of work for pay – would be less likely to be corrupted if the line between academe and employment policy were made clear.

We hope that faculty would not unduly jump to conclusions about what it might mean for their own positions for grads to have more of a say in the policies that affect their working lives at Cornell.