What do Cornell Graduate Workers Want?

Below are some of the union's principle concerns. Our issues are ever-evolving, changing as we learn more about what you, the worker, find most important.  Help us narrow our focus: report grievances from your own working experience!


The minimum stipend for a Fall and Spring assistantship at Cornell is $25,152 for the 2016-2017 school year. For some Cornell grad students, that stipend is enough. For some Cornell grads, like those starting families or with large student debt payments, it’s not enough. A union contract can bring predictable increases to stipends, including increases to account for the increased costs of living in Ithaca. A contract can also bring more funding security, making summer funding and sixth or seventh year funding just a little bit more predictable.

Right now, there is very little transparency around stipend rates paid by various departments. This is especially true of summer funding, where TA’s from the same department are sometimes paid differently for the same teaching assignments. Cornell has a history of changing stipend rates with minimal input from grads. A union contract would ensure any changes to stipends would have to be negotiated, first.

Stipend Rate change of 2014

As recently as 2014, the administration put in motion a plan to reduce the minimum RA stipend rate. According to an internal policy document, this change was imposed on the basis that

Many of the Life Science fields report that their competitors for graduate students are within the flagship state schools which generally have relatively lower assistantship stipend rates than does Cornell [...] spurring questions about appropriate rates for RA stipends.

The report noted that RA stipend rates at state flagship schools range between $13,333 and $18,234 for a 2012-13 academic-year assistantship. The policy implemented in the 2014-2015 academic year allowed departments in the Life Sciences and elsewhere to freeze cost-of-living increases until Cornell’s minimum RA stipend tracked those at state schools deemed competitors. The entire text of the internal policy document detailing this change is available here, or newspaper coverage is available here. Notably the policy document does not make any reference to concerns about the financial well-being of affected graduate workers.

Currently, nothing prevents the administration from unilaterally changing or reducing stipend rates again, as indeed they did in 2014. (This policy was voluntarily abandoned by President Elizabeth Garrett in the 2015-2016 academic year, after it had already been implemented without grad approval). Negotiating a union contract is the only way to protect ourselves from future unilateral and unfair stipend decreases such as this one, and the only way ensure that stipend rates for future grad workers continue to accurately track the cost of living in Ithaca.

Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ Compensation is a form of insurance which fulfills one of the most basic rights of any employee—to be compensated with wages and medical care in the event of a workplace injury. This coverage has been mandatory for virtually every type of employee in any industry in the United States since 1948. And yet before 2014 Cornell did not have any formal, codified policy for addressing graduate student injuries.

In the 2013-2014 academic year a serious injury to a Cornell graduate worker in Chemical Engineering prompted leaders in the GPSA to inquire into Cornell’s policy on providing Workers’ Compensation. At the time, in response to this inquiry and subsequent GPSA resolution, the administration argued that “graduate students are excluded from Workers’ Compensation coverage.” Dean Knuth subsequently told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “We do not believe a predetermined, highly prescriptive approach is the best, most-supportive way to handle graduate-student injuries in an academic environment.” The lack of policy also allowed the administration the right to deny claims or suspend benefits arbitrarily.

Currently, the policy allows grads to claim Workers’ Compensation in a narrow range of circumstances; however, it is important to note that Cornell directly opposed Workers’ Compensation for grads before 2015. The injury in 2014 and subsequent controversy generated national media attention and an external inquiry into Cornell’s policy from the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board. Given the administration’s clear opposition to providing this coverage, it is unlikely the policy would have changed as a result of the GPSA process alone.

Notably, several founding members of Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) cite the events surround the Workers’ Compensation controversy of 2014 as the primary catalyst forming our graduate union. The authors of the 2014 GPSA resolution concerning Workers’ Compensation all subsequently became members of the union.

Negotiating a union contract will allow us to ensure that this basic coverage remains in place for current and future graduate workers. Currently, New York State mandates compensation at a minimum two-thirds of average weekly salary and payment of medical costs. The union could negotiate for higher levels of compensation and a more comprehensive system of benefits. For instance, Cornell currently provides a comprehensive system of medical leaves benefits to all employees except for graduate workers (including: musculoskeletal injury prevention, disability accommodations, and disability insurance). These are examples of benefits that grad workers do not have which could be negotiated into a union contract.

Unfortunately—in addition—Cornell’s current policy on Workers’ Compensation does not apply to Grad Workers at all times. In reference to the current policy several situations exist where we may not be covered:

  • grads funded on fellowship are almost certainly not covered under the policy since they are not employed on a paid assistantship appointment or hourly paid appointment, and

  • grads officially employed as a TA but required to work in a hazardous research environment not directly related to their assistantship.

CGSU can fix this by negotiating a system of benefits where all Grad Workers are covered at all times.

CGSU maintains that grads funded on fellowship are workers too—in large part due to the Intellectual Property agreements we are required to sign. CGSU negotiated hard with Cornell management to include fellows in our bargaining unit in 2015; however, Cornell management would not budge on this issue. CGSU remains committed to providing fair and safe working conditions to grads employed on fellowship. We hope to expand the bargaining unit to include fellows in the future.

Dental & Vision Insurance

Almost four years ago, in May of 2013, the GPSA passed Resolution 19, Regarding Student Health Insurance Optional Dental Plan. The resolution included a spreadsheet comparing the actual cost of dental services in the Ithaca area with the coverage available under the insurance plan. Based on a review of available data for Zip code 14850, the GPSA review of our dental plan concluded

Having dental insurance provides only a marginal advantage, compared to not having insurance... The coverage available provides very little insulation from the large financial risk associated with major dental care expenses.
— “Comparison of Dental Costs and Coverage,” Cornell GPSA, May 2013

In other words, based on the data, it was unclear whether the dental plan offered to graduate workers had any value whatsoever. The plan also did not include any coverage—even as a percentage—of any major dental services, such as: root canals, wisdom tooth extraction, bridges, or crowns. Costs of these procedures can range into the thousands of dollars. The resolution also pointed out that the “dental plan offered to Cornell Staff & Faculty in the Endowed Colleges has both a lower premium and a higher maximum benefit, including some coverage for major dental work.”

Since 2013, reforms to the dental insurance program have been marginal. In 2016-2017, wisdom tooth extraction may be covered at 50% of the cost of the procedure. However, the maximum benefit allowed under the plan is only $750 which is far below the cost of wisdom tooth extractions and anesthesia. The SHIP Dental plan also requires an additional premium of $278 in order to participate. The program continues to provide far less coverage than all Cornell staff dental plans, carries a high premium & low maximum benefits, and lacks common-sense incentives such as the ability to roll over unused benefits from year to year (available on all Cornell staff programs).   

Grad workers who spend 5-7 years in a PhD program are thus at a significant risk of either financial difficulties in paying for dental care, or are forced to choose between quality dental care and financial security. Cornell grads have brought up the issue through the GPSA since 2013, and yet little progress has been made. Negotiating a union contract will allow us to use our collective leverage to bargain for a fair system of dental coverage for Cornell grad workers. 

Students seeking quality vision care face similar problems. The annual premium for the current plan is $142, which is about the same price you could expect to pay if you were to go out and look for a plan on your own. With the bargaining power and economy of scale that Cornell has, we should expect that plans offered to grads either be free or significantly below market rate.

Grievance Procedure

The grievance process is similar to most policies directly affecting graduate workers in that its procedures do not provide any clear protections for us in the event that our interests conflict with those of the Cornell administration. The most egregious feature of this system is that—in spite of recent reforms—the provost still retains authority to unilaterally overrule the decision of the grievance board.      

If you feel like your rights as a worker have not been respected by the university, you deserve to have your voice heard and your concerns addressed through a fair and just grievance process. A legally recognized Cornell graduate students union would be able to bargain for a contract that includes grievance procedure that involves review from a third party. A third party grievance board would help ensure a more just review process that isn’t susceptible to the unilateral power and whims of the University’s provost. It would also allow for a union representative to accompany the grievant through the review process, much as an attorney would help you navigate the legal system and accompany you through a trial. Finally, it would include measures to ensure that the process is completed in a transparent and timely manner. This latter point is especially important in the case that your funding has been stripped and you need to seek recourse quickly if you are to be able to afford to stay in Ithaca. Graduate student labor unions at other universities have been successful in bargaining for third party grievance boards. See, for example, the contracts from the Graduate Assistants United at University of Florida, Article 22, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation at the University of Oregon, Articles 13 and 15, and The Coalition of Graduate Employees at Oregon State University, Article 18.

Unfortunately, the current grievance process is difficult to navigate and there is virtually no evidence of any kind that it serves to bring justice in situations where students have been treated unfairly. The process involves four stages that ultimately results in a review by a Graduate Grievance Review Board. However, only one person in the last 19 has made it this stage. You can read more about this person’s story here. Once your grievance has made it to the Review Board, the university policy states that “the Board shall arrive at a decision by a majority vote and shall, within 5 working days after the hearing, issue a final written recommendation.” This recommendation is then sent to the provost who has unilateral power to completely disregard the opinion of the board if they choose to do so.

Job Security

Cornell typically offers students funding for two to five years, depending on the graduate program. While Cornell’s communications during the admissions process may give the impression that this funding is guaranteed, this is in fact not the case. If the sponsor of your RA or TA position leaves the university or simply no longer wants to work with you, you may lose your funding along with your academic status. In 2016, for example, African Studies PhD student Marsha Jean-Charles was forced to leave campus after the professor who was funding her RA decided to terminate her funding; Marsha received no prior notice that he was dissatisfied with her work. Her dissertation chair defended her, saying that the process she was subjected to was problematic and that the behavior cited in her dismissal was anomalous. Nevertheless, Marsha’s funding was revoked and her academic standing was stripped before she could contest the decision. You can read more about this person’s story here.

A legally recognized graduate students union would be able to fight for a contract that guarantees better job security over the course of the funding period that is offered in your admissions process. Measures we might negotiate for include a review process before a professor unilaterally decides to strip your funding, a contingency clause for the case in which your professor leaves Cornell, and a better and more transparent grievance process if you feel you have been treated unfairly. Cornell has an internal grievance process that you can seek recourse through if you believe you have been treated unfairly, but it is very difficult to navigate. In fact, in the past 19 years, only one person (Marsha Jean-Charles) has reached the stage of a claim being considered by the a grievance board.

Family Support

Being a grad student with a family at Cornell can be an immense struggle, given the high cost of childcare and dependent healthcare the university provides. The cost of healthcare for a spouse is $2,560 per year. The cost for children is $2,560 for one child, or $5,120 for two or more children. A surprising number of grad students with children we’ve spoken to simply opt for Medicaid since they can’t afford the dependent healthcare; if they’re not a U.S. citizen, then Medicaid isn’t even an option. This propagates a system in which Cornell, making a revenue of $4.3 billion dollars per year, relies on federal assistance to pay for its graduate employees’ dependent healthcare. Not only that, but the maximum amount of childcare assistance a grad family can receive is only $5,000 per year, when the average cost of childcare at Cornell is $15,000 per child. This places a huge financial burden on grad student families who are making significant contributions to Cornell’s core mission.


It costs between $15k and $20k per child per year for childcare in Ithaca, meaning that if a grad student has two children under the age of 5, the total childcare cost would be $30k-$40k for the year. Cornell’s Childcare Center (most convenient for grads) is also one of the most expensive in town. Ithaca was recently listed as #8/10 most expensive cities to raise a family, even ranking above San Francisco. This is a recent report by Economic Policy Institute that details a general trend in US of un-affordability of high quality childcare.

Childcare subsidies at Cornell have increased slightly since 2012. In 2010, the maximum amount a grad family could receive towards childcare was $1,500, with a huge gap between grad and faculty subsidies. In 2012, the maximum amount increased to $5,000. While this has been a great improvement, these subsidies are still not high enough, especially if the graduate student family unit depends on the income of a graduate student. Most recently, Cornell has increased the allocation of funds towards childcare from $100,000 to $250,000. This sounds great on paper, however this doesn’t help individual grad families since the maximum grant allowed per family still remains $5,000 and the financial cap has not been raised.

Additionally, these subsidies cannot be used for informal home care.  The structure of homecare is hit or miss, but larger childcare institutions are out of financial reach for most graduate students. This has led some students to search for the cheapest care available, putting students in a difficult position where they have to sacrifice quality of care for the sake of affordability.  

With a union contract, Cornell could follow the lead of other universities, which have average childcare costs of about $2.25 per hour, 40 hours a week, for about $360 per month.

Maternal/Parental leave benefits

Cornell University provides accommodation for childbirth, newborn care, adoption, foster care, and acute child health care to enrolled students who are in good academic standing. Currently, Cornell’s parental leave policy provides the option of either 6 weeks of paid accommodation (for students receiving full funding from the university as assistants–whether as TAs, GRAs, RAs or GAs; fellows; or trainees) or up to two semesters of reduced load status to serve their needs surrounding childbirth, adoption, newborn care, foster care, and acute child health care. The biggest problem is that cornell counts leave even if it occurs during university breaks. So, if someone has a baby in early December, by the time the semester starts, they will have used up most of their paid leave.  

In response to the unionization effort at Harvard, they increased maternity leave from 6 weeks to 12 weeks and increased the stipend for childcare from $3,100 to $6,200. With a union, these types of benefits can be guaranteed in a contract.

Other Issues

Transportation can be difficult for parent grad students, especially if using childcare far from campus (outside of Ithaca is less expensive). Parking passes closer to central campus would be useful for parents, prioritize access to these lots, or even subsidize parking passes.

Some mothers have also expressed difficulty in how they were treated by faculty after becoming a mother. There’s a lack of understanding of needs of new mothers, such as the need to step out of a seminar to pump milk. Mothers have also expressed a feeling of less respect by faculty. A union could protect the rights of mothers, provide rooms to pump milk, ensure changing tables for children, etc. 

International Student Support

International students face unique challenges at Cornell. From fighting for stronger policies on immigration status to securing financial support for moving expenses and dependent children, a union can help tackle issues that Cornell students from outside the United States face.

Many of the legal rights and protections that U.S. citizens are guaranteed simply do not apply to international students. Students with dependent spouses or children, for example, do not qualify for the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. They also don’t qualify for federal loans that some families of graduate students depend on to pay the bills. With a union, we can work to make sure that all students can afford to work at Cornell. At NYU, for example, graduate students negotiated a contract in 2015 that set up a $150,000 fund to support health-care for dependent spouses and children. The fund will increase to $200,000 by the end of this year.

President Trump’s recent reforms of the H1-B visa process may make it more difficult and expensive to secure legal immigration status for Cornell students. A union could help fight for a contract that guarantees strong financial and legal support when international students go through the immigration process.

A number of international students report that they experience discrimination on the basis of their identity in the workplace. With the current grievance process, it is often impossible to address these issues. To read more about the current grievance process and how it could be made more fair, scroll back up!