Arbitrator Finds Cornell Broke Federal Law During Union Election

An arbitrator has ruled Cornell University violated the National Labor Relations Act during a union election for 2,500 teaching and research assistants and ordered the university to post an official notice alerting the campus community to its malfeasance.

In an award released Wednesday, the arbitrator, Howard Edelman, also rejected Cornell’s attempt to bar a new election for the graduate employees for another 12 months.

As Cornell graduate employees went to the polls in March 2017 to decide if their union, Cornell Graduate Students United, should bargain on their behalf, the Cornell administration abused official mass communication channels to chill voters, in direct violation of both a pre-election agreement signed between Cornell and CGSU, and the National Labor Relations Act. The act prohibits communications and other actions that pollute the conditions that enable free choice at an election.

On election eve, Graduate School Dean Barbara Knuth, who remains employed by Cornell, sent a mass email claiming a union could mean “reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell,” an alarming threat for graduate workers concerned with their job security. The arbitrator found that graduate workers could have reasonably inferred “that a vote for [the union] puts [a grad worker’s] position in danger.”

CGSU filed three charges contending that Cornell inhibited, contaminated and tainted the free choice of voters in violation of the National Labor Relations Act and the parties’ code of conduct agreement, thereby destroying the “laboratory conditions” required for the election.

There were 856 votes cast in favor of CGSU and 919 against, with 65 challenged and 16 unresolved ballots. The challenged ballots have yet to be examined. Before the vote, a majority of Cornell graduate employees signed a petition supporting the union and calling for an election.

Aubrie James, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, said: “I feel relieved that we have a path forward for how to resolve last year’s election. We are working so hard in organizing for labor rights at Cornell, and this decision is another thrust forward in those efforts. I also feel energized by the unionization movements of grads like us across the country. I think at this point in time, given the hostile national environment we find ourselves in, where schools like Columbia and UChicago are refusing to recognize or bargain with grad workers’ hard-won unions, we need to dig into both local and national grad worker solidarity. CGSU’s decision to file objections provides a unique chance to send the message that administration electioneering and sidewinding has no place in grad workers’ efforts toward unionization.”

“The Cornell administration’s violation of labor law shows its lack of regard for labor rights and shared governance. The university depends on the labor of graduate student workers, who teach, grade and conduct research,” said Johnnie Kallas, a first-year graduate student at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “As an ILR student, it’s disturbing that the university took illegal anti-union action mere steps away from classrooms where its faculty and grad workers teach appropriate labor relations. I am excited for CGSU to continue growing, and I look forward to the day when Cornell engages in respectful, productive negotiations to improve grad workers’ conditions and the university community.”

Randi Weingarten, president of CGSU's national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, and a Cornell ILR alumna, said: “A great university like Cornell should hold itself to high ethical standards, not be so fearful of its graduate workers having voice that it would resort to the kind of illegal misconduct that union-busting employers are known to do. That is particularly true when it is the home of one of the most prestigious schools of labor relations in the world.

“Rather than follow the agreement it reached with its graduate employees on how to conduct itself during a union election campaign, or listen to its own ILR school, the Cornell administration embarked on an illegal campaign of misconduct to chill grads’ free choice. We are grateful to the arbitrator for calling out Cornell’s violation of law and to the CGSU Organizing Committee for wanting justice to be served. Unfortunately, this misconduct has had its consequences, as justice delayed is often justice denied. At the same, we will continue to support CGSU, and we are confident that grads will soon win the union they’ve dedicated the last four years to building from scratch.”

While most other contested recognition elections for graduate employees at private universities have come before the National Labor Relations Board, CGSU and Cornell opted for an election under a code of conduct agreement with additional terms and a mutually agreed-upon arbitrator.