Copy of message I sent to faculty re union reps and unionization of grad students

below is a verbatim transcript of the note I sent to our field faculty re unionization. I sent this to faculty because I presume they have not been following unionization discussions on campus and to make sure they know the grad school’s description of the situation.

This note basically amounts to (a) a description of the grad school’s interpretation of its agreement with union representatives about access to campus facilities and students and (b) recommendations to faculty on how to interact with students on the topic of unionization. These are the two issues that directly impact faculty in the immediate future. As will be obvious if you read it, there is no information or commentary about unionization itself.

I am copying students just for transparency, so you know the instructions I have given to field faculty. My instructions are of course just good-faith instructions; I am not a labor lawyer nor an HR professional; I do not represent Cornell or the grad school in this regard; I am just trying to be helpful.

*** begin note sent to faculty***


some brief bits of info that I have received from grad school and legal counsel re unionization:

1. an organization of students CGSU has aligned with two different unions and is pursuing unionization of grad students. This last happened in 2002 when a student vote re unionization happened, at that time the proposal for unionization was defeated.
2. cornell has been subpoenaed to provide info regarding students to union representatives and will do so (in a way that is consistent with FERPA and allows student opt-out). separately, cornell has entered into an agreement with students/union to provide access to students. This agreement essentially means that union representatives have the same access to students that the public has–i.e. they can meet with students the same way a reporter would or a family member or a consumer sales representative or any random person off the street. I find the “VWR salesperson” analogy very useful when I think through these scenarios.
3. The general tone is that union representatives are (a) not to be mistreated or actively separated from students, and (b) not to be given special treatment or access beyond that of the public.
Some examples of things union representatives can and can’t do are listed below. This list is explanatory and does not imply that any of these things have happened to date or are expected to happen.
a. CAN meet with students, individually or in groups, on campus or off, in conference rooms or offices or other
b. CANNOT meet with students in a way that is disruptive (can’t enter a shared office and prevent work from continuing by “taking over” the room.
c. CANNOT enter restricted areas (for example swipe accessed or key-accessed areas) unless escorted by an authorized party. So to a first approximation, union representatives CANNOT enter labs without permission of PI, CANNOT enter shared grad student space without permission of PI or DGS (depending on who controls the space). Union representatives CAN enter hallways, open spaces, atria; if students want to meet with them in a general-use breakout or conference room they can do that. A union representative can’t use a conference room on his/her own; our students, though, can use conference rooms and they can invite union representatives to join them. Union representatives CAN go to a restricted area, knock on the door, and ask to come in. They CANNOT demand entry or imply that they have special access privileges. A student can invite a union representative into their workspace; their right to do so is analogous to inviting the VWR sales rep in. Can students talk to the VWR rep? yes. Could a group of them meet with the VWR rep in a conference room? yes. Can the VWR rep go into labs without PI authorization? no. Can the VWR rep knock on the door and ask to come in? yes. Would we kick the VWR rep off campus or otherwise harass or obstruct them? Not unless they were being specifically disruptive.
4. interacting with students re the union:
a. We are obligated by law to act in a way such that no reasonable person would think that students are being threatened, cajoled, intimidated, interrogated, etc re this topic. The same is true, of course, for many other topics; threats and intimidation are of course not supposed to be part of our academic interactions. The power imbalance between faculty and students, though, means that what we might find reasonable is different from what students might find reasonable. so caution is indicated.
b. because of this, it is safer to err on the side of not discussing unionization; to first order it is not really a faculty issue– it is a grad school and grad student issue. If discussing, it is better to discuss these issues with students (a) in a way that makes it clear you are giving your personal opinion and not representing cornell (b) only if they ask (c) only if you know what you are talking about (most of us do not know labor law or what consequences of unionization would be or the details of what is going on at cornell) (d) only in spaces and in ways that remove or attenuate the perception that faculty have power over students (i.e. not in your office or lab or behind closed doors). I find the discussion of students’ personal lives to be a useful analogy. If my students want to tell me what they did on the weekend, I of course enjoy discussing that. But I don’t ask my students who they went out with last friday because it isn’t my business and they might think that if I keep asking this that what they do on the weekend is under professional scrutiny when it isn’t and shouldn’t be. Similarly, if students want to talk about unionization with faculty it is appropriate to engage. But we should approach it as something that is the students’ business and not something they are expected to discuss with faculty–we should not be querying the students re their position on this matter or their involvement.
5. In conclusion, in most cases, this means it is generally better for faculty to not comment on unionization. If you are convinced that you know what you are talking about, if students ask, if you can ensure that students (who largely are terrified of us and fear that we have almost absolute power over them) don’t feel pressured by your comments, AND if you can be clear that your opinions are not cornell’s opinions, then this is OK to discuss.

*** end note sent to faculty***