Rank and File Democracy Caucus

Welcome. This caucus was formed within Cornell Graduate Students United by members who have been actively involved in CGSU’s unionization efforts on campus and have been critical of CGSU’s lack of engagement with its membership, as well as of the nature of its relationship with its affiliate unions, AFT and NYSUT. The guiding vision of this caucus is that the strength of a union comes from its members - from the bottom up - a strength we can only sustain and advance through participatory mechanisms that inform and empower workers, and guarantee that members’ opinions and suggestions for improvement are heard and acted upon.

The opinions and suggestions presented here are, at present, those of the members initiating this caucus, and are entirely open to discussion. In fact, the purpose of this caucus is, precisely, for CGSU members (and the Cornell community at large) to engage and shape it.

This caucus is, in other words, a call for participation. It’s open to all CGSU members. You can join the caucus by signing here to receive updates about the union. If you are not sure what a caucus is, this is a good place to start. And if you're interested in this caucus, but not a CGSU member, please don't hesitate reach out or to join us at our weekly meeting.

Some background to CGSU’s recently concluded referendum

(The impatient reader might skip ahead to section III for conclusions.)

(Sections I and II survey CGSU and its referendum’s (pre)history, respectively, over the past ten months.)

(Section IV is a timeline of post-election negotiations between CGSU, AFT, and Cornell.)


The Rank and File Democracy Caucus was formed in April 2017.

It was formed, in other words, in the immediate aftermath of CGSU’s disastrous recognition election campaign.

It was formed with the idea that some open reckoning with our union’s history and relationships was a long-overdue, and potentially vitalizing, necessity. This perception has been amply — though mostly negatively — confirmed. For in the months since, CGSU has operated as far as possible as though our recognition campaign and election never happened. Such is the accumulated unreality in a union that has long viewed the feedback of either members or of collective experience with wariness and disdain. (Results of a post-election members’ survey, for example, were never published (How satisfied are you with our affiliation with AFT? Very satisfied: 7%; Not at all: 25%. Some degree of satisfaction: 25%; Some degree of dissatisfaction: 59%.) — and the experiment won’t likely be repeated.) Organizational paralysis and disaffection have been the predictable effects:

  1. Extensive campaigning notwithstanding, CGSU struggled for over three months to reach quorum (one-third of members) in a major referendum. This is atop the prior six months CGSU had delayed calling this referendum on how to relate to the results of our March 2017 recognition election.
  2. CGSU held more frequent and better-attended General Assemblies before its 2015 affiliation with AFT than in its election year: in the year 2017, it held, in total, four GAs. (It held eight in 2015.)
  3. CGSU’s fall 2017 three-stage members’ retreat terminated in its first stage, due to extremely low attendance.

Any of this is context for the standing question:

How, at a moment when, for example, Bernie Sanders was the most popular politician in the U.S., how, with long preparation and a million-dollar campaign budget, how could CGSU and AFT-NYSUT have failed to win a recognition election on an avowedly liberal campus?

For our union’s lack of an answer to this question has been itself a kind of an answer, has both epitomized and compounded CGSU’s growing irrelevance and indifference to Cornell graduate workers. The method— and the stakeholders — of this lack or avoidance have been plainest, perhaps, in the story of our referendum; we survey that history below, both

  1. for the instruction it affords, and
  2. because that history is still to some degree unfolding.

This history exemplifies a larger process by which a once-vibrant, credible, responsive, fast-growing CGSU, courted, in 2015, by multiple national labor organizations, became by 2017 one no longer any of those things — became one, most conspicuously, no longer able to take any major decision independently from its present affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). This would be less of a problem, maybe, if AFT and CGSU’s interests were identical. The months since our election, though, have been one more lesson in how different those interests can be.


The history of the recently-concluded referendum on how to relate to CGSU’s March 2017 recognition election results has four major phases:

  1. “CGSU’s” decision to negotiate, via AFT legal counsel, with Cornell.
  2. A half-year of highly unrewarding negotiations (blowing through numerous deadlines for informing CGSU’s membership of their existence).
  3. The launching, October 2017, of a referendum on how to relate to CGSU’s March 2017 recognition election results. Then the closing of that referendum on 26 January 2018, as stipulated by a 2017 Steering Committee decision “if quorum (roughly 500 ballots) not reached.”
  4. The present: a question of how to relate to the results of this referendum.

Appended below is some record, primarily, of (1), (2), and the beginnings of (3). Documented therein is a clear pattern of stalling and even negotiation sabotage, on the part of AFT counsel (see, for example, September 11th, 2017) that’s at first puzzling. Distinguish, though, the interests of the three parties involved, and everything comes into focus:

(1) AFT: throughout this period, AFT was campaigning on other campuses (University of Chicago, Princeton, UPenn). Cornell was, in fact, its flagship campaign; the broader gameplan had been for Cornell to lead an elite-campus unionization surge, in the wake of the National Labor Relation Board’s 2016 ruling that U.S. labor protections do cover private university graduate workers (a ruling likely soon to be struck down). Cornell was a natural pick to lead that surge, with its campus leanings, prominent labor relations school (it is in fact AFT President Randi Weingarten’s alma mater) and active grad union already in place; its campaign’s mishandling and failure was, in consequence, monumentallyembarrassing. AFT would prefer, of course, that the story of that campaign be known as little as possible, particularly on other campuses, and for this a now ten-month legal limbo has been an ideal instrument. Again: in senses more than just formal, it’s as though our recognition election never happened — the votes still haven’t been certified, for example — and that’s just the way AFT likes it. Importantly, too, serious discussion of CGSU’s relation to AFT has been, through all this, effectively forestalled (see again the results of the member’s survey, above); even as AFT’s acknowledged misdeeds to CGSU leadership (inflating membership numbers during the campaign, for example), it’s channeled CGSU agency into sputtering backchannel negotiations, effectively deepening CGSU’s distance from members, and its dependence on AFT. All of this is important to bear in mind in the days to come: action on the referendum votes to file ULPs will involve many of the same players and probably exacerbate these dynamics.

(2) Cornell University: for Cornell, too, which cultivates an image as the “liberal ivy,” it would be better if CGSU’s recognition election had never happened. Not least because Cornell did, in the course of that campaign, repeatedly undertake some hostile, lamely ugly, and very probably illegal messaging. That messaging would be the object of an Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) filing, such as CGSU’s Organizing Committee (OC) voted unanimously (with the exception of members abstaining on the principle that this should be a union-wide decision) on April 3rd 2017 to file. And it’s interesting that not that OC decision, but the following week’s OC decision to negotiate with Cornell, was acted upon. How AFT relates to referendum results will be instructive; they’ve already (elaborately) balked once at a CGSU impulse to file ULPs that most observers agree would be a slam dunk. This may be because they take seriously Cornell’s intimations, in negotiations, of having evidence of AFT’s election misconduct that Cornell might invoke or release in response. In any event, AFT and Cornell would both prefer the past year-and-a-half receive as little general scrutiny as possible. This is probably why, in the timeline below, we find AFT’s legal representative in sometimes greater sympathy (and communication) with Cornell’s representative, Paul Salvatore, than with CGSU’s.

(3) CGSU: CGSU’s most immediate task, we’ve argued, remains some earnest reckoning with its history and relationships, particularly with AFT. It lost and broke the trust of hundreds of grads — who told CGSU and AFT in person, emails, op-eds, etc., i.e. in every way they knew how that they felt harassed, unheard, misled, instrumentalized. CGSU needs to explain how this happened, and how it won’t happen again; proposed technocratic fixes — a software change, a steward system (as though the issue, last spring, was that CGSU wasn’t getting member feedback) — are, in the meantime, evasions. Root problems have even arguably worsened: given CGSU’s current state, any imaginable recognition campaign would be more AFT-dependent and less member-driven than the last one.

In short: the past ten months have eminently served the interests of two organizations, at the expense of the third.

And disentangling the interests and powers above renders questions initially puzzling, again, legible. Like:

Negotiating on behalf of a party you don’t want to know you’re negotiating on behalf of isn’t exactly “negotiating from a position of strength.” Right?

So why would CGSU enter into negotiations with Cornell without informing, let alone consulting, its members (particularly given that “negotiating with Cornell” is, in CGSU’s Constitution, a decision for membership to make, and that it has a much better card — namely ULPs — to play)?

Why would CGSU pose to members the three options of (1) engaging with Cornell, (2) filing ULPs, or (3) certifying election results, only six months after they’d first appeared and already then been promptly decided amongst (and then corrected by AFT and then decided amongst again), by CGSU leadership?

(And would union members be somewhat justified in experiencing such a vote then as an afterthought, insult, or further evasion?)

Why would CGSU conduct a referendum with wildly uncertain membership lists?

Why would AFT counsel undercut CGSU’s own offer to Cornell, without CGSU authorization, and without awaiting a counteroffer from Cornell, by submitting a weaker one?

Etcetera: CGSU didn’t pose referendum options to members when they first arose because members might not have recommended negotiating with Cornell. (Both CGSU and AFT leadership tended then to frame consulting with membership as in tension with the “urgency” and “tactics” of CGSU’s determined course — grimly hilarious characterizations, in retrospect.) Members would probably have perceived negotiations’ futility, and in this they would have been far righter than CGSU’s leadership. In fact, this defining insight, and point, of unions — that an informed membership is a deeper and righter force than any administration’s — has now for some time been, in practice, CGSU’s defining disavowal. Some will remember: it was not always this way...


Three broad conclusions follow, and two “looks ahead”:

  1. Grad workers should, of course, continue to organize to take care of each other, and of others. What title CGSU-AFT has to a role in that process is an increasingly open question.
  2. Serious discussion in CGSU of CGSU’s affiliation relationship to AFT is profoundly overdue.
  3. CGSU’s principal accomplishment and function, over the past nine months, has been to shield its election campaign and AFT from broader scrutiny and criticism. On this one count, CGSU — outwardly directionless and ineffectual — has been quite effective.
  4. CGSU communications about the referendum, and, e.g., quorum computation, will be some measure of its present capacity for honesty, with its members.*
  5. If CGSU does move to file ULPs, it will (again) fall to AFT to execute that filing. That process may again be instructive.*

* If (4) and (5) are questions, we begin already to get (disheartening) answers, even in the little time since this text was drafted. CGSU’s latest GA announcement, for example, contains a referendum timeline; we interleave it in the fuller timeline below, for comparison and reference...


A timeline:

April 3rd, 2017: After CGSU’s March 27-28 recognition election vote, CGSU’s Organizing Committee (OC) held a special Monday meeting to discuss possible legal responses to the Cornell administration’s election misconduct. American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) legal counsel C.C., assigned at around this time to work with CGSU, informed CGSU’s OC that any unfair labor practice complaints (ULPs) would have to be filed within 7 days of the beginning of the election. The urgency of the decision was framed as precluding consultation with members. An option of withdrawing a ULP complaint after its filing, if membership so decided, was acknowledged. And partly on this principle CGSU’s OC voted overwhelmingly for AFT legal counsel C.C. to file ULPs addressing Cornell’s conduct prior to and during the recognition election. Several present abstained, on the principle that this was a decision, ultimately, for the membership.

April 5th, 2017: AFT convened an urgent OC phone-conference meeting (with one hour notice), to “debate and discuss” “a development.” This was reported as the following: AFT legal counsel informed both Cornell and the election arbitrator of CGSU’s intention to file ULPs, whereupon the arbitrator suggested that CGSU and Cornell first try negotiations. Those on the conference-call agreed to hold off filing ULPs, at least until AFT’s president and Cornell’s legal counsel (former Cornell ILR schoolmates) could, in some private and preliminary fashion, talk. Negotiations would not be, in any obvious sense, power-building for CGSU, so high negotiation benchmarks tended to circulate: if Cornell doesn’t give us card check (i.e., recognize CGSU on the basis of cards signed, foregoing the entire election process), we’ll close the door in their face, etc. On an April 8th conference call, AFT’s president openly assessed card check as unlikely. Still, negotiations were recommended.

April 11th, 2017: CGSU’s OC decides to negotiate with Cornell.

[The above sequence would seem to be that glossed in the GA timeline as “March 2017: After the election, there was a quick decision made by the CGSU organizing committee to try to negotiate with Cornell and seek a settlement instead of immediately filing objections.”]

April 18th, 2017: Negotiations are discussed at CGSU’s General Assembly (but not explicitly acknowledged in the GA email, or in any other union-wide communication; the vast majority of CGSU members would still at this point have had no way of knowing they were going on). From the minutes: “Other options exist, but if we don’t see anything coming out of negotiations within a month, we aim to file the objections [ULPs].” The GA audience repeatedly voices concern that a month may be unduly long.

[The above entry would seem to be that glossed in the GA timeline as “April 2017: The Administrative Liaison presented this decision to the membership at a GA and stated that the CGSU portion of the Union–Management Committee (UMC) would serve as the negotiation team for CGSU.”]

April 23rd, 2017: first UMC call: discussion of what the union would want in a new code of conduct agreement.

April 25th, 2017: AFT counsel sent a draft first proposal to the UMC.

May 1st, 2017: AFT counsel received all comments and suggestions from all UMC members. The UMC was unanimous regarding the language of the first proposal, and C.C. wrote at 2:25pm that she would send the proposal to Paul by close of business that day.

May 2nd, 2017: AFT counsel wrote to the UMC saying that she thought it would be good to have AFT President Randi Weingarten look over the proposal.

May 4th, 2017: Not having heard anything further from AFT counsel, a member of UMC, a UMC member enquired about the status of the proposal.

May 5th, 2017: AFT counsel replied to the UMC that she had received comments from Randi Weingarten the day before, along with a suggestion that CGSU make a concession to allow Cornell’s president to send out one official communication to the graduate community. Several members of the UMC voiced concern because (1) the entire UMC had agreed to the language to be sent out, and it wasn’t clear why Randi Weingarten should be overruling that decision, and (2) beginning with such concessions, before having even heard back from Cornell, seemed an odd tactic. One UMC member (M.B.) advocated for the concession to be included. The rest of the UMC was firm on sending out our proposal to the university as soon as possible.

May 6th, 2017: AFT counsel wrote to the UMC and said that she would send out the proposal without the concession that day.

May 7th, 2017: AFT counsel wrote to the UMC that she had sent out the proposal.

May 9th, 2017: AFT counsel called Cornell’s representative, Paul Salvatore, who said he would share the proposal with the university, but did not think they would accept it.

May 10th, 2017: UMC call with AFT counsel.

May 29th, 2017: UMC call with AFT counsel to discuss Cornell’s slow response.

June 2nd, 2017: UMC received, from AFT counsel, Cornell’s counter-proposal.

June 11th, 2017: UMC members provided comments/edits on the university’s counter-proposal.

June 15th, 2017: UMC call.

July 14th, 2017: UMC call to discuss communications provisions left out of the first two proposals.

August 4th, 2017: AFT counsel reported an upcoming phone call with Cornell’s representative on Tuesday, August 8th, 2017, who’d indicated the the university’s counter-proposal should by then be ready.

August 8th, 2017: AFT counsel reported that Cornell had offered no counter-proposal.

August 9th, 2017: UMC call with AFT counsel.

August 17th, 2017: UMC call with AFT counsel.

August 20th, 2017: UMC receives from AFT counsel a draft version of their proposal, which was intended for sending that evening.

August 21st, 2017: Barb Knuth comments on CGSU during new student orientation.

August 23rd, 2017: AFT counsel wrote to the UMC that she did not send out the proposal because she needed to talk to Paul Salvatore after Barb Knuth’s comments.

August 24th, 2017: AFT counsel wrote to the UMC that she couldn’t catch Paul on the phone that day, and that she would call back in the afternoon the next day (August 25th, 2017).

August 25th, 2017: AFT counsel wrote to the UMC that she still could not catch Paul. A UMC member, unclear if the proposal that should have been sent out on 8/20/17 actually had been sent out, wrote for clarification.

August 26th, 2017: AFT counsel wrote back to the UMC, reiterating her view that she should talk first to Paul Salvatore, before sending out the UMC’s proposal. M.D. voiced concern that AFT was stalling negotiations, suggesting a Monday (8/28/17) deadline for the proposal to go out. AFT counsel replied that she would send the proposal out on Monday. She inquired, too, fir the first time, whether the UMC would compromise on its previously agreed-upon bottomline: “Columbia protection,” i.e., protection against any (expected) National Labor Relations Board withdrawal of labor protections for private university graduate workers. Arguments about whether the UMC actually agreed on that bottomline ensued. A UMC call was scheduled for that coming week.

August 30th, 2017: AFT counsel call: a second pitch for concessions on Columbia protection. AFT counsel urged that a new proposal with these concessions, termed “half-rights,” be sent out, voiding the UMC’s prior proposal before the university had even responded. T.D. indicated that, together with M.D. and H.S., he was prepared to communicate recent events to membership. AFT director M.A.T. decided AFT would fight for the full-rights Columbia protection.

September 11th, 2017: AFT counsel summoned an emergency UMC call. She pressed the UMC for the third time for compromise on full-rights “Columbia protection.” The UMC did not compromise; AFT counsel suggested the decision be taken to CGSU’s GA. In the course of the call, it emerged that AFT counsel had proposed half-rights to the university, undercutting the UMC’s extant proposal. This actionwas problematic and unethical because (1) the UMC’s bottom-line of full-rights was utterly clear, and explicit, and (2) AFT counsel had long characterized the source of the half-rights proposal as the university.

[The above is glossed in the GA timeline as “Summer 2017: Cornell did not offer acceptable remedies to the UMC during three months of negotiations.”]

September 12th, 2017 - September 14th, 2017: It emerges that two UMC members, M.B. and E.S., had been organizing for a vote at the General Assembly (GA) to submit a half-rights proposal undercutting the UMC’s own bottomline, even before AFT counsel had suggested posing the question of half-rights in a GA.

September 14th, 2017: Aware that the GA would possibly be making a substantial decision with an extremely small number of CGSU members, M.D. and H.S. brought printout histories of the negotiation process, noting how ridiculous it would be to send a counter proposal with half-rights language before the university had responded to our previous counter proposal. AFT director M.A.T. turned then to damage control, siding against the “half-rights lobby.” The GA ultimately made no major decisions on what to do next: It voted instead overwhelmingly (37 to 3) to initiate a referendum process so that all CGSU members could have a say in how to proceed with the results of CGSU’s March 2017 union recognition election.

[The above is glossed in the GA timeline as “September 2017–18: September GA decision to proceed with a membership-wide vote (Referendum) to decide how to deal with the University’s violation of its agreement with CGSU during last year’s election.”]

What happened in the election and campaign?

We, CGSU, failed to decisively win our recent recognition election. We believe that this is most fundamentally because we have not yet become a member-driven union, where all members feel empowered to participate and take ownership of our union’s future.

We recognize that the affiliation with a larger federation in order to have enough resources for gaining recognition on Cornell's campus was a necessary step. Both the decision to affiliate with a larger federation and with whom to affiliate were decisions made by the members. However, affiliation should not come at the cost of autonomy, transparency, and bottom-up democracy.

During our recent election campaign, we saw a culture within CGSU that tended to prioritize deferring to our national and state affiliates’ (AFT and NYSUT) decisions, and CGSU’s abilities to make independent decisions were in many ways limited during our recognition campaign.

We are highly critical of the “one size fits all” organizing model and strategies that were presented to us as the only option by AFT/NYSUT. Throughout our campaign, concerns about these methods were sidelined and overruled, not least through the stifling of spaces for independent CGSU deliberation. Our campaign, as a result, alienated many members and non-members, who came to see the union as a body that is only interested in collecting cards, petition signatures, photographs. AFT and NYSUT’s “expert opinions” and “experience” displaced the more essential functions of a union: to engage and empower, to inform and listen to, its members. Our union, in the process, grew disconnected from our everyday lives.

A recognition election, certainly, is a crucial step in securing workers’ rights to collective bargaining —but a union neither begins nor ends with that vote. Unions, ultimately, are about building inclusive and collective workplace power; in this sense, CGSU’s for the people despite the people reflexes have only ever been self-defeating.

Cornell University is a wonderful place for many of us, but the extremely narrow margin in the recognition election signals a deep desire among many graduate students for a democratic workplace in which principles of anti-discrimination, anti-mobbing, workplace security and safety, and justice can be fully expressed and practiced. Such changes can never occur spontaneously at Cornell University: hierarchy is so deeply ingrained in the governance structure of the university, that the first sentence of Article II of its bylaws grants the Board of Trustees “supreme control over the University.” This power structure then continues down to the president, and various deans as their organizational chart shows.

CGSU was formed as a horizontal democracy in an attempt to counter Cornell’s top-down structure: despite its shortcomings, its Constitution accomplishes two things: (1) it aims to guarantee a bottom-up and member-driven structure via granting the decision-making power over substantive decisions in both legal and common usage to its entire membership; (2) it prevents the consolidation and abuse of power via internal grievance, disciplinary action, and Constitutional Amendment procedures.

Since affiliating with AFT/NYSUT, general assemblies have not been spaces used for decision-making, and the participation of rank and file members has understandably waned. The grievances and amendments became hassles to deal with; and not moments of self-reflection and improvement. We believe that as long as our union’s structure mirrors Cornell’s, our power to improve our workplace will be limited. Our union must be an entity by which graduate workers, and graduate workers only, have a real say on their working conditions by changing the inherent power structure and placing graduate workers at the forefront. A union that recreates the very structural inequalities that Cornell operates upon does not grant us a voice: it merely changes the gag.

In order to work together to address the lack of transparency and member participation in CGSU, we have formed the Rank and File Democracy Caucus. Together, within CGSU and in a more circumspect partnership with AFT/NYSUT established on the basis of de facto recognition of CGSU’s autonomy, we envision a new way forward.

To move forward with this new vision, we propose several concrete issues and actions, focused on structural changes within CGSU and on CGSU’s relationship with AFT and NYSUT.

Issues and Demands

Reevaluation of CGSU’s relationship with AFT/NYSUT and concrete demands for moving forward with AFT/NYSUT:
  1. Control of Communication Channels
    • Issue:

      AFT and NYSUT currently control CGSU's communications channels, including access to real-time membership information, and listserv. CGSU can only communicate with its members if AFT or NYSUT staff deem it appropriate and then send a communication on to the membership.

    • Demand:

      CGSU alone must be in control of its own communications. In fact, the affiliation agreement with AFT and NYSUT guarantees this on paper, but not in practice. The caucus demands that CGSU has sole access to its own website and listservs, and grants AFT/NYSUT access to information being communicated on a case-by-case basis whenever CGSU members deem it appropriate.

  2. Action Network is the medium used by CGSU to send membership-wide emails and communications. On April 24, AFT granted access to CGSU’s Membership Coordinator and Communications and Outreach Committee on Action Network. This means that CGSU no longer needs AFT intermediation or approval to be able to communicate with its members. However,

    • The access granted to CGSU on Action Network is partial: CGSU’s Membership Coordinator and Communications Committee still do not have access to all features on the Action Network portal.
    • AFT staff members (including, but not limited to, the former National Representative of AFT on Cornell campus, who’s been removed from her Cornell-related duties by AFT, and other AFT administrative staff whose Cornell duties have never been discussed with CGSU) are still Administrators on our Action Network account.
    • AFT staff members still have access to our social media and email accounts.

    Thus our initial demand stands: CGSU alone must be in control of its own communications and have sole access to its own website and listservs, and all other channels of communication.

  3. Control of CGSU's membership information
    • Issue:

      AFT currently maintains CGSU's membership data. The CGSU Membership Coordinator does not have access to the membership database, but is only granted “partial” access to membership data. The granting of this “partial” access to the data by AFT was not immediate but secured via an internal grievance. Moreover, AFT has collected enormous amounts of information about our graduate worker community. This data belongs to CGSU, and as such, CGSU should be stewards of its members’ information.

    • Demand:

      The caucus demands that the CGSU Membership Coordinator has direct and unrestricted access to the most up-to-date membership information. The caucus also demands that AFT share with the CGSU Organizing Committee the raw data they have collected about graduate workers while organizing for the past election.

  4. It is still the case that CGSU does not have access to information AFT has collected about our graduate worker community (including the bargaining survey entries, or staff notes about individual graduate workers based upon their conversations). It’s still also the case that the CGSU Membership Coordinator has no direct access to CGSU’s membership database (hosted by AFT), but only the partial or second-hand access of periodic Excel membership list updates.

    The last time that AFT has provided an “updated” membership list to CGSU Membership Coordinator was April 7, 2017. Our Membership Coordinator and Organizing Committee Chair (both caucus members) cross-checked the April 7th list with Cornell’s directory and department websites, as well as the membership and withdrawal of membership requests CGSU has received by email. We found out that, on the “updated” membership list that AFT provided to us,

    • 183 people listed as “current” members have graduated
    • 17 people who have requested to become CGSU members weren’t included as members
    • 28 people who have requested to withdraw their membership were still listed as “members”
    • 10 CGSU members who were listed as members and who didn’t opt out of receiving communication were not receiving any communication from CGSU.

    These results reflect either AFT’s inability to maintain, or its unwillingness to share reliable and up-to-date membership data. We do not wish to speculate which. The question, though, underscores the necessity for CGSU to independently manage its own membership list—a practice the above reconstruction initiated.

  5. Organizing model and metrics
    • Issue:

      The organizing tactics and strategies deployed during CGSU’s organizing campaign for the recognition election were directly borrowed from the AFT Organizing Model. This model relies almost exclusively on “management” and “assessment” of membership by pairing union members with staff organizers to seek out graduate workers in the bargaining unit for two-on-one conversations. Rather than building collective power via informing, empowering and engaging, this model simply inscribes subordinate relations within the union.

      Despite widespread and repeated criticisms of the prescriptive and instrumental approaches built-into this model (some examples include, deflection of questions and criticisms towards “inoculation,” ignoring members who are fellows or who can’t vote in the recognition election, and repeated or persistent visits and phone calls to “sign” something despite “do not contact” or “do not disturb” requests) by members and non-members alike. Efforts to tailor this “one shirt fits all” model to the needs and expectations of the graduate worker community at Cornell were entirely stymied, leading to alienation and antipathy among CGSU members, as well as graduate workers at large.

    • Demand:

      CGSU should be allowed to practice its own organizing model through an evaluation of pros and cons of the AFT Organizing Model. The “one shirt fits all” model justified by claims to “expertise” should be replaced by one that is based upon workers’ experiences, needs, and expectations, that takes different approaches to and cultures of organizing and socializing into account, and that is based upon a “practicing” union instead of “tasks and commitments” to “winning” it.

  6. Campaign budget and timing as moral excuse
    • Issue:

      How much money AFT/NYSUT spends on an organizing campaign is ultimately their concern and decision. However, we heard arguments related to “budget constraints” as impediments to supporting some CGSU-initiated activities rather than others. For instance, financial support for organizing a retreat to discuss union functioning and organizing issues with members was repeatedly denied since September 2016, despite promises to the contrary. At times, members were rushed into making decisions with the moral argument that we are “spending the teachers’ money.”

    • Demand:

      AFT/NYSUT’s budget and timing restrictions and concerns must be fully documented and justified any time they are invoked to influence our decisions.

  7. Explanation of AFT and NYSUT Dues
    • Issue:

      Unions come with dues. Dues are collected from members for a variety of union programs or activities (ex: a workshop on health and safety at the workplace, or a union social gathering), paying the salaries and benefits of union leaders and staff, union governance (cost of maintaining an office, printing flyers, etc.), legal representation, pension, health, welfare and safety funds, as well as the strike fund. It is obvious from this list that union dues are a necessary component of unionization and collective organizing. What is not obvious is the reasoning behind the amount of dues we pay to AFT/NYSUT. More transparency is necessary to help members and non-members understand how dues are used.

    • Demand:

      AFT/NYSUT should provide for posting on CGSU’s website a detailed breakdown of the purpose and amount of dues that will go to them, and should promptly respond to questions members have about dues.

  8. Respect for CGSU-only spaces and for CGSU autonomy
    • Issue:

      The current affiliation agreement authorizes CGSU’s Organizing Committee as the body of CGSU that should be in relation and cooperation with AFT/NYSUT for the purposes of the organizing campaign. However, AFT staff members were present in practically all spaces and meetings of CGSU (including the General Assembly and the Steering Committee meetings and regular meetings of other committees), leaving no “member-only” spaces for CGSU members to gather and discuss, and carry out union responsibilities. Such extensive involvement that presumes that “everything falls under the organizing campaign” compromises CGSU’s autonomy, despite its recognition by AFT/NYSUT on paper.

    • Demand:

      The caucus demands that the extent of AFT/NYSUT’s involvement with CGSU’s regular meetings and internal functioning should be clearly outlined as opposed to simply and vaguely “recognized.” CGSU member-only spaces should be respected as opposed to occupied and micro-managed. A proposition might be to initiate an invitation system wherein AFT staff join CGSU meetings upon invitation by CGSU for consultation, information-sharing, or other purposes.

  9. An AFT staff member was present during our last General Assembly meeting that took place on April 18, 2017 without formally announcing his presence.

  10. AFT and NYSUT Staff Members
    • Issue:

      We respect the labor and dedication of the AFT and NYSUT staff members; because first and foremost, they are workers. We are also aware of the maltreatment and pressure that they are, at times, subjected to by graduate workers, as well as by their own employers, AFT and NYSUT. This partially arises from the fact that CGSU members had no say in, and very little knowledge about, how many full-time, part-time, and member-release staff members were employed in our campaign, who they were, and what their tasks and responsibilities were.

    • Demand:

      CGSU should be consulted about staffing of its own campaign, should have access to a full record of full-time, part-time, and member-release staff members, should share this information with any member upon request for transparency, and should be part of determining tasks and responsibilities of staff members as stipulated by the affiliation agreement.

Structural Changes within CGSU and Reevaluation of CGSU’s internal functioning and engagement with its membership:
  1. Improvement of CGSU’s Constitution and Internal Functioning Mechanisms Issue:
    • Issue:

      As the document governing internal affairs within the union, the CGSU Constitution establishes the rights and obligations of members, channels of communication and procedures for decision-making, and grievance procedures for addressing violations and misconduct on the part of members and the union. Although the Constitution contains shortcomings and gaps, it also clearly specifies processes for amending and revising its provisions. The flaws of the Constitution should not be used as a pretext to scrap the democratic processes enshrined therein, but open to discussion among membership to refine and improve the mechanisms through which the union operates.

    • Demand:

      In recognition of these weaknesses, we propose that open forums, debates, and discussions take place to generate ideas and suggestions on how to improve and strengthen the Constitution. Possible areas of improvement include: clarifying internal decision-making processes and enhancing democratic accountability, implementing better procedural guidelines for managing and resolving grievances, delineating committee responsibilities, filling vacancies for elected positions, and putting in place mechanisms for collective bargaining. In light of these suggestions, we suggest holding a retreat in addition to other forums for member involvement to discuss possible revisions. The Legal Affairs committee would then be responsible for drafting amendments and changes to the Constitution over the summer. Additionally, any member(s) can propose amendments.

  2. Conflicts of Interest in CGSU
    • Issue:

      The affiliation with AFT/NYSUT should not automatically presume that the interests of the CGSU membership will always be completely aligned with those of AFT/NYSUT. In fact, there have been concrete examples of conflicts of interest in the past. For instance, AFT unilaterally changed the passwords for CGSU’s website and gmail account in October 2016 and prevented CGSU from accessing its own website and email account for almost three weeks. AFT refused to share these passwords with CGSU despite repeated requests from elected Steering Committee members. The issue was not resolved in good faith, but instead through an internal grievance submitted to the Steering Committee by the CGSU Membership Coordinator, demanding that Steering Committee take action to recover the passwords from AFT.

    • Demand:

      The caucus demands that CGSU adopt rules in its bylaws to ensure that graduate workers who receive financial compensation from AFT/NYSUT do not serve in elected positions of CGSU. This demand is not in opposition to the employment of graduate workers as part-time release staff members of AFT/NYSUT -- members may choose to work for AFT/NYSUT for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the need for financial support for their living expenses. This demand aims to avoid the compromise of the autonomy of CGSU, and to ensure that graduate workers employed by AFT/NYSUT not be financially affected or subjected to employer pressure when and if conflicts of interest arise between AFT/NYSUT and CGSU, reflecting the need for transparency and accountable unionism.

  3. Please see our Q&A section for the commentary from the caucus on the internal grievance regarding an issue of conflict of interest that was submitted by a member of CGSU on Dec 2016, and was discussed and dismissed during the last General Assembly.

  4. Inclusivity of Members in the union decision-making processes
    • Issue:

      Crucial substantive decisions about the tactics and strategies of CGSU have been monopolized within the Organizing Committee, a body that meets once a week at 6:00 at night.

    • Demand:

      We demand that substantive decisions be made in consultation with the membership, with relevant information about decisions to be made widely circulated to the membership ahead of time.

  5. Against a background of disputed election results and concerns about election conduct on both sides, CGSU has entered negotiations with Cornell University. For CGSU and AFT/NYSUT, clearly, the goal of these negotiations will be favorable conditions for a second recognition election in the medium-term. What that goal looks like in any detail, though, and, in particular, how it relates to members’ concerns, remains utterly unclear: the vast majority of CGSU members were never asked—or even informed of the existence of—the questions Should CGSU enter into negotiations with the university? and, If so, what should it negotiate for? In light of these concerns, the negotiation committee’s been declared open to any member. This is a welcome development. But it came only after a series of communications and deliberations by AFT and Cornell’s leadership and counsel, and decisions by CGSU’s Organizing Committee, utterly unknown and unsuspected by the membership at large. More importantly, it’s still not clear what say our membership will have in approving or disapproving whatever comes out of these negotiations and when and in what conditions they should stop.

  6. Robust and Honest Debates
    • Issue:

      In the recent recognition election campaign, we saw many of our fellow graduate colleagues who raised concerns about CGSU labelled as “anti-union,” “irrational,” dismissed out-of-hand, morally condemned and never engaged with again, apart from during the “getting out the vote” campaign. We contend that these labels are destructive and divisive in terms of fostering a welcoming environment for rigorous debate about the vision of our union, and the dismissive attitudes counterproductive to welcoming graduate worker engagement and voices to and within our union.

    • Action:

      The caucus demands the creation of sustainable and inclusive spaces within and through CGSU for open, honest debates about how to shape our union to best serve the interests of our membership.

  7. In the absence of established structures for robust and honest debates taking place within CGSU and among graduate students regarding unionization efforts on campus, caucus meetings are de facto serving as such a space, open to all graduate students to fulfill such need.

Contact Us

Interested in joining us/learning more? All CGSU members or Cornell community members who are interested in CGSU are welcome at our weekly meeting.