Rank and File Democracy Caucus

What is a union?

Unions exist because of the imbalance of power between bosses and workers. The impulse that workers often feel—to have greater dignity, financial security, workplace rights, and simply more voice on the job—may lead them to form a union, the legally recognized organization with the right to speak and act on behalf of its members. The employer must, by law, sit down and bargain a contract with a union—covering things like wages, benefits, working conditions, and discipline—and then abide by the terms of the contract. Union members are expected to participate in the union’s activity, and keep it strong so that it can continue to defend their rights.

However, in the history of the labor movement, there is a bad tendency for unions to themselves become like businesses and practice what’s called “business unionism.” This means that they adopt corporate structures with highly paid, powerful technocratic staff and union officers at the top dictating terms to union members as if they are customers. Union members are left feeling powerless, in the dark, uninformed, and distant from important decisions that affect their lives. The method of business unionism is to cut deals with the boss, rather than to engage, educate, and inspire members to work towards meaningful victories in the workplace (like decent salaries, pay equity, family leave) and in society (challenging racism and sexism, precarious employment, wage theft, and so on).

What is a caucus?

The response to the failed model of business unionism is rank & file unionism—a model that emphasizes bottom—up democracy, relies on the experience and wisdom of members, focuses on education and skill-building so that members know their rights and exercise them directly. This model challenges the autocratic, and often bullying, style of business unionism by creating spaces for open debate, dialogue, mutual learning and non-bureaucratic problem-solving.To build this kind of unionism, groups of union members—dedicated to these values of bottom-up democracy—will often initiate a union caucus.

A caucus is a self-initiated group, made up of union members who typically share a vision for a better union - one that’s member-driven, democratic, transparent, activist, independent of back-room relationships with the employer, and committed to changing the balance of power in the workplace. Caucuses may create slates to run for union office, advance resolutions and programs within the union to reflect their core values, and try to make their union more inclusive and welcoming. Caucuses are often in the forefront of social justice unionism in addressing issues that affect, and can unite, workers and community members across society.

Union caucuses were last a powerful force in the US labor movement in the 1970s. They are rising again—especially in teacher unions and higher education unions—across the country. The formation of Rank & File Democracy Caucus inside the CGSU is a historically significant and powerful indication that business unionism no longer works, and must be challenged.

How were the candidates for the slate chosen?

Like the caucus, the slate is far more about principles than people. (It should be noted that none of our promotional materials show images of individuals.) Central to these principles is the recognition that conflicts of interest between CGSU and AFT can and do exist, and that they undermine our union, and that AFT employees, accordingly, should not take on elected positions within CGSU (for more info on conflict of interest please check out our Shared Principles page, and Issues and Demands page). The names you see on the caucus slate remain the only members affirming these principles who have in any caucus forum expressed a desire to run. The slate was drafted and discussed on our listserv.

That said, we continue to work for a more democratic caucus and union; we continue to grow our listserv - and we have heard from members who were unhappy not to have been added earlier. In other words, we see this work as only beginning, as ongoing, and we aim to continue to do better. We should clarify perhaps that democracy for us is more than a formalism (as it's too often become in CGSU): it's a process - one that this caucus explicitly relates both to (1) re-connecting with members, and (2) recovering CGSU's autonomy from AFT.

There are, of course, opinions that present our caucus as “wanting to take power over” in the union through the slate candidacies for the Steering Committee elections. (1) Slate candidates are, as the name suggests, candidates. They’ll have to be democratically elected by the membership. (2) Calling the candidacies of CGSU’s RFDC members a desire “to take power over” in fact admits that there is already a power structure in place to be taken over. In other words, implicit in these formulations -- "take power over" -- is a power structure already present and operative in CGSU, and at odds with more "member-driven" or horizontal conceptions. These opinions, in fact, underscores the need for a caucus like RFDC: we see elected CGSU positions as not about centralizing power, but about opening it up. We see these positions as not about privilege, but about service.

The transformation of questions about AFT's relation to CGSU into questions about the legitimacy or sincerity of the person(s) raising these issues has a long and insistent history in our union. The Rank and File Democracy Caucus was conceived, in large part, to combat and overcome this reflex. It will only be natural if, in the process, RFDC sometimes finds itself an object of this reflex. We welcome all feedback, of course. But we welcome it above all when it engages with what we're talking about: in the critiques we offer of business unionism, in the tensions we record with AFT, and in our vision of how to move forward. These are the best places to engage with who we are as a caucus.

We hope that there are many nominations for this year's elections; we also hope as many members vote as possible. These could only be good for our union; they'd be signs of health. We hope, too, that this year's election candidates, both in and out of our caucus, are as explicit as possible about the issues our caucus works to raise. We look forward, too, to working with whoever wins on precisely those issues.

What is this proposed amendment that people talk about?

It was put together by members of the Legal Affairs Committee, some of whom are now caucus members. The proposed amendment suggested a detailed structure for the composition and processes of a potential Negotiating Committee so that, in the case of a successful union recognition election, we would have a structure ready to build our negotiation team. Ten percent of the total membership of CGSU approved its proposition for discussion and improvement to the rest of the membership.

Many criticized the amendment for not providing an accurate representation of graduate students in terms of number of proposed seats on the Negotiating Committee for each broad disciplines. This criticism was one that members who drafted the proposed amendment did not foresee, but nonetheless liked very much -- because any criticism for an amendment at the stage of proposition is an opportunity to improve it. In addition to this public criticism regarding the distribution of seats per discipline on the Negotiations Committee, the Legal Affairs Committee received feedback that suggested having an additional seat to represent graduate workers with families who have unique needs and demands, and a seat for fellows, who could provide valuable insights about how to translate bargaining-unit gains into inclusive gains. Needless to say, Legal Affairs Committee was also delighted to receive this feedback and is ready to incorporate all suggestions into future discussions regarding the formation of a Negotiating Committee. The amendment is currently withdrawn to be proposed again in the future after a revision to incorporate member feedbacks and criticisms, as CGSU did not win the past recognition election.

We would like to emphasize that although these criticisms of the proposed amendment became the defining feature of it, there are three fundamental aspects that were the fundamental rights that it aimed to secure:

  1. To ensure that the negotiating committee is composed of CGSU members only, and not the staff of the affiliates, in order to make sure that only grads' interests are represented at the negotiating table
  2. To ensure that the negotiating committee is democratically elected by all members of CGSU
  3. To ensure that negotiations take place in an open and transparent manner. All members of CGSU may attend and shall be informed about all negotiation meetings. No negotiation will take place behind closed doors. In labor lingua, this proposition is known as “open bargaining.”

Both the members of the Legal Affairs Committee who proposed this amendment and the caucus members at large believe that these three aspects should be incorporated and guaranteed in any future amendment proposed regarding the formation and processes of a negotiations committee.

What is the caucus' take on the internal grievance filed by a member regarding the conflict of interest between CGSU and AFT that was discussed and “resolved” during the last GA?

The grievance in question was submitted to the CGSU on December 11, 2016. By the time Steering Committee provided a resolution for it, it was March 14, 2017. Three months is a long time to resolve a grievance—especially given that one of our complaints about the university during our election campaign was to fix university’s broken grievance procedures, which includes indeterminate waiting periods.

The grieving party appealed to the Steering Committee resolution on March 16, 2017—two days after the Steering Committee provided its resolution for the grievance. Our Constitution states that in cases of appeals to the Steering Committee resolutions for internal grievances, the grievance should “immediately” be sent to the membership via e-mail for review by the membership prior to its discussion during the next General Assembly. The grievance was finally shared with the membership via e-mail on April 14, 2017—almost a month after it was appealed, which is not quite “immediate.”

The grievance was finally discussed by the membership at the Union’s General Assembly meeting on April 18, 2017 and was voted against, and in favor of the Steering Committee resolution. There are complaints and disagreements among the membership over how well the grievance and the grieving party was treated, and how accurately the grievance and possible resolutions to it were presented and discussed at the General Assembly meeting.

The above timeline and summary demonstrates that the Steering Committee was the responsible body of handling this grievance, and the intermediary between the grieving party and the membership for fast, healthy, and accurate transmission of knowledge and materials regarding this grievance.

It’s no secret at this point that Steering Committee members have disagreements over certain issues. Members will hear different stories regarding this grievance (and everything else), depending on which Steering Committee member they talk to and who talks back to them. We do not wish to editorialize the details regarding this grievance through our own biases. Instead, three caucus members, who are also current Steering Committee members, would be happy to share all SC communications regarding this grievance with any interested member. If any member would like to see for themselves how the Steering Committee handled it, and how it was presented at the General Assembly, without being fed one or another selective version of its history, please send us an email. If any member is interested to see the General Assembly minutes where this grievance was presented, please go to the members’ area on CGSU website. If you cannot find the members’ area or do not have the password for it, please email us.

CGSU failed to win in its recognition election, why are you still here?

The purpose of a union is to democratize the workplace. While a union is not a guarantee of workplace democracy (unless its members enforce it), we still believe it is our best hope and mechanism to fight against the Cornell management unilateral decision making power over the terms and conditions of our labor. Further, we believe true and lasting gains for graduate workers will only come through organizing.

How many people are in the caucus, and who are they?

We have received questions about the names of caucus members or the number of people in the caucus. There is a reason why no names show up on the caucus website; neither those of the initiators/caucus supporters, nor of those to whom we address our demands or complaints. The issues we are trying to raise are not about individuals, neither is the caucus. When it comes to numbers, we already know by experience that assessing the strength, claims, or validity of a group or a movement solely by numbers is missing the point. It just does not work. The idea behind the caucus and our website is neither to praise nor to scapegoat specific individuals. Our aim is to help as many CGSU members and graduate workers be informed and engaged so that they can talk about the kind of union they want, and make these discussions the basis of how CGSU collectively wants to move forward.

Are we really going to have another election?

In all likelihood, yes. Depending on which legal path we decide to take, we can have another election in 6 months to a year.

Won't Trump's appointments to the NLRB take away our rights?

Trump will likely appoint a new member to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at the end of this year. Most observers anticipate that the new composition of the NLRB will soon overturn the 2016 Columbia ruling, which recognized that graduate students at private universities are, in fact, workers. The decision, however, would not prevent graduate students at private institutions from forming a union and engaging in collective bargaining with the university.

Trying to win a recognition election and bargaining contract as quickly as possible before the expected changes to the NLRB board and Columbia decision is, in fact, already letting the university management and the powerful elite determine the limits of our unionization efforts. With legal challenges to the Columbia decision pending, any contract we negotiate with Cornell and any promise Cornell makes to honor an agreement would be irrelevant in three to five years when the contract expires, and we would be back to square one — that is no union, and no legal recognition that we are workers. The only way to build real power is to mobilize the rank and file membership to make our voices clear and loud to the administration.

In fact, GSOC, the NYU graduate union successfully maintained itself and its movement even after the Bush administration’s appointments decided to revoke graduate students’ legal ability to organize, and gained recognition despite the NLRB, which still did not recognize graduate workers at private universities as workers then. This could happen and did happen because NYU graduate workers built a strong collective labor power allied with other groups on campus and in the community that forced NYU administration to recognize them (And guess what? They have a caucus too.) We plan to do the same in spite of Trump's decisions.

Why form a caucus?

A caucus gives us an independent channel to communicate with membership without undue influence and filtering from our affiliate unions. It also allows us to address structural issues within CGSU by speaking with a collective voice from within the union. Throughout this campaign, we fought for our principles as individuals. Forming a caucus now will help us work together and collectively to democratize the union.

Do you have a question which is not adressed here? Please send us an email!
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.