Rank and File Democracy Caucus

RFDC Slate for 2017-2018 Steering Committee Elections
Election Information:
What is a slate? What is the Rank and File Democracy Caucus Slate?

A slate is a list of candidates to be considered for nomination in multi-seat or multi-position elections, who each run for a different position, but run together as a group on a common platform as opposed to running independently.

In general, the common platform may be because the candidates are all members of a political group or party, have the same or similar policies, or share certain principles of governance.

The RFDC slate candidates are united under common principles about unionization and how it should be practiced on Cornell's campus. These principles build upon the values that underlies the Rank and File Democracy Caucus: CGSU autonomy, bottom-up democracy, and transparency.

Why a slate?

The Steering Committee is composed of all the elected officers of CGSU. They are tasked with running committees and making sure that committees function in coordination and cooperation, as well as handling day-to-day affairs of the union. We strongly believe that elected officers positions are not positions of power; but positions of responsibility towards the membership in ensuring the good and welfare of CGSU, which rest upon the fulfillment of the values we pledge: autonomy, bottom-up democracy, and transparency.

When the elected officers feel so comfortable and entitled in the place that they are put by the members, they lose touch with the members, stop informing and listening to members, and start assuming that their interests and opinions exactly match with the members’ interests and opinions at large. That is called a union bureaucracy. We are against union bureaucracies; and we are all against becoming one. Because when a union is run in a fashion that is removed from its membership, that is when we all lose. And we cannot afford to keep losing.

We have seen our union increasingly losing touch with its members, letting its autonomy go and subscribing under instrumental prescriptions dictated by AFT over the course of the past election campaign, despite criticisms from members actively involved in the union, including a number of current Steering Committee members. We have the desire to raise our union to its actual potential: an autonomous mechanism for all graduate workers to democratize their workplace and to have a say in decisions that affect their labor and lives.

We do not or may not necessarily see everything eye to eye—we come from different backgrounds, countries, departments and have different immediate needs and priorities. But we run together as a slate for the upcoming Steering Committee elections because we all share the above mentioned criticisms regarding the functioning of CGSU and its lack of autonomy; and we all share common values and principles for a healthy governance of CGSU. These principles are outlined below.

Shared Principles of RFDC Candidates
1: The need to listen to and respect the will and concerns of ALL graduate workers

We would like CGSU to organize on campus with openness and respect for the concerns of CGSU members and non-members alike. We will work to shape our organizing strategies and outreach to encourage graduate workers’ input and to reflect the concerns of the graduate and professional student community.

We also would certainly like all graduate students to unionize; but we are against moral and personal condemnation of those who choose to not unionize. We instead believe in open and public dialogue and engagement with different or opposing views. We do not want to have an inward-looking union that is afraid of engaging critics.

2: Recognition of CONFLICT OF INTEREST between CGSU and AFT

CGSU and AFT/NYSUT are independent organizations, and their interests do not always align. These conflicts of interest has manifested itself in the day-to-day operation of CGSU in the past election campaign. For instance, we would only start paying dues to AFT/NYSUT after we secure a bargaining contract with the university, indicating that our affiliates might be content with a (any) contract; This is in conflict with the needs of graduate students to have a strong contract.

CGSU needs to address these conflicts of interest by clarifying our relationship with our affiliate unions. In order to guarantee our autonomy and act in the interest of graduate students, we have clear demands from AFT/NYSUT regarding our terms of affiliation and their engagement with our unionization efforts. We will call our affiliation into question unless these demands are met.

3: Promise to not be financially compensated by AFT during our term in office, and promise to resign if we ever need to receive any kind of financial compensation from any affiliate

We are not against CGSU member employment by AFT/NYSUT; CGSU 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. However, we are against elected CGSU officers serving on the Steering Committee to receive financial compensation by our affiliates.

This helps to secure CGSU autonomy, by ensuring 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 and reflects the need for transparency and accountable unionism. The Steering Committee is the body of the union composed of elected officers tasked to address internal issues, including issues of conflict of interest between CGSU and its affiliates. Hence, it is of utmost importance that no one on the Steering Committee be paid by AFT/NYSUT so as to pursue the good and welfare of CGSU without any explicit or implicit employer pressure. This is not a hypothetical situation, as there have been several concrete examples of conflicts of interest which were not resolved in good faith, but instead through internal grievances and membership submissions to the Steering Committee.

No slate candidate running for the upcoming Steering Committee elections has ever been, nor is currently being, paid by AFT/NYSUT. We all refuse to receive any kind of financial compensation from our affiliates during our term in the office. We also make a public promise to resign from our elected positions, if our future financial or personal situation change in such a way to compel us to take a paid-position offered by an affiliate.

4: Fostering an INCLUSIVE union culture beyond the “bargaining unit”

We are opposed to the division among graduate students imposed by the Cornell administration that divided us into two categories: those who are in the bargaining unit and those who are fellows. Unfortunately, CGSU, in line with the AFT organizing model, reproduced this division imposed upon us, by solely targeting graduate workers in the bargaining unit as potential “yes” votes in the election. This division, coupled with an aggressive and invasive organizing campaign, alienated fellows who felt they did not belong to the union, or that they were not as valuable as those members in the bargaining unit.

Fellows make up a large portion of the graduate students at Cornell in any given semester. Moreover, most of us fall in and out of the bargaining unit, as we may be a fellow one semester, and a TA/RA/GA the next. We believe in an inclusive approach to unionization, where all members have equal voice and value, and receive equal respect and attention.

5: Commitment to TRANSPARENCY and informing members

We do not want to derive power from secrecy. We are not interested in holding information back from members to keep up appearances or to control the discourse or opinions of members. We commit to be fully transparent with members within all union spaces and regarding all union decisions.

Currently all meetings of CGSU are open to all members. However, members are not regularly informed about CGSU meetings and their contents. We will establish a culture of regular communication regarding union meetings and activities, for instance weekly union update emails. We would foster spaces for communication and criticism by holding drop-in meetings on campus in addition to regular Steering Committee meetings for membership to interact directly with us, and ensure all minutes and decisions are readily available to all members who cannot attend.

More importantly, in the case of bargaining negotiations with the university if we win recognition in the near future, all slate candidates will advocate for open bargaining -- that is, any graduate student may sit in the bargaining negotiations, instead of negotiations taking place behind closed doors.

6: Desire to collaborate with other graduate organizations and larger community

There are issues that affect us as graduate students and researchers (ex: unclear expectations, rushed deadlines and shortened windows for A exams) and other issues that affect us as graduate workers (ex: additional conditions to receive funding that are not outlined in our admission contracts, work safety and security, unpredictable stipend rates, being overworked as RA/TA/GAs, etc.). In addition, there are issues we face that transcend student-worker divisions, such as gender or racial discrimination, safety of international members of our community, affordable housing for grads, or family and child care support.

All these issues are our issues, affecting our (and our families’) lives, labor, and well-being at Cornell. Instead of isolating issues under separate jurisdictions and statutes, we believe in addressing them in collaboration and cooperation with diverse and multiple advocacy groups and organizations at Cornell and Ithaca, such as Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement affiliated diversity groups, international student associations at Cornell, and Workers’ Center in Ithaca.

7: Will to improve CGSU Constitution based upon member discussions and feedback

CGSU was formed as a horizontal democracy in an attempt to counter Cornell’s top-down structure. Among other things, the current CGSU Constitution accomplishes two things: (1) it guarantees a bottom-up and member-driven structure by 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.

While we believe that the above-mentioned aspects of the Constitution ensure a transparent and accountable framework for unionism and democratic collective action, we also feel the necessity of improving the shortcoming of our Constitution, through clarifying internal decision-making processes and enhancing democratic accountability and autonomy, 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. These initial suggestions derive from lived experiences of caucus members throughout their active involvement with CGSU; and their realization of how these shortcomings have become barriers in practicing bottom-up, transparent and autonomous unionism.

We suggest holding a retreat in early Fall in addition to other continuous forums for member involvement to discuss possible revisions to the Constitution and to improve it based upon member discussions and feedback. We welcome formation of working groups by any members who are willing to work on drafting suggestions to revise and improve our current Constitution in parts, or as a whole.

8: PRACTICING A MEMBER-DRIVEN UNION: working to address issues without waiting for a recognition election

Establishing a union involves winning a recognition election and a bargaining contract; there is no doubt about that. However, this does not mean delaying making demands, working towards resolving issues and addressing criticisms until after a recognition election.

For us, a recognition election is not the “ends,” but it is part of the process of building a union. A collective bargaining contract is not a magical document that will give us a strong union on a golden tray. collective bargaining contract is not equal to a strong collective bargaining contract. A strong contract is not one that grants us power; it is one that rises upon and secures the collective power and efforts that we have already built.

We do not believe in “magic-bullet” (delivery or granting of solutions and prescriptions in the absence of bottom-up voices, efforts and infrastructures) approaches to unionism. The only sustainable way to establish a union and to democratize the workplace is to practice unionism now and always, without waiting to win a recognition election.

To that end, we will encourage the formation of issue-based working groups, and campaigns, collaboration and cooperation among members and diverse groups in identifying, addressing and resolving issues that we face as part of our every-day life at Cornell.

RFDC Slate Candidates

I believe union organizing is about building a well-connected and well-informed community, as well as fostering an inclusive and engaging culture among graduate and professional students. It’s time our organizing extend beyond the immediate goal of winning an election and reach out to all graduate and professional students, not just those in the bargaining unit. Organizing is personal. It’s about in-depth conversations between friends. It’s about advocating for our colleagues in difficult situations. It’s about contributing in whatever way we can to help build a transparent and democratic union. It should not be about unsolicited texts, phone calls, office visits, lab visits, or house visits.

I am committed to building communities with diverse members. As the co-president of the Cornell chapter of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics for the past two years, I have had the privilege to help build a community of LGBTQ+ graduate students within the Cornell Graduate School. Starting from a dozen people, we are now a 250-member strong graduate student organization. I learned how to plan a variety of social, academic, and professional events to engage different constituents of oSTEM. I learned how to create an inclusive and welcoming space where members can voice their opinions. And I learned how to listen to members and turn their constructive criticism into actionable items. As a Graduate Community Advisor at the Hasbrouck Community, I have further developed my skills to plan and execute programs and events for the diverse community of graduate and professional residents. I believe I am well-positioned to apply these skills to lead the organizing campaign for CGSU.

I am committed to collaborating across organizations. As one of the oSTEM representatives on the Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement Leadership Council, I interact regularly with student leaders from several other OISE affiliated student organizations (see here for a complete list), as well as student groups in College of Engineering, Vet School, and the Business School. I believe these organizational communication channels can be a useful tool for CGSU to initiate collaborations with various student groups on projects of mutual interest.

Beyond organizing, I agree with the basic principles shared by the Rank and File Democracy Caucus. I think the past campaign demonstrated the detriment of a top-down and opaque organization, riddled with conflict of interest between CGSU and AFT/NYSUT, who have a vested interest in Cornell grads signing *any* contract. As soon as we sign a contract, AFT/NYSUT starts to collect dues from us. It is time we acknowledge this basic conflict of interest and critically reevaluate the relationship with our affiliate unions. Going forward, I believe we need to reclaim the democracy and transparency of CGSU, reignite our rank-and-file enthusiasm, and lay down clear boundaries between AFT/NYSUT involvement and CGSU internal processes.

I am running for the position of Administrative Liaison as part of the Rank and File Democracy Caucus Slate. I seek to serve our union CGSU as administrative liaison to represent our collective voice in resolute communications with Cornell. For ten years, I worked with unions and labor advocates in the Americas, Asia and Europe to challenge companies, governments and international institutions to respect workers’ rights. At my former workplace, International Labor Rights Forum, I also co-led first union contract negotiations with management on behalf and in close communication with my fellow workers. Now as a student of labor relations at the Industrial & Labor Relations School, I appreciate the opportunity to learn from the field’s leading scholars and to share best practices with our union for our strategic consideration. As a CGSU member, I am thrilled to work with all fellow graduate student workers to exercise our fundamental labor rights at Cornell. In the role of administrative liaison, I commit to maintain open communications with all CGSU members and engage the University on our union’s principles.

From the time I joined CGSU, the prominent discussions in the meetings were to decide whether democracy is good or bad, i.e. whether listening to all members was good or bad. One example of this was the criticism that members made on house visits. Asking CGSU members in leadership positions to listen to our own members was something that we constantly had to fight for. It was perhaps the only thing we have been fighting for in CGSU, while there were many other issues that we could have engaged with in meaningful ways.

The caucus is not a brand new invention. Individual members have been fighting for the principles of the caucus for quite a long time. These struggles have now crystallized in the form of a caucus. The emergence of RFDC is a crucial moment in CGSU’s history, because it pointed out what went wrong in the past campaign and demonstrated that our fight for transparency and democracy is not just the concerns of the ‘anti-union few.’ We had to fight for a democratic union with our own members. Unfortunately, some CGSU members in leadership positions used the concept of “tyranny of majority” as a slogan to disagree with us whenever we raised the concerns of not listening to the members, although there is an obvious example of this country which emerged from the mechanism established to prevent it. Thus, the one and only reason I am a caucus member is because I believe in the democratic principle where we all respect and listen to everyone’s voice and their concerns.

My primary objective as a member of this union is to advocate for my fellow graduate students. While I’m treated well by my college and department, I recognize that this may not be the case for all of you and I’d like to do my part to help- I’m sure you would do the same for me. Many of you may be confused by this election, expecting that the recent vote was the end of the CGSU. I cannot speak to the potential of future recognition, but I can say that with or without it, we are stronger together than we are alone.

I identify as a member of the Rank and File Caucus because when I decided I wanted to be more involved in the union efforts, its members welcomed my thoughts and experiences with open arms. This is what I want for the future of CGSU. As a parent, I have some perspective on the challenges faced by graduate students with families, but I also realize the limits of this perspective. As the Chairperson of Communications and Outreach for the CGSU, my mission will be to seek out the diverse perspectives of Cornell graduate students in a respectful and accessible fashion.

My experience as a community advocate, graduate and undergraduate coursework in industrial and labor relations, and work experience as a leadership coordinator for the Research Foundation at SUNY have prepared me to serve as the CGSU’s Chair of Communications and Outreach. In these roles I have learned the danger of banket outreach strategies, and the importance of personalizing communication efforts. In addition, through numerous committee positions, I have seen first-hand both the constructive and destructive nature of conflict in organizations. Therefore, if elected, I would firmly recommend that all CGSU committee members complete an intensive weekend course on conflict resolution, offered by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Given the overwhelming concerns about division in the leadership, we should ensure that those we elect are not only qualified to serve in their respective roles, but qualified to work as a group toward the goal of engaging and empowering Cornell graduate students.

A union is, fundamentally, the best way we have to democratise our workplace. It empowers us, as graduate student workers, to have a say in our working conditions. This philosophy must be reflected within our own union, through a horizontal democracy that embraces the diversity of opinions and experiences of our members. Our current structure is centralized, opaque, top-down, but it need not be that way. We can embrace what gives us strength - our numbers, our diversity, and our varied opinions - to create an organization that practices rank-and-file, democratic unionism.

I am heavily involved in student advocacy here at Cornell. As a woman in a highly male-dominated field, I have strived to improve the conditions within my department as a part of our Diversity and Inclusion Council, and incorporated diversity training in our recruitment and orientation, as well as ongoing bias training for graduate students. More broadly, within the Cornell community, I have served as a vice-president for oSTEM (out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to improve the LGBT climate here on campus, as well as a president for GWIS (Graduate Women in Science) which has focused on improving the climate for women and gender minorities. I am serving as a graduate student ambassador, to recruit more diverse graduate students, and helped with Expanding Your Horizons to empower middle school girls. I am also an instructor for CPEP (Cornell Prison Education Program), which aims to facilitate inmate’s reintegration into the community by providing associate's degrees from Cayuga Community College. It is for these reasons that I am so drawn to CGSU, since a union is a mechanism by which we can successfully address many of these structural inequalities.

I have been involved in CGSU since September of 2016, when I joined the Organizing Committee. Ever since, I have actively advocated against the corporatised organising model presented to us by AFT, and will continue to do so. We need to acknowledge the mistakes that were made and the conflict of interest between CGSU and our affiliates, in order to move towards a more inclusive union that places members at the forefront.

I am the GPSA field representative from the math department. GPSA has long been the bastion of graduate and professional student collective power at the university, and for CGSU to thrive we need to learn from them. There will be fights that are best fought through GSPA, and others better suited to CGSU. Ensuring that we are working together rather than getting in each other’s way would be my main goal as GSPA Liaison.

My union ideals are in line with the CGSU Rank and File caucus. I believe we owe the Cornell graduate student community a sincere apology for our failure to respect boundaries and community requests during the recognition election. Moving forward we need to be focused on building collective power rather than winning a recognition election. To this end, if we are to remain affiliated with the national/state unions AFT/NYSUT (who financially benefit only if we gain official recognition and sign a contract) then I believe we must demand an affiliation agreement that better protects local CGSU interests.

I believe rank-and-file unionism holds the only promise of building and sustaining a unified union. As Unity Standing Committee Chair, I will adopt a unionization approach that is member-centered, bottom-up, democratic, and transparent. The failed union recognition campaign underscores the urgent need to undertake structural and operational changes within CGSU to establish and further unity, rank-and-file democracy, and autonomy. To build collective power, I will help create an inclusive environment that welcomes graduate worker engagement, address the needs of all members, and solidify our commitment to ally ourselves with student organizations on campus and beyond.

I became involved in CGSU after attending my first General Assembly meeting this past October, and observing that concerns regular members were bringing up were frequently being sidelined or ignored. In response, I wrote an open letter which I sent to the union Organizing Committee and Steering Committee as a strongly supportive, concerned member—attached here (pdf)—with the goal of encouraging better communication and better union-building by actively engaging and addressing member concerns.

I was surprised by the mixed response to this letter. I received a number of positive, supportive emails, including from many active organizing members who had written or brought up similar concerns. At the same time, members of the Steering Committee actively opposed circulating it’s contents, out of a stated concern that open discussion would “hurt our strategy to win.”

I believe that a union can only truly be member driven when “our strategy to win” is couched in keeping graduate students more, not less, informed. I believe our union can only be member driven when the meaning of “win” is determined by open conversations between a mutually respecting and informed membership, who know best what their own collective wants and needs are, and does not simply mean getting grad students names on union cards. I think that many member and non-member graduate students have felt alienated from CGSU in the past year due to a pervasive top-down, paternalistic approach. I think that the first step towards rebuilding graduate student trust in CGSU is by electing steering committee members who in turn trust and respect their fellow graduate students enough to believe that information transparency, membership empowerment to make substantive decisions, and robust, open debate are what make our union strong. I am running for the CGSU membership coordinator position so that I can advocate for and help build a union that not only responds to, but is defined by, the will of all of its membership.

I am a second year PhD student in International and Comparative Labor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In addition to organizing with CGSU, I have been involved with various student groups and organizations including The People’s School, Science for the People, Cornell Independent Students’ Union, and Students for Justice in Palestine.

As a member of the Organizing Committee, I was dismayed by the extent to which winning formal recognition was viewed as a panacea for the current power imbalance within the university. This flawed mentality found expression in an organizing model that alienated many graduate students and came across as a sales pitch rather than a collective effort to improve working conditions and advocate for progressive change. Most tellingly, it ultimately failed to achieve its stated goal of winning a recognition election to establish legal protections and rights for graduate students in the workplace.

By viewing formal recognition as an end in itself and promising to advocate for graduate students only after obtaining legal status as the exclusive bargaining representative of graduate workers, the union subscribed to a model that failed to inspire members to work collectively to address common issues. I firmly believe that we will fail to win recognition unless we implement a fundamentally different model that: 1) brings members together to discuss problems and issues within departments and more broadly in university policy; 2) encourages collective action matching demands with our power and leverage; and 3) commits to transparency within the union to encourage broad-based engagement rather than stifling dissenting opinions.

Finally, the National Labor Relations Board is expected to overturn the 2016 Columbia decision that recognized graduate students at private universities as workers. Despite the likely reversal of the Columbia decision, there is precedence for voluntary recognition of a graduate student union. Graduate workers at NYU built a strong and democratic union with tremendous support from undergraduates, university employees, and faculty, as well as from members of the wider community. It was largely because of these alliances that the graduate student union at NYU was able to win formal recognition from the administration despite the fact that graduate students at private universities were not legally recognized as workers. I believe it is imperative that we collaborate with allies on campus and in the community, and act in solidarity with fellow workers and social activists.

I am a candidate from the Rank and File caucus and I believe the caucus embodies what Gramsci once famously called a “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”—any politics to genuinely move forward needs a healthy dose of skepticism and self-critique that doesn't collapse into a kind of paralysis but becomes the catalyst to move forward. Along with all other caucus candidates, I believe union organizing rests upon transparency, member-driven democracy and autonomy.

These values shape my motivation as a candidate for Treasurer. Transparency in all financial matters is a necessary component of healthy unionism. That means, affiliate dues, CGSU financial foresights regarding spending and CGSU dues must all be determined in consultation with the members, and finances must be reported and explained regularly and in clear terms.

We also frequently hear, “it is not possible to do it alone” and often this view is justified via financial arguments. I approach these arguments with serious consideration that do not foreclose a productive degree of skepticism. So I am also interested in researching how autonomy translate into finances in order to educate and inform myself and all members about current and alternative scenarios on the basis of concrete financial plans and foresights.

I am running for Treasurer because I have years of experience, in my former life, with payroll and production accounting in the film industry, and thus have administered dues withholdings for hundreds of union employees, interacted with union representatives from around the country, and been accountable for managing budgets, cash and banking accounts, and cost reporting. So, I’m qualified. But, more importantly, I believe that Cornell’s graduate student workers deserve to understand the allocation of any proposed or withheld dues in as much detail as possible, and to democratically participate in determining the spending priorities of the body in general. I am committed to to the member-driven principles of the Rank and File Caucus, and thus to complete transparency in all of our financial matters.

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