As predicted by my quote at the end of this article in the Cornell student newspaper, I’ve spent the past week since the unionization vote catching up on my sleep and some of the other aspects of my life which were sorely neglected for the past month. After devoting at least 40 hours a week to this activity (and I don’t know who I’m trying to kid pretending any obsession of mine could take over that little of my life), I was quite burnt out from even thinking about the whole process. But I’m now well enough rested to reflect on the experience.
To this day, I am surprised by the huge margin by which the CASE/UAW union was voted down. I knew, from the first time I talked to a CASE/UAW organizer over a year ago, that they were running a political campaign. From the first time they misrepresented their opposition’s concerns in a string of strawman arguments, it was clear they wanted to win, not engage in honest, open debate. But even knowing all that, I heard their claims that they had wide support in all but one department (mine, incidentally), that they had somewhere between 60% and 80% support (depending on who you talked to), and they were certain to win. I still don’t know if it was strategy, or they really believed it.
The later is possible. Two out of the six leaders of At What Cost? signed union cards during the initial unionization drive, technically allowing them to be counted as supporters. One has to assume that others also changed their minds after signing cards, but were less vocal about the matter. Perhaps CASE/UAW never factored this into their calculations.
I suspect they certainly did not factor in the number of people who signed cards simply to make the organizers leave them alone. The card drive was quite agressive, with organizers going door-to-door with check lists of every student in each department. Students who expressed indecision were visited day after day, until they expressed opposition or signed a card, and many people told me that signing the card was the path of least resistance. Add in the fact that some people signed cards because they supported having a vote, but intended to vote no – not what the cards were meant to express, as they were used to indicate to the NLRB that there was sufficient interest in unionizaton to warrant a vote. We had long objected to card counts being used as a measure of support, but I never dreamed it could be so far off.
In a rather harsh commentary, a columnist in the student newspaper expressed what I think many people were thinking about the union defeat – ultimately, people didn’t like the people doing the organizing and their tactics, and didn’t want to give them the power they were requesting. People were turned off by seeing posters being ripped down, people being called and visited at their homes at night, and other aspects of the aggressively political campaign being run (many students got letters signed by Hillary Rodham Clinton and other New York democrats supporting graduate students’ right to vote on unionization, though not actually saying they should vote yes, I noticed). In our ivory tower idealism, graduate students want to believe that isn’t how decisions are made at places like Cornell. Hearing the same people engaging in these practices say that the vote is really about whether one believes in democracy just offended people even more.
The proposed CASE/UAW union was voted down at Cornell, but the unionization discussion is clearly far from over. Their website says that they will continue to meet and work on affecting graduate student conditions, and quotes from interviews make it clear that this will involve continued attempts to form a union. I have heard second hand that the 30% vote that was received is being interpreted as a mandate to push forward. A friend who sent e-mail to the address on their website to inquire about their upcoming meeting has yet to receive a reply – it remains to be seen how open the debate on whether and how to unionize will be. I would hope that the organizers would have understood that graduate students will not vote for a union in which they had no input as to the structure, composition, and affiliation. Graduate students will not tolerate a union formed through secrecy. At least, I hope they won’t.
Tomorrow: Background – How did all of this happen anyway?