Jaron’s Blog

Letter to Grads on Unionization

Hello fellow grads,

My name is Jaron Kent-Dobias and I’m a Teaching Assistant and PhD Candidate in the Physics Department at Cornell. In many ways, the physics program treats its grads very well—we’re relatively well-paid, extended opportunities for TAship as often as we’d like, and permitted to settle on an advisor with leisure. Because of these departmental benefits, many physicists don’t think unionization will help them. I’m voting “yes” for unionization because I know they are wrong.

I’m voting “yes” because I want our benefits to be guaranteed by a contract. Cornell management claims it wants to extend us these benefits, so why not set them in stone? If all negotiation leads to is a contract guaranteeing what Cornell says they provide, we will have won something substantial. Cornell says they adjust stipends to maintain quality of life, but at best they miss the rapidly inflating mark and at worst they randomly cut our wages. Cornell says they want to support us when we’re injured on the job, but instead fights to prevent us from getting workers’ compensation benefits. We deserve more from our Departments and Cornell than niceties—we deserve legal assurance.

I’m voting “yes” because I believe my colleagues across Cornell deserve comparable treatment. Many physicists assume that our benefits are a Cornell default and are surprised to learn that even our colleagues in engineering fare far worse. Most departments limit opportunities to work as a TA to a few semesters or less, so when grants or advisor relations fall through there is no financial backing or visa extension. Most departments require grads to find a research advisor within a semester or two of arriving, with the threat of being dropped if no one takes them, and some departments intentionally over-admit with the expectation of dropping grads. Our peers deserve the kind of respectful and fair treatment that we enjoy.

I’m voting “yes” because even our treatment isn’t good enough. The physics department does well in some ways, but tows the University line in others. I have friends in physics with horror stories about their attempts to navigate the University’s inflexible yet inscrutable maternity and family support policy while administrators and in and above the department offered confusing and inconsistent information, or their experience with the chain of faculty, directors and deans that make up the early stages of our heavily faculty-biased grievance process. No physicist has a good option for dental insurance, or any option for vision. And we all are made to sign nonnegotiable agreements that strip us of any intellectual property rights for the products of our labor. We deserve more.

I’m voting “yes” because I want fair academic work after I graduate. After Cornell, I want to get a job teaching and doing research in academia. Universities of every sort rely more and more heavily on adjunct and contingent faculty for the bulk of their research and teaching labor. These positions are funded on a semester-by-semester basis, offer little to no track towards more permanent work, and fail to provide many standard employment benefits, like comprehensive health care or workers’ compensation. Does this sound familiar? Today’s postgraduates are increasingly given jobs cut from the mold of graduate ones. Participating in the national trend to improve graduate working conditions helps raise the floor for all positions subsequent. We deserve security and benefits today and tomorrow that match the highly skilled work we do, not whatever is most convenient for institutions.

These are a few among many compelling reasons to support unionization of graduate workers at Cornell. Detractors of our union ask questions about rising costs, decreased flexibility, and harm to advisor relationships. Fortunately, those questions have answers. The latest research on graduate unionization shows that graduate unions do increase stipends, that they correlate positively with “both the personal support and professional support dimensions of student-teacher relationships,” and that the vast majority of faculty and grads at unionized institutions don’t feel like their relationships were changed for the worse. Even the faculty who study labor relations at our own institution believe this. Scientists know that reason requires more than just asking questions—you must study the answers and correct your ideas accordingly. The consensus is real: graduate unionization at Cornell is to our benefit. That’s why I’m voting “yes” on Monday, and you should too.


Jaron Kent-Dobias
Cornell Physics TA & PhD Candidate

This post originally appeared in an email sent by CGSU to its members on the eve of its 2017 recognition election.