American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten / Getty Images


The American Federation of Teachers appears unable to win a majority vote of graduate students at its president’s alma mater, although the final vote is still too close to call and may be appealed.

Graduate students at Cornell University voted 919-856 against organizing a union with the AFT on March 28. Eighty-one ballots remain uncounted as they are subject to challenge. Those ballots could shift the final tally, leading the union to cry foul.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president and Cornell Class of 1980, accused the university of meddling in the election in an email to graduate students the day before voting began. Weingarten said the university could reduce admissions and cut health care costs in the event of a union victory.

“The university sent communications on the eve of and during the election with the intention of chilling and intimidating voters,” she said in a release. “Cornell flagrantly violated the spirit of both the code of conduct we negotiated and federal labor law.”

The university did not respond to requests for comment.

Weingarten is one of the most prominent graduates of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations and has been a keynote speaker at university-sponsored events. She visited campus days before the vote to criticize professors who opposed unionization.

I am really offended that somebody who has a lot of power, and who has tenure and who has voice would actually say in a university that has an ILR school here, that having real labor relations is an existential threat,” Weingarten said at a March 25 rally. “Don’t tell me that they’re an existential threat when we have on this campus, and what makes this campus a great campus, what makes it a land-grant university is having an ILR school.”

The campaign to unionize began in 2014, when a group of students formed Cornell Graduate Students United. The group, which did not return request for comment, echoed Weingarten’s complaints about administrators while acknowledging that “a clear majority of voters didn’t vote ‘yes.'”

Though we’re proud of our campaign, we can’t say the same of Cornell’s conduct. The management has treated us with disrespect throughout the campaign,” the group said in a statement. “The Graduate School has used their position of power as our employer to try and influence results in a way that violates the spirit of our Code of Conduct agreement and has garnered national scrutiny.”

The election result may not matter one way or the other because student labor organizations are far from settled law. Federal labor regulators held for years that students did not qualify as employees subject to federal labor law. In 2000, the National Labor Relations Board—the nation’s top federal labor arbiter—ruled that graduate students’ work as teachers and researchers established them as workers. George W. Bush’s board overturned that decision in 2004. In August 2016, Barack Obama’s NLRB—led by Cornell graduate Mark Gaston Pearce—ruled once again that students had the right to organize.

Jerry Hunter, a management-side attorney at the law firm Bryan Cave and general counsel to the NLRB from 1989 to 1993, said Trump’s ability to fill NLRB vacancies could shift the board’s balance of power. However, Democrats still enjoy a 2-1 majority on the board and the administration has not put forward Republican nominees who would swing it the other direction.

There are a number of graduate assistant cases in the pipeline and more will come as long as unions continue to file petitions and universities continue to appeal to the board itself. That will give a Trump-dominated board the opportunity to reverse this quickly,” Hunter said.

The Cornell election was administered privately based upon a 2016 agreement between the school and union, rather than by the NLRB, which oversees union elections. Hunter said the union is able to file complaints to the NLRB or in federal court about Cornell’s conduct during the campaign “even though they were not using NLRB procedure” as long as the Obama board’s decision remains in effect.

The Cornell student group has pledged to continue working to organize no matter the election results. The group pointed to the vote as a dramatic swing from a 2002 election in which only 30 percent of voters approved unionization.

Our union is firmly established and will continue to advocate for our basic rights as workers. We’ll keep fighting for fairness, respect, and democracy at Cornell University, whether we’re at the bargaining table or not,” the group said.

The American Arbitration Association, which conducted the vote, is expected to issue the final results of the vote in the next month after they have resolved the issue of the challenged ballots.