By Nicole Oliviera
At the beginning of the spring semester, I sat down to interview Sena Aydin, a third-year graduate student studying Anthropology and a member of Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU). CGSU was founded in 2014 as a union of graduate students committed to improving working conditions at Cornell. Its members advocate for the recognition of graduate students as workers and are united by their goal of securing collective bargaining rights with the University. CGSU represents teaching assistants, research assistants, and graduate assistants. Aydin is also a member of the Rank and File Democracy Caucus, which was created after the election this past March. Made up of 16 graduate students, the caucus is currently challenging CGSU’s tactics.
NO: Why do you think organizing is so important? Why should graduate students be organized?
SA: On the basis of our labor in the sense that it cannot function without our labor. If you present that aspect and say, “unless this power is organized” when you have a problem at the university as a worker, you are alone to solve it. You are one individual against this entire institution with lots of departments, lots of power, and lots of money.
The situation of employment in the U.S. is that you are employed at will, which means you can be fired for whatever reason, and whatever the real reason is can be put under the excuse of some bullshit reason, too.
I mean, the whole reason of firing includes both official and unofficial reasons—let’s put it that way. Unless you are organized you will not be able to solve that and go against that.
NO: Right, I agree. How did you get involved with CGSU to begin with? Is this your first time organizing and if not, when did you first start?
SA: This is more of a personal question so I will answer it in my way, and this is not representative of the larger CGSU body. I’ve been organizing back home—it’s been more than 10 years.
NO: Where are you from?
SA: Turkey. The first time I got involved with [organizing], I guess it was gradually realizing [that there are] certain systems of power and play and how that creates injustice and inequality among people. I wanted to do something about that. I realized that unless you are organized, you cannot really counter those systems.
And that is the kind of thinking that turns the idea of organizing from political activism that you do here and there when you have time to a necessity. It has become a part of my life, something that actually structures my life and how I think of my life and the future as well. So, where I’m going to go…will there be chances to be organized, where would I be more useful in terms of what I do in the future? It’s been a part of my life for a very long time to the point that I didn’t need any convincing to join CGSU.
When it was first forming, I knew that it was some students who gathered together and thought about the possibility of forming a union and advancing it and organizing. Graduate students ran the union on campus. I was hearing it from far away because I was on a leave of absence in Turkey, but the moment I heard it I was like: “I’m in, count me [as] a member.” So, in that sense I don’t know how to not be organized for a union.
I can never see myself being against a union because like I said, it becomes a necessity when you see all of these structures in place. It’s not a pastime or a hobby, it’s like what we need to do to be able to get to a more just world and also it makes it even more originally relevant. I mean it’s relevant everywhere, but like here we are an institution that is a corporation, but the main purpose of academic institutions is to produce knowledge to challenge the status quo and we [at the moment] are aiming at that without actually challenging the status quo in our lives, through our own labor…what’s the point?
So, it’s also a way at least within academia to bring theory and practice together. So, we do what we teach— which is fight against the injustice, and [organizing] is one way to do that. And it is not necessarily to say that this is a “front” war or that we hate the administration. We (CGSU members) don’t like the fact that [the university] is anti-union, we think that it is really hypocritical in many ways.
NO: I saw the email from President Rawlings.
SA: I mean those emails they were allowed to send, that one email from Rawlings, because the agreement that we have with the university allowed them one chance to speak up and say what they wanted to say. It’s not them saying it (publicly addressing the issue in an email), it’s just them having an anti-union stance while running a university that is producing critical knowledge; it just doesn’t make sense.
It makes them hypocrites and kind of reveals the corporatization of higher education in the U.S. Their loyalty is more to the profit-driven research that is going to give prestige to the board of trustees than to make sure that people who are producing the kind of knowledge to bring them prestige have their well-being set in place, that they are being paid fairly, that their life is centered at a certain level, that they get the money and the commissions that they deserve.
I would say that may be a generalization, but if I think about it, many graduate students here, including me, are standard normal “students.” That means I don’t have any problems with the administration, I don’t have any problems with my department, but that’s not the point.
The point is not to do something when you have a problem. The point is to organize so that you don’t even get to a place where you have problems. That also makes the reason for organizing not to fight against problems, but really in a normal situation I don’t want the administration to make decisions on my behalf, to make decisions about things that concern my life and well-being and labor here at Cornell without even asking me.
Right now, the situation is [the administration] can change whatever they want about our lives, about our stipends, about our well-being, about workplace conditions, and healthcare without asking us a single question and we will just have to put up with it.
So, that’s the situation that we’re trying to change. Unionizing means us saying we are the workers of this institution. We are an integral part and essential part of this institution’s functioning and running, and we want to have a say in the ways and decisions that are affecting our lives and labor— that’s it.
NO: That’s reasonable.
SA: You don’t need to have a problem for that, you don’t need to be fired for that, and you don’t need some case or accident. This is not about fixing a problem—there are many problems, granted. There are many students that have many problems that are going through various cases that are pretty unsettling, but if you just talk about even the standard normal. This is why we’re here because we know our interests the best, so we get to have a say in them.
NO: How do CGSU’s efforts affect undergraduates? How can they be more aware of what’s happening?
SA: The way that it affects undergrads I think is two-fold. One is that being a union member and having a graduate student union on campus, as much as it is about improving [grad students] standards and having a say that our lives are governed at Cornell as graduate students, it is also a political position against the corporatization of education in the U.S. This also harms undergrads and their education—both the quality and the content, but also the way that they receive it. Meaning [undergrads] have to pay higher tuitions and you think that’s okay. [They] pay hundreds of bucks for books and stuff, so the union that we [grad students] have is not going to directly affect any of that. But these kinds of political interventions in higher education are going to have a long-term effect in the ways through which our education is now seen because if many forces challenge universities and institutions of higher education in the U.S., that is going to have an effect on the shape and form that [education] takes. [Universities] cannot be corporations and education should be free. Neither grads nor undergrads should have go through thousands of dollars of debt to be able to get a fucking education.
So, this is one indirect way in the larger scheme of things as to how this will affect you—it is a political statement against the university as such. Another way is also maybe in- direct, but that it is an experience that you see happening in front of your eyes and that another reason why we are doing this is so that [undergraduates] don’t have to do this in the future.
That doesn’t mean that all of you are necessarily going into higher education, but the situation that is happening in higher education is even worse in other sectors. You are going to find yourself in a situation like this one way or another because all jobs are under conditions of austerity, crisis, and precarity. All jobs are flexible and insecure. Subcontracting is all over the place, including in academia. If you look at the situation of adjuncts at Ithaca College….
So, this is, again, putting it within the large scheme of struggle of organized labor and struggle against capitalism. If we don’t do this, you will have to do this, and if we do this we are not just doing it for ourselves. We are doing it for everyone else that comes after because this is not just to get a three-year contract and that’s it. This is actually to set a political tradition in this university where people know how to seek their rights. When people learn that this is an integral part of one’s life, that your labor matters, that you matter, that you need to get a say in the way that your life is governed and your labor is governed…then that’s going to have larger effects.
And in terms of how to help…go out and talk to your peers. Go out and talk to people because one way that the system works when it comes to organized labor, since it’s organized, the best way to break it is to create divisions. So, one way to illegitimatize our unionization efforts is to create a division between us and the undergrads which means “oh okay, graduate students want more stuff so we are going to have to increase undergraduate tuition” and [grads and undergrads] really need to get together and say “What you really need to do is stop caring about the [university’s] profit and start caring about this institution producing knowledge without that profit-driven mentality. You know cut the costs of (this is a stupid example), but painting the street lamps so they can look nice when parents come to visit the university…like who gives a shit about that? Nobody is coming here to have nice lamps.
But I think it’s important for us to stand together in solidarity, not just because this is your future. In a way, even if you don’t go into academia, these kinds of problems are in your future so you are already comrades to us. Also, because the best way to stand against top-down power is to stand united. So, supporting meaning talking to people also letting your peers know what unionization and organized labor means because the transmission of knowledge is important. People being politicized on campus, in general, is also important given the current political situation that we have. We may lose everything in the future. If the [National Labor Relations Board] decision turns and we are not workers, again we can have a collective bargaining agreement which will last however long it lasts. Then after that Cornell has no obligation to renew it and it probably won’t. In which case the only thing that we will have left will be the political power that we helped build on campus and that power doesn’t only include us—it also includes undergrads.
NO: That’s true. What do you think about other graduate students getting organized at different campuses like Yale, for example?
SA: Of course, I support it. I don’t know what more to say, but I think this is powerful. Organized labor has been on the rise in higher education, which actually shows the state of affairs being bad. It’s happening in other places and is not just limited to the U.S.
NO: Can you talk about how you felt the day before the election? Other than a majority vote ‘yes’, what were you hoping the results would mean for graduate students and the greater Cornell community?
SA: I was actually one of the people who was overly pessimistic. That requires a background story. One of the reasons we were critical was because we saw the campaigning on campus solely targeting an election rather than building a union. Since the target was election, the purpose of organizing was to vote “yes.” This did not translate to educating people, but rather visiting people over and over again to get one answer. This instrumental relationship started to backfire. People [graduate students] were more and more alienated because of the way the union came into contact with them. When a few members criticized this earlier, we were shut down. But people have started seeing that what we were saying was true.
I was hoping that we would win, but I was thinking it would be harder to win. It was more stress and sadness for me, to see something that started so beautifully from the bottom-up just turn into this. I just wanted to get the election over with.
I was also quite reactionary against going up to people and asking how they were going to vote. Asking how you are going to vote may be okay in the U.S., but many of the graduate students, including myself, are international students. For a lot of us, voting is sacred. To me, asking someone how they were voting was offensive.
I never asked anyone to vote “yes” or how they were going to vote. And I liked the CGSU buttons, but I did not like “I voted ‘yes’” stickers. We should have had “I voted” stickers so anyone could wear it. We created more divisions going the way we did.
NO: How did you feel about the way voting was handled, considering several ballots need to be contested?
SA: There were some ballots that were “yes”, some that were “no”, and some that were challenge ballots. Some people marked “yes” and then scratched it out, so it was not clear what they voted for.
I was not in the room when the votes were counted, but the challenge votes mentioned in the Daily Sun were votes challenged during voting. What that means is someone comes up to the voting station, but they are not eligible to vote. Those ballots were contested because no one can deny the student from voting once they are there. So, those ballots had to be set aside and put in an envelope. They needed to be resolved later. I believe there were 81 challenge votes and 6 absentee votes (from people who were not on campus, but sent them by mail).
The official results are still unclear because those votes are still being challenged. If you do the easy math though, if we have 19 ballots that are being challenged and 10 of those are “no” votes, we would still lose. So, even though the results are not “official”, we lost. I find it kind of ridiculous that some people still don’t want to accept that we lost the election.
NO: What is your opinion on the involvement of the administration prior to the election? How did you feel about Dean Knuth using “Ask a Dean” to answer questions related to CGSU or Professor Collum?
SA: There was a code of conduct between CGSU and the university that prevented the university from speaking openly against the union even though it was kind of obvious that they are anti-union. I mean, [Cornell was] one of the universities that was against graduate student unionization at Columbia University.
But since [the University] would not talk about it openly, they did that stupid “Ask a Dean” thing. Whether you are a graduate student against or for the union, a majority of graduate students recognize how bullshit those emails were and the discursive tricks used to talk about [CGSU]. The fact that [Ask a Dean] tried to maintain appearances made it even more ridiculous.
The “Ask a Dean” emails did us a service though, because it showed how much the university does not care about [graduate students] or know anything about us. When it comes to pointing fingers at individual people like Knuth or Collum, that is when we get away from the structural inequalities and away from the bigger issues at hand. By individualizing the problems, we are making it about people, and not about the power relationships between the people that need to make a living and this institution.
I was always against pointing fingers at them because that takes away from our goal. It’s not about Knuth or Collum, it’s just about people’s titles, and if someone were to replace them it would be the same problem.