Alliances in Higher Education Organizing: Faculty, Students, and Staff at Cornell University

Amanda Walter, Towson University

In 1980, the United Auto Workers launched a campaign to organize all non-exempt clerical, technical, and service and maintenance workers at Cornell University into a single local. The drive at Cornell emerged as a result of the activism of Active Concerned Employees, a multi-occupational group of workers seeking improved working conditions. Despite conventional wisdom, that the multi-occupational group would be harder to organize, workers thought that the larger group would give them more power. Lead organizer Barbara Rahke noted Boston University employed the strategy of challenging the bargaining unit composition to delay elections. Attempting to learn from their experience, the UAW decided to keep the multi-occupational group together to try to avoid the roadblock of a unit composition challenge. They also sought to foster solidarity and strength among all the workers, who shared the majority of grievances. By October 1980, the employees in the service and maintenance area pushed to separate and call an election. Along with faculty and student support, clerical and technical employees aided the service and maintenance unionization efforts with the expectation that service and maintenance workers would help their campaigns after the election. Based on oral histories and UAW records at the Kheel Center at Cornell, I contend that while technical and clerical workers ultimately failed to achieve union representation, the service and maintenance victory succeeded, in large part, due to their alliances with other workers on campus, a result of the campaign’s origins from the multi-occupational worker organization. The ability to forge the alliances contrasts with other contemporary campaigns in higher education. For example, the already unionized service and maintenance workers at Boston University were directly antagonistic to the organizing clerical workers. The legacy of employee alliances is seen in the 2014 to 2017 efforts to organize a graduate employee union at Cornell.

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 Presented in Session 251. Educational Work and Workers