What is union shop?

What does union shop mean?

A union shop is an agreement in our contract that requires all graduate students to pay union dues, regardless of their membership status. Synonymous in practice with agency shop, union security (this is technical legal jargon), and CGSU's deceptive euphemism, "universal membership," union shop requires all graduate students to make a choice: join the union and pay for their political activity or don't join the union, forfeit your right to vote for your bargaining representatives and your contract, and pay dues anyway. The opposite of a union shop is an open shop in which grad students would be free to choose whether or not to join the union and pay dues. CGSU's bargaining platform includes a union shop clause, which negates the freedom to choose whether or not to support the union, and commits all grad students to pay dues to the financially needy and politically radical national organization, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), as well as pay to platform CGSU's controversial political speech here on campus.

How is the union shop coercion legal?

In many places in the U.S. it isn't! Union shop and agency shop agreements are already illegal in public sector unions across the nation, as they are a fundamental infringement on the freedoms of speech and association established under the First Amendment. In the decade after the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed, Congress addressed its affront to individual liberties in the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which amended the NLRA to affirm the right of both sides to express their views and empower states to restrict union shops as their voters see fit. Today, over half of the states have banned union and agency shop agreements. The Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that agency shops do not constitute an unfair labor practice per se, but in 1988 guaranteed the right of all employees to opt out of paying for union political activities, but at the price of disenfranchisement from voting on union business e.g. contracts, officials, policy etc. Currently the only places where union shops remain legal are at private workplaces in certain states including New York. 

What does this mean for Cornell?

In private sector in states like New York, employers are required to bargain in good faith about a union shop agreement if the union proposes one. This means the Cornell administration faces a choice. They can capitulate to the demands for union shop to serve administrative interests e.g. avoiding negative press coverage, increased costs, and legal action, or they can protect the academic freedom of the graduate students. Given Cornell's commitment to freedom of expression, compelling grad students to join and financially support a political organization as a condition of our academic appointments is incongruous with the institution's values and its mission. It is inappropriate for the Cornell administration to strong-arm its graduate students into supporting a national political organization to earn their degrees. If CGSU demonstrates positive results, students will choose to join without coercion. 

State and federal law place the power to impose a union shop entirely in Cornell's hands. We must help Cornell find its courage to put the rights of grad students before its pocketbook. Tell Cornell that union shop is not academic freedom. Sign our open letter (you may remain anonymous). 

The National Labor Relations Board says every employee has the right not to join a union. How does this make sense?

Nobody can be compelled to join an organization like a labor union, as this violates the freedom of association afforded by the First Amendment. However, those who wish not to join a union can be compelled to pay dues anyway, which are called agency fees. In practice these means that union shops don't really exist and what CGSU-UE is demanding is the power to extract agency fees from all grad students. This is why "universal membership" is a lie. The best the union can do is get our money, but accurately labelling their proposal as agency shop would draw attention to this ugly reality. Whether or not all employees who object to joining a union must pay agency fees depends on decisions made during negotiations of the contract. For Cornell grad students, this means either CGSU-UE can decide not to push for agency fees or Cornell can decide that imposing agency fees on grad students is not appropriate and reject this proposal during bargaining. 

What is the difference between dues and agency fees? 

Practically speaking, there is not much difference in the amount of fees owed by members and non-members. Those employees who do not want to affiliate with the union have the right to object to paying for its political activities. This is known as the Beck right established in Communications Workers of America v. Beck (1988). Under current labor law, CGSU-UE enjoys the most discretion to decide whether an expense should or should not qualify as chargeable to non-member objectors, so in practice agency fees only differ from full member dues by a small amount. The Beck right, though well-motivated, ignores the obvious fact money is fungible, and paying any amount of dues to a union you don't support is degrading; even if they spend your agency fees on staplers and pens necessary for bargaining, this frees other funds for purposes you may not wish to endorse. 

Perhaps the most relevant distinction between paying agency fees and member dues is not the small numerical difference, but the massive disparity in political rights afforded to members versus non-members. Those who agreee to pay for CGSU-UE political activity enjoy full voting rights on the union representatives and on contract ratification while non-member objectors are stripped of the right to vote on all union-related matters, but still left to foot the bill. 

If everyone must pay some dues in a union shop, what's the difference between members and non-members?

"Members in good standing," which under the UE national constitution requires timely dues payments including those funds dedicated to political activity, get voting privileges in union officer elections, policy changes, and contract ratification. However, all members are bound by the union's bylaws and make themselves subject to union discipline. In the worst case this means that members can be expelled from the union or fined for refusing to strike, and UE can enforce these fines in civil court. CGSU’s FAQ correctly states that “no one can force you to go on strike,” but sweeps the missing half of their answer under the rug. 

Whether you're a member or a non-member Beck objector, all unions have a legal obligation to represent every person in the bargaining unit fairly, but reports of CGSU's past conduct call into question their impartiality.

I believe CGSU-UE's positions conflict with my faith, can I object on religious grounds? 

Employees who wish not to support a union for religious reasons, are protected by several federal statutes and can request an exemption, instead directing their would-be agency fees to a charity organization. The one small caveat, however, is that the union itself decides whether a religious exemption ought to be granted. This obvious conflict of interest is staggering! Where else would we tolerate a party to a conflict acting as a judge in resolving that same conflict? This injustice is not merely hypothetical. At MIT, religious students objected to financially supporting UE, and received a letter from UE national headquarters rejecting their request on the basis that the objections were not religious in nature, but actually political. This offensive dismissal of religious objections and the patronizing comments suggesting UE understands these objectors' faith better than they do have led these MIT students to sue UE for religious discrimination. As of March 2024, UE has settled a separate unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB, upholding the rights of religious grad students at MIT to choose not to support a union whose conduct violates their conscience. 

Religious objection rejection letter UE.pdf

If you feel that a union shop is inappropriate for an academic setting, please sign our open letter to the Cornell Administration (you can remain anonymous). Follow the links if you want to learn more about what's in it for UE and why CGSU wants a union shop. We invite everyone with questions and comments to reach out to us. If you want more external information or to read arguments from students at other universities, click here