Is ILR Anti-Union?
By Carson Taylor
The Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) is, as it describes itself, the “preeminent educational institution in the world focused on work, employment and labor.” Its mission statement asserts the college’s goal to “prepare leaders, inform national and international employment and labor policy, and improve working lives.” ILR makes repeated mentions to its “public impact” on the labor movement in public materials, stressing on its homepage that the school is a New York land grant institution which “[builds] community partnerships and trainings to improve workers’ lives across the world and contribute to an organization’s success.” These descriptions foster an image of a public institution devoted to guiding the labor movement, fighting for worker’s rights in the community, and fostering leaders who will support labor.
Unfortunately, that image doesn’t tell the whole story.
That image is the result of careful branding. The surgically crafted public relations talk on its website has the tenor of a corporate press release, which, in many respects, it is. This image obscures the larger truth of the ILR School. The school subtly distinguishes between “workers” and the “unions” they form as if they were separate entities, while vaguely referring to the corporations that hold them down as “organizations” that the school helps “[succeed].” In fact, the words “corporation” or “company” are nowhere to be found on the homepage, About ILR page, mission statements, or much of the front-facing website. While the language regarding unions and workers is explicit, mentions of corporate work are not as specific. So, what is this diplomatic language meant to obscure? Let’s evaluate the three pillars of ILR’s mission to determine the school’s impact.
1. Prepare Leaders
At the outset, it’s important to note that “prepare leaders” does not mean much on its own. Cornell University certainly has the capacity to produce leaders, as its alumni network and fundraising emails will proudly attest. But leaders of what? Luckily, Cornell ILR also provides a list of career outcomes on its website. Now, take a minute and think to yourself: what percentage of ILR graduates go into corporate work? What percentage work in the labor movement? Since the website spends so much space attesting ties with labor in comparison to management, you may expect more graduates of ILR to join the labor movement than enter the corporate workforce, or maybe an even split between them. After all, it is a labor school, so it makes sense that students would enter both sides of the field.
Not even close.
In the Class of 2020, 22% of ILR students went into human resources and “labor relations,” another 20% went into finance, 11% went into HR consulting, 10% went into “management consulting,” 9% into law, 8% into the vague category of “business,” 3% into marketing and more in a broad array of other categories.
That’s a lot of corporate leaders. What percentage joined the labor movement then, if we combine both union work and labor research into one category?
Two. Two percent. Clearly, ILR is a school that pushes students into corporate work at a far higher rate than into labor. For every student who works for a union, there are dozens working directly or indirectly for management.
Now, it would be a fair argument to say that there are more jobs in management than there are in labor. After all, most private sector companies have an HR department, while few have unions. But the inescapable fact is that the leaders prepared by ILR are working directly against unions. The career outcomes page lists labor third in its enumeration of potential career paths, in front of consulting and finance. but in their own calculations, the school sends ten times more students into each of the latter two fields than it does into labor. It is worth noting that labor relations is an extraordinarily niche major in itself, with approximately 1,000 bachelors’ degrees awarded in the field each year, compared to business degrees, of which roughly 350,000 bachelors’ degrees are awarded each year. Labor is an extremely rare course of study. It would make sense, given the rarity of degrees compared to labor as a field, that these numbers could be higher. Instead, Cornell ILR sent a higher percentage of its graduates into consulting than even the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in 2021.
A counter argument to this criticism may be that labor’s characteristics as a field of unemployment make it less likely for Cornell graduates to enter into it, either because of the perceived prestige of the university itself or the socioeconomic status of students attending the school, which may separate Cornell graduates from “rank-and-file” organizers. Although organizers are often hired from the rank-and file, approximately 67% of organizers hold college degrees. These factors together indicate that ILR, as it stands, does disproportionally send its students into management. While student characteristics may explain some of the disparity, it would also underscore the elitism of university as a whole. If Cornell graduates do not go into or come out of the rank and file, that says something about Cornell as an institution. The ILR website seems to prioritize the wages of its graduates, given that this number is the only other metric on the career outcomes page.
These outcomes illustrate the public impact of the ILR School. It can prop up peripheral programs that help workers, small initiatives or niche internships, but the core function of the school, from its own reporting, is to generate the next generation of leaders in a corporate system that is arguably more anti-union now than it was when ILR first started sending students into it in 1947. The best way for the ILR School to achieve its mission and advance its reputation among workers is to distinguish itself from business schools in both policy and results.
2. Inform Policy
The second pillar of ILR’s historical mission statement is to inform policy in the world of work. This pillar begs the question, what policies does the ILR School advance? What impact does the information it produces have on policymakers?
The Cornell ILR School is not an explicitly political institution, in that it does not engage in electoral politics, lobby for specific changes, or endorse candidates, bills, or policies. But ILR does seek to inform policy. This approach is somewhat flawed in that apolitical attempts to influence policy may not be adequate in a system that has systematically dismantled the power of labor to the point where U.S. union density became one of the lowest in the Global North.
Many publications from academics within ILR certainly address the unbalanced landscape workers face, with many examples of powerful and intriguing research questions, data, and observations stemming from a pro-labor lens. Unfortunately, this research does not have the impact that it could. Many of the papers are locked behind paywalls, rendered inaccessible to the public, and thus less likely to influence policy. It is important to note that the pro-union, anti-union, and neutral conclusions can all be found together on the internet, in libraries, and at conferences. The impact research will have depends on its accessibility and reach. If effort is not specifically placed into uplifting pro-worker research, the core takeaway for many readers may just be to select the choices that bolster their preconceived notions.
So what does ILR believe? Perhaps the best way to determine what, if any, beliefs the university holds would be to examine its curriculum. Pre-2022, the ILR Curriculum included mandatory Human Resources and Labor Relations courses, which dealt in part with collective bargaining, but no mandatory courses on union organizing, structure, or practical skills. It is entirely possible to graduate ILR while learning next to nothing about how modern unions work. The new curriculum does away with the Human Resources requirement, emphasizing data science and research methods. It is yet to be seen whether this new direction will foster more worker-friendly environments and career outcomes.
It would be unfair to say that ILR’s research has an anti-union bent. Much of it is overtly supportive of unions. A common takeaway, both in courses and in research, is that unions and corporate governance should coexist to reduce labor strife, and seek a less “adversarial” relationship. But who does this push against labor benefit? Given the undeniably dominant position corporations hold at the moment over organized labor and labor laws that deter unionization, why shouldn’t workers aggressively demand something better? Why shouldn’t corporations be held accountable for the labor struggle they create? In the face of historic income inequality, billions of dollars stolen from workers annually, and abhorrent working conditions, the ILR School’s “neutrality” is unconscionable.
3. Improving Working Lives
At this point, it would be understandable for the reader to point out that ILR does have pro-labor programs like The Worker Institute, Buffalo Co-Lab, Kheel Center, and other outreach efforts. And, clearly, these institutions do valuable work. But why does ILR engage in them, and what does it gain from them? To understand ILR’s impact on workers, it is important to consider the system it is beholden to as part of one of the world’s most “prestigious” private schools.
One crucial reason Cornell engages in public impact work is simple; it has to. As a land-grant and publicly-funded institution, Cornell is charged with demonstrating that it “[advances] the lives and livelihoods of the state’s citizens through teaching, research and public service.” ILR is a part of this land-grant mission, and its public impact works reflect both the status of the university and its own unique status within the State University of New York (SUNY) system. That mission, along with the University’s stated values and public impact, are the basis upon which taxpayers fund Cornell University. Given this connection, it is worth asking: are the pro-worker values ILR purports to have being upheld by the university at large?
The first and most obvious case is that unlike several peer institutions such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell does not have a grad student union. Although graduate students voted not to unionize by a margin of two percent in 2017, it must be noted that an arbitrator found that Cornell University violated labor law by implying a union could cost grad students their jobs. The school claimed that this was due to paying increased benefits to union members, but the union had good reason to ask for increased compensation; 2022-23 PhD stipends at Cornell were below the local cost of living in Ithaca, NY. Cornell students are also excluded categorically from union membership in on-campus jobs as well. ILR has implored companies like Starbucks to stop anti-union campaigns in the past, a position that is difficult to reconcile with the environment on campus.
Of course, Cornell maintains that its students' voices are taken seriously on campus through the “Shared Governance” system including the Student and Graduate and Professional Student Assemblies. Interestingly enough though, these bodies are not independent of university administration; their resolutions must be approved by the President before they can be put into action. ILR has its own Student Government Association which is similarly beholden to administrators.
In dealing with full-time workers, Cornell has been mired in labor struggle for decades. Dating back to the 1989 campus workers’ strike, the UAW has represented full time staff such as dining hall workers struggling against Cornell for fair wages and working conditions, a fight that continues today, with contentious contract negotiations occurring. Cornell’s Resident Advisors went on strike in 2020 to protest COVID safety protocols. Additionally, Cornell’s current contracts with both the UAW and the Communications Workers of America include a “No Strike Guarantee” preventing workers from striking, engaging in work stoppages, picketing, or other forms of protest through March of 2023. These clauses are common in collective bargaining agreements, but can create a substantial obstacle for workers given rapidly changing legal landscapes and economic conditions.
Beyond its history with unions, it must be noted that Cornell ILR relies on good relationships with its massive corporate sponsors. The main Ives Hall auditorium, after all, is named the Pepsi-Co Auditorium, despite the corporation’s history of brutal union-busting throughout the world. The college offers labor relations internships with Amazon while simultaneously condemning its union-busting practices on Twitter. Unfortunately, a comprehensive list of available internships is not publicly available, and the public partial list of sponsors does not include companies like Amazon. If ILR is advancing the interests of workers, it is certainly doing so inconsistently and opaquely.
The primary point here is not that Cornell ILR is far worse than other institutions in its treatment of unions or workers, merely that it is not special. The same labor systems that engage much of Cornell’s peer institutions are found at Cornell. Similar to other universities, ILR struggles at finding a balance between corporate interests, academic idealism, and restraints on political speech. Similar to other universities, graduate students are rising up at Cornell to demand better working conditions, but unlike other universities, Cornell’s graduate students were denied a union. The biggest differences are that ILR is a college with an academic focus on work, and that college aids anti-union institutions and policies in crucial ways. ILR needs to use extension programs to justify its public impact because, at its core, the institution it is a part of (Cornell) is fundamentally anti-worker. ILR can, and should, be far more critical of the systems it exists under. It should strive to break from these systems in its core curriculum, academic research, and public media, not just in the programs it runs on the side.
It is important that we analyze the institutions we are a part of as critically as we examine the ones we oppose. If a case can be made that Cornell ILR is anti-union, that case should be made as strongly as possible precisely because it is unique as a labor relations college. Ultimately, Cornell ILR exists within a system that is built on labor strife and conflict, and we are all a part of it. Improving workers’ lives as a goal is incompatible with the desire to cozy up to anti-worker corporations. The university may speak out against particularly egregious anti-union practices, it may track work stoppages throughout the U.S., it may even offer seminars and training courses to union members on occasion in the name of its public image and land-grant status. But it fights its own unions on campus, it prohibits picketing in its contracts, and it trains students to fight against unions in their careers. Among some in the labor movement, the school even has a reputation as an elitist management training center.
This blog is not to insult the workers that make up the school’s faculty and staff, nor the students working and studying there; many do excellent work and genuinely care about workers. The extension programs, for example, are community driven, social justice oriented, and should be prioritized, but they exist in a system designed to limit the effectiveness of pro-worker action. Much of the research and outreach materials developed by ILR point to systemic injustices holding down the working class. Unfortunately, The ILR School is beholden to an expensive, elitist educational system that is foundationally anti-worker. The school promotes a lackluster concept of neutrality while filtering its graduates into anti-union corporate work at institutions it knows engage in union busting. ILR administrators don’t even condemn the university itself when it engages in similar anti-union practices. Cornell wants you to know about all the ways it supports the labor movement as part of its public impact, but the ways it supports corporations are not prominently featured in marketing materials or online. At its best, Cornell ILR can be a force pushing the United States towards a more equitable labor system, but it needs to meaningfully break from the current systems it exists under to achieve that. At worst, it can be a facade funneling students into management while tacitly endorsing the anti-worker practices of the corporations and institutions it associates itself with. As members of the community, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure that the ILR School moves towards becoming a stronger voice for equity.