Earlier this summer, Cornish staff mobilized community with a union solidarity rally.
Earlier this summer, Cornish staff mobilized community with a union solidarity rally. J.G. Sloniker

On an unusually gray summer day in late July, the glass towers in South Lake Union blocked any ray of sunlight that might have shined some actual life onto the turf mound that is Urban Triangle Park. But when the Cornish Staff Union arrived, the clouds parted and the sun reared its head as hopeful staff members set up shop in the shadow of their employer, Cornish College of the Arts, in the hopes of drumming up some support for their unionization efforts. If someone were to have walked down Denny Way that day, they would have seen an event tent full of folks with smiles on their faces, a jazz band playing behind them, and the intoxicating aroma of Costco pizza and cupcakes.

After the band wrapped its set, Chris Williams, the Foundations Program Administrator and a member of the organizing committee, took to the stage to express his gratitude for this show of community support and to detail some of the staff’s journey so far.

“This has been a very long, long, long road to this moment where we’re finally having the opportunity to organize and not only improve our lives but the future lives of those working at the college,” he said.

While five other unions already operate on campus, the college’s staff — admission counselors, student success coaches, academic advisers, librarians, department coordinators, facilities employees, and IT workers — are now seeking representation in the administrative decision-making process for the first time in the school’s 107-year history.

Throughout the past few years, Williams explained at the rally, the high turnover rate within the Cornish administration has made communication between staff and administration “difficult.”

“The staff really just wants to be able to even out the playing field, and have a voice at the table, and have their voice be heard,” said Nallely Flores, an organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU Local 8).

As is par the course for those seeking to unionize, especially in South Lake Union, the staff have faced constant pushback from the administration ever since reaching out to OPEIU Local 8 over two years ago.

Staff initially asked for voluntary recognition of the union, but they were denied because Cornish believed “every single position” the union wanted to include in its bargaining unit was in management or in a confidential position, Flores said. Because the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement on which positions to include, the union filed an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Cornish forced a hearing on the issue, and the NLRB ruled in the union’s favor. Cornish is now seeking a review of that decision, even as the ballot count is scheduled to start next Tuesday.

This level of recalcitrance from the administration surprised Flores. “From the very beginning Cornish said, ‘Nope!’ We’ve never seen an employer fight back on every single position that we requested... it was something our lawyer had never seen before,” she said.

She hopes the vote to unionize will pass, “but with the way Cornish has been handling things we wouldn’t put it past them to challenge that,” she added.

In response to these claims of resistance, Cornish HR director Roy Brown said in an email, “Union organizers have been particularly divisive and spreading strong and unfounded statements against the administration. We have also heard from many staff members that have serious concerns about unions… They do not want to pay union dues or have to work through a union rep when they want a raise or more flexibility in their work schedule... Unions are also more expensive for both employees and employers.”

Moreover, a staff member who works closely with the administration claimed that unions pushing for higher salaries would increase tuition on students. “Unions typically cause businesses and organizations to think that the only reason for unionization is higher pay, which is a piece of it, but at Cornish tuition accounts for 80% of the college’s budget. If the college were to raise wages, then we would have to raise tuition exponentially on students,” this person wrote in a text.

When asked why administration officials shouldn’t take a pay cut instead, the official said, “I hear that, but also want to point out that Cornish Executive Administration makes well below the national market rate. They also took a 12% salary reduction, and are doing so again this year to keep tuition the same for students and to keep staff and faculty hired.”

The union argued that increasing pay would help retain staff, which would ultimately benefit the students. Cornish staff told Flores they hear students say, “‘The only reason I’m still here is because of this person who just happens to be an employee of the college.' And when that person is gone that student also feels like, ‘Why am I sticking around?’”

As a recent graduate of Cornish College of the Arts, I agree with this sentiment. The staff and faculty make the school worth going to.

And it’s no secret that Cornish faces an uphill battle in regards to its financial situation, so it’s no surprise that the administration has the bottom line at the front of their minds, but that only serves as yet another reason for workers to be directly involved in those decisions going forward.

As for the administration’s claims of “divisiveness”: a rift is obviously present within the school right now, as it always is when workers organize for more power over the institutions they run. But such rifts mend.

When asked about how the community could support the school, Roy Brown said, “What we need most from the community is a collective, supportive voice talking about the critical work that the only private arts college left in the region continues to deliver. Divisiveness and attacks won’t solve the issues facing Cornish. Dialogues, ideas-sharing, and problem solving approaches are what would help us.”

Nalelly Flores said, “We’re not always going to see eye to eye, but it’s all about just having that conversation, and understanding one another, and hearing one another out about what is happening, or why we feel so passionate, or why we’re so persistent about wanting to make these changes that are meant to be positive changes, in order to retain staff and not have such high turnover.”

If you’d like to donate to Cornish, you can do so by visiting this site. If you’d like to continue following the staff’s efforts you can follow them on Instagram @ccastaffunion.