January/February 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 3

Reflections on the MIT Graduate Student Union Organizing Campaign

Robert B. McKersie

For those of us teaching and researching industrial relations to have a union organizing campaign unfolding where we work is amazing and engaging. I have been at MIT since 1980 when I came to head the Industrial Relations Section (now the institute for Work and Employment Research) located in the Sloan School of Management.

Recently my colleagues authored a “white paper” emphasizing the importance of having the campaign take place in the spirit of a “laboratory” so that grad students can make their decision freely, without interference from their faculty supervisors or the MIT administration. Recently the administration has issued talking points for faculty. While the content is within the law, having faculty (who exercise considerable power regarding the careers of their grad students) counsel with their grad students may not honor the maxim: “Let the students decide.”

How the union organizing effort is addressed by the administration and by the student leaders (should the union win) will shape the relationship going forward.

MIT has been late to join the list of top schools where collective bargaining has been certified for grad students (e.g., Yale, Brown, Columbia, and here in Boston, Tufts, Brandeis, and Harvard). A variety of national unions have been involved. Here the organizing committee chose the United Electrical Workers Union (UE).

Having an industrial union involved may seem strange, however a number of unions have established new divisions to concentrate on employees in the service sector. The UAW is the parent union for the graduate unit at Harvard. The UE is not your typical national union. It is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. It prides itself on being progressive, taking positions on foreign policy and domestic issues, such as global warming. Over the years doing field work in the electrical industry and hearing arbitration cases I have met staff from this union and they are very professional and committed union leaders.

The question can be asked: How much do they know about higher education? While they are part of organizing efforts at the University of Iowa and New Mexico State University they are not as involved with grad students as some other unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The caliber of the servicing reps is very important since grad student leaders “come and go” and the national organization plays an important role especially when contracts are negotiated.

I am sure that many in our community are wondering about the agenda that grad student unions bring to collective bargaining.

Certainly, pay is primary and the unions have been able to increase hourly rates when grad students are employed as TAs and RAs. A major issue has also been insuring attention to harassment complaints. This is complicated since all universities have Title IX procedures in place and finding an accommodation between a union grievance procedure and the requirements of Title IX requires creative crafting of hybrid models.

The MIT administration has focused attention on the subject of dues mentioning that the annual cost could be as high as $550. This is ironic, since MIT like other universities would likely not agree to a “mandatory” dues arrangement covering everyone in the bargaining unit. Grad students have to opt in – and the result is that in some situations less than half of the students covered by collective bargaining regularly pay dues.

]There are other important topics of concern to graduate students (such as graduate student housing) that MIT could agree to discuss but would likely prefer to continue with some variant of its present practice of having students on advisory committees. But I want to end with a call to have the period we are now in – leading up to the vote – be characterized by rational arguments re: the pros and cons of collective bargaining for our grad students and, if the union wins, for the process going forward to be a model of how a graduate student union can forge a positive relationship with the administration and contribute both to employee voice and organizational performance.