March/April 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 4

Graduate Students Vote to Unionize

Jonathan A. King, Robert P. Redwine

The vote of graduate students to unionize may represent a sea change in the relationships of graduate students to their peers, their faculty mentors, and to the MIT administration. We believe this step offers the possibility for improving the quality of life of graduate students, and in the long run for increasing their productive contribution to their disciplines and to society.

In the period from WWII until about 2000, colleges and universities offering graduate student programs increased throughout the U.S. Thus, the market for employing doctoral level faculty also continually expanded. Unfortunately, that expansion has slowed down markedly, and the market for new faculty has contracted sharply. As a result, current graduate students are subject to generalized anxiety with respect to their futures not present in earlier decades.

Those pressures have often translated into concern over the progress of their dissertation projects, their relationships with their mentors and thesis committee members, and their commitment to their undergraduate teaching responsibilities. Students who felt somewhat overwhelmed by the often-conflicting tasks had limited modes for altering Department or Institute policies and for reducing their own stresses.

 The organization of the union will certainly increase the bargaining power of graduate students to control their workloads, timelines, and articulate their needs. Among the areas deserving of attention are medical leave, child care leave, and affordable housing. For example, we hope the union will be more influential in pressing MIT to respond to the acute housing shortage for graduate students, a product of the administration’s decision to build commercial office buildings, rather than graduate housing and academic buildings, on the East Campus. On a different front, wide variations in expectations of undergraduate teaching loads among Departments may need to be addressed.

We wish our graduate students all the best in navigating the terrain, and plan for the pages of the Faculty Newsletter to be open for continuing discussion and reflection in this new period.