May/June 2023Vol.XXXV No. 4

Letter to the MIT Faculty: MIT Grad Student Union Bargaining Update

MIT GSU Bargaining Committee

During the MIT administration’s negotiations with the Graduate Student Union this spring, the faculty have received several updates by email from the administration about the state of the bargaining process. It has been hard for the GSU to share its perspective with faculty because they don’t have access to mailing lists that would reach all of us. Without hearing from both sides, it is difficult to have a well-informed perspective on the bargaining. The union’s bargaining team would like us to share the text below – presenting their take on where things stand – with the faculty. We welcome responses and discussion from other faculty members – especially responses that we can print in the next Faculty Newsletter.

When we walked into our final scheduled bargaining session on Thursday, May 4, many of us on the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) Bargaining Committee were hopeful that we would leave with a contract to recommend to our membership. Our core unresolved issues were a wage increase that accounted for inflation, union shop to secure the longevity of our union and the enforceability of our contract, and the involvement of meaningful, third-party arbitration to resolve grievances of harassment and discrimination.

Up until our last session, Vice Chancellor Waitz and the rest of the MIT bargaining team had acknowledged that they understood our position and continued bargaining in good faith. We had already started planning for a “vote yes” campaign. We had tentatively begun, amongst ourselves, to congratulate MIT’s administration on being one of the few U.S. universities to negotiate a first contract with graduate students without inciting a labor action. Most of all, we were excited to get back to our research in a safer work environment with better financial security for everyone.

But on May 4, the MIT administration forced us into a position where we could not recommend a contract to our fellow graduate workers. We arrived prepared to negotiate throughout the evening and into Friday. Our counterparts instead turned up with a single offer, “offered as a package only,” which failed to meet our minimum needs and fell short on several issues that we were still actively negotiating. We were blindsided – not by MIT’s bargaining team in the room, but by a nebulous body of administrative “decision-makers” who abruptly decided to undermine months of productive negotiations by denying our union shop provision, in line with anti-labor arguments of early 20th century industrialists.

In their public communications against union shop, the MIT administration states that they are protecting “student choice.” But we already made our choice when we voted 2:1 in favor of forming a union last spring. The administration’s last proposal thus undermines our democratic right to self-determination and represents a continuation of their prior union-busting strategy.

In cases where a graduate worker objects (for any reason) to union membership, the law grants them “Beck rights,” which restricts their contributions to cover only those costs that directly relate to collective bargaining and contract administration. The reality is that graduate workers in the bargaining unit will have access to the exact benefits and protections afforded by our collective bargaining agreement, regardless of their views on the union. Therefore, the open shop agreement that the MIT administration is proposing only protects students’ “right” to avoid contributing to the shared costs of providing benefits and protections that they are afforded. This fight today is about ensuring that we all pay our fair share. 

The most effective workers’ organizations in the USA are all affiliated with national unions, which provide the expertise and resources to help their members’ locals succeed. After a months-long research effort, MIT graduate workers voted to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America or UE: the country’s leading “member-run” union, which also has the greatest representation of higher education workers in the private sector. Contrary to the MIT administration’s claim that our national affiliate is a money-grubbing “third-party organization,” UE spends half of members’ dues to support UE staff in local unions – which, for our MIT local, may well include fellow MIT graduate workers and already includes many MIT alumni. We have always been transparent about the fact that joining a union requires paying union dues: one-third will directly support our MIT local, two-thirds will go to UE for local staff (as mentioned above) and to other graduate unions around the country (through organizing campaigns). This rank-and-file approach to unionization and pay is best exemplified by UE’s president, who ranks among the lowest-paid union executives in the country thanks to UE’s constitutional requirement that officers’ pay is capped at that of the highest-paid UE member.

Our choice to affiliate with UE was made precisely so that we could have a democratic union with strong support from national labor experts. An open shop will result in wasted time on recruitment, fundraising, and combating anti-union messaging instead of protecting the benefits that prompted us to unionize in the first place. This was a lesson learned by the unionized graduate workers at Harvard. If the MIT administration succeeds in denying us union shop, we could easily see the gains in this contract undercut in future negotiations, making our victories fleeting and hollow.

Protecting this ability is of particular concern to us in the context of other provisions we’re currently negotiating, including a grievance procedure with arbitration for harassment and discrimination cases. Everyone benefits when the process for resolving such cases is well resourced. We need knowledgeable union representatives who can help graduate workers navigate such cases, ensure that procedures are followed, and, if necessary, identify arbitrators with relevant expertise. No one is well served by a union that struggles to assist its members.

Until May 4, graduate workers and MIT’s bargaining team were productively communicating and reaching compromises on many important issues – despite differences in our viewpoints. We’re saddened and concerned that MIT’s administration no longer seems to share this goal. A timely resolution to the negotiations would have been positive for all of us, but we cannot sacrifice the needs of our membership for the sake of expediency. We remain committed to achieving a contract that provides all graduate workers at MIT with the financial and personal security necessary to focus on the groundbreaking research we came here to do.