November/December 2022Vol. XXXV No. 2

Graduate Student Unionization: A Positive Force for All at MIT

Rahul Jayaraman, Angela Lee, Arrow Minster

In April 2022, MIT graduate workers[1] overwhelmingly voted for union representation. Since then, a supermajority of us grad workers have signed cards with the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU). One of the key reasons that we, as graduate workers, voted to unionize was to have our voices heard, as the proliferation of working groups and committees created across MIT to solve various problems has proven ineffective at addressing our major concerns and reasonable requests. Union representation will guarantee not only that our voices are heard by the MIT administration, but also that we are working as equals with the administration in making decisions that affect our working conditions and well-being.

MIT prides itself on its highly decentralized environment, which has allowed departments, labs, and centers (DLCs) to thrive with significant discretion and flexibility. However, the utter lack of campus-wide standards and procedure means that many graduate workers fall through the cracks.

Such a lack of standardization often results in our peers being subject to ambiguous or impossible expectations and difficult working conditions. This is why we need a union contract. In bargaining directly with MIT, we are aiming to formalize the good things that are already happening in DLCs throughout the Institute, while also raising the floor of support and stability for graduate workers who are struggling or facing issues in their workplace.

We understand that supervising unionized employees may be new for many faculty, and that supervisors may have numerous questions about the process and what will change. Much of the guidance and communications to faculty from the MIT administration prior to the election were explicitly anti-union and served to scaremonger through the use of hypothetical situations that never came to pass at any of our peer institutions where graduate workers are also unionized (e.g., Harvard, the University of California system, etc.). Indeed, MIT faculty may well have been part of unions as graduate workers themselves. Given this, we seek to clarify that there are many things that our union does not stand for:

  • We do not seek to restrict academic freedom or strictly circumscribe the extent of and limits to the student-advisor mentoring relationship. On the contrary, union representation at other universities has had no negative effect on academic freedom and has improved some axes of student-faculty relations (Table 3 in the linked paper).
  • Unionization is also not a front to shirk responsibilities. MIT graduate students are devoted to our community’s mission to lead the world in research and teaching, and we choose to attend the Institute for a reason. Union representation will enhance our ability to contribute to this mission by addressing key issues that us grad workers face in order to enable us to be the best researchers, teachers, and scholars we can be.

So, what do we, as the MIT GSU, stand for and how will our unionization affect faculty and other staff who supervise graduate workers? A fair contract would include establishing clear expectations, developing strong support, promoting respectful interactions, providing comprehensive resources, codifying current standards, and fostering academic freedom. We believe such a fair contract will help build and strengthen effective, creative, and trusting relationships between PIs/supervisors and their grad worker mentees, thereby continuing to enable the groundbreaking research discoveries that MIT is known for.

For example, when MIT begins providing comprehensive resources to all graduate students, not only will our quality of life improve, but MIT will also become more competitive in attracting the best researchers from across the globe. On this goal, the interests of graduate student workers and their supervisors, including faculty, are certainly fully aligned. Additionally, our union is deeply invested in benefits such as:

  • Improving health care coverage and policies around short-term medical leave, in order to bring them in line with current standards for other MIT community members,
  • Guaranteeing adequate health and safety provisions across Institute labs,
  • Securing a respectful and equitable work environment for graduate workers,
  • Improving pay in line with the cost of living in the greater Boston area,
  • Guaranteeing safe, decent, and affordable on-campus housing,
  • Assisting international students with difficult visa situations and exorbitant fees,
  • Guaranteeing transitional funding on an as-needed basis, and
  • Minimizing the impact of tuition on graduate workers’ ability to focus optimally on their research.

Previously, MIT placed the burden of devising and implementing such policies primarily on individual PIs and departments, which has led to an ad hoc approach to solutions that are often to the detriment of supervisors. For instance, graduate students who take medical leave under current policies also lose their access to health insurance and benefits. Well-meaning supervisors, working under MIT and department guidelines, are then forced to make a choice between their student’s well-being and their lab/group’s research output, and may often require a suffering student to continue working to, perhaps, fulfill the conditions of a grant. This approach benefits no one, and an Institute-wide solution to this problem – by guaranteeing paid medical leave with full benefits – will alleviate this issue while allowing individual supervisors the flexibility to reallocate the grant toward the work of another graduate student. This effort is in line with our goal to remove barriers for graduate students to enable them to work effectively and to cultivate an environment where they will thrive, all while still advancing the Institute’s research and teaching mission and fostering the intellectual freedom for which MIT is famous.

As we continue to negotiate our first contract with MIT, we hope to see the administration bargain in good faith and understand the issues that grad workers face on a daily basis. During our sessions, we have provided testimony from a wide array of grad students to underscore our need for a contract.

The issues we describe in this article are not simply localized to one or a handful of DLCs; they pervade the Institute, and we need a way to address them that takes our voices and experiences into account. We reiterate that grad workers at the Institute have decided that unionization is the best way to achieve this, and that this choice be respected and celebrated, especially as part of the current nationwide wave of labor organizing.

We hope that the faculty, our supervisors, and other members of the MIT community will support us in our endeavors to make the graduate experience at MIT better for all and eliminate barriers holding back MIT from reaching its full potential as a world-class institution of research and education. It is our firm conviction that we share the same goals as faculty, PIs, and many other Institute community members, and we welcome you to stand with us in the fight for our contract and the protections therein that we justly deserve.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the current status of negotiations between GSU and the MIT administration?

To date, we have had eight bargaining sessions with the MIT administration. We presented our initial non-economic proposals on September 17, and MIT presented us with their counterproposals to most articles on October 13. We responded to those counterproposals on October 26 and, as part of this presentation, provided testimonials from many of our colleagues to emphasize the necessity of a strong union contract. There were some clarifying discussions between us and the administration after these presentations, and further discussions during the subsequent session, on October 27.

We also met with the administration on November 17 and 18, and December 1 and 8. As with all negotiations, we are very close to reaching agreement on some issues (and have already signed a few tentative agreements), but there still remain large disagreements on others. We have further bargaining sessions scheduled on December 16; January 23; and February 1, 17, and 27.

Will I need to go through the union to create new appointments for graduate students or change these appointments? What control does the union have over appointments and work hours?

As part of our union contract, we are seeking fair and reasonable work expectations and compensation. We are not suddenly going to ask MIT to set our base stipend rates at six figures per year and shirk our responsibilities. Rather, as part of our contract, we would like to standardize Institute guidance around work expectations and how appointments are communicated and renewed; we are not looking to make our PIs’ lives difficult or pursue an adversarial relationship with staff and faculty.

We want to establish a set of guidelines regarding how many hours per week grad workers are expected to work in order to ensure that they are able to achieve a good work-life balance and are less prone to burnout – which is all too common in academia. By standardizing expectations, grad workers will be able to put their best foot forward in regards to research and teaching while still having the time to rest and pursue their hobbies, as well as spend time with family and friends. We are not at all trying to limit the amount of time worked, as we are well aware that some grad workers like to work on the weekends, while others do not. We would simply like to arrive at a common understanding with our supervisors and the administration as to what a “typical workload” looks like, and enshrine that definition in our contract. We are, after all, here to teach and research, and we want to perform these jobs to the best of our ability.

An additional goal is to streamline the process of appointment posting, notification, and reappointment. All too often, graduate students are left in limbo as their appointments are processed perilously close to the start of the semester, increasing anxiety over whether or not they will be paid in a timely fashion. In fact, appointments have often been yanked away from students at the last minute, leaving them scrambling for alternative sources of funding for that particular semester. By adding specific Institute-wide guidance around appointments in our contract, we hope to alleviate the associated stresses. However, the specifics of individual appointments (e.g., cost objects, etc.) will still be handled at the DLC or program level.

Aren’t MIT’s existing policies and procedures enough for graduate students?

Grad workers have found that existing MIT offices, such as the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response (IDHR) office, are often inadequate to address the problems that they face during their time at MIT. The IDHR processes are often slow, and they may push complainants toward an inadequate or premature resolution that often has the consequence of protecting predatory members of our community and implicitly condoning their behavior. Time and again, graduate workers have been pushed out of their programs – that they worked so hard to gain admittance to – by inadequate and inefficient processes that fall far short of satisfactorily addressing workplace issues. MIT offices, despite a veneer of impartiality, are still answerable to MIT and seek to protect its interests.

To address this, we are seeking a neutral grievance procedure that gives both grad workers and faculty a fair shake. Any violations of the contract can be addressed through this procedure, and disagreements – if they reach a particular level – can be arbitrated using a neutral mediator. We believe this will remove some of the burden off existing Institute offices and allow graduate workers to pursue their research and teaching with the knowledge that if issues do arise, there exists a neutral process to redress them.

Will this change my relationship with students?

We do not believe that the ratification of a union contract will fundamentally change the “apprenticeship” model of graduate school that most programs operate under. Faculty, staff, and their mentees will still have wide latitude to set the parameters of their mentoring relationship, among other things. Indeed, a study across five universities where graduate students are unionized showed that faculty at those schools believe that “[grad union] bargaining does not interfere with their ability to advise, instruct, and mentor their students.”

Will students go on strike regularly?

We believe that a strike is an absolute last resort action. In fact, we view it as kind of a “nuclear” option, only to be exercised if we believe there has been a fundamental breakdown in the good faith negotiations between us and the MIT administration. If an overwhelming majority of graduate workers do authorize a strike, we would urge faculty, staff, and community members to understand that there are key issue(s) that we have not been able to resolve during collective bargaining with the administration, and we hope they will stand in solidarity with us as we fight for the working conditions and contract that we deserve.

Rahul Jayaraman is a PhD candidate in Physics and the GSU Bargaining Committee Representative for Physics and Nuclear Science & Engineering.
Angela Lee is a PhD candidate in Chemistry and an MIT GSU Member.
Arrow Minster is a PhD candidate in Sloan and the GSU Bargaining Committee Representative for Sloan.
All are writing on behalf of the entire MIT GSU Bargaining Committee.

[1] We refer to ourselves as “graduate workers” throughout this article because we are advocating for protections as part of our research and teaching work.