September/October 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 1

Congratulations on Reaching a First Contract Agreement

Thomas A. Kochan, Robert B. McKersie, Mary Rowe, Susan S. Silbey

As faculty members who have studied and been directly involved in labor-management relations for many years, we are very proud of the good work done by the MIT administration, the MIT Graduate Student Union, and the leaders of their parent union the United Electrical Workers in reaching a first contract. Their new agreement is a beacon that stands out in our country’s otherwise very chaotic labor relations environment.

The fact that the first contract was achieved without a strike or a prolonged battle is in and of itself noteworthy. Getting a first contract is not a certainty for sure. Only about one-third of newly organized unions achieve a first contract within a year of their election and more than one-third never get one because of persistent managerial resistance.

Looking across the landscape of bargaining in universities, MIT’s achievement is equally unique. Peer institutions like Harvard, Columbia, and the University of California statewide system all have experienced strikes in recent years while more than a dozen other universities are now in prolonged negotiations over a first contract. Let’s hope that the successful contract achieved at MIT gives others the confidence to do the same.

But our congratulations go further. The way in which our colleagues negotiated this agreement was truly innovative. We know of no other university that had faculty observers participate directly in the negotiations. The Chair of the Faculty and a team of MIT faculty members sat with the parties, not as a member of the administration’s negotiating team, nor as neutral mediators. They were observers, signaling that our faculty has a keen interest in graduate student relationships and in these negotiations. Having the Faculty Chair present provided another channel for private discussions of the issues with the administration and with the Faculty Policy Committee as the process moved forward. And, the faculty observers served as stewards of our MIT community values, signaling they would expect the parties to conduct the negotiations in a professional and respectful manner, consistent with our community norms.

While we are proud of the good work everyone has done to date, the hard work has just begun. Now the parties need to implement the terms of the agreement in ways that are consistent with the contract language and at the same time be ready to solve problems that could not have and never can be anticipated in the negotiation of specific contract language. Walter Reuther, one of America’s most famous and innovative labor leaders, once described labor contracts as “living documents” subject to updating and adjustment as new or unanticipated conditions warranted. The fact that the administration and the Union have set up a contract implementation committee is a signal that they are ready to work together to solve problems as they arise and to rely on the grievance process only when necessary.

A final word is in order to the faculty. Each and every one of us needs to learn how to lead and work with our graduate students consistent with the requirements of the contract while simultaneously continuing to provide the mentorship and collegial interactions that are so critical to our faculty-student relationships. This will be a learning process and one that if we do well will make MIT stronger and a richer experience for all.

So let’s celebrate why once again we can be proud of MIT’s collective leadership and innovative culture. It is on display in this arena for all to see and applaud.