September/October 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 1

With the GSU Contract, A New Future for Graduate Workers at MIT

The MIT GSU Bargaining Committee

On Labor Day, the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) publicly announced our plans to strike in an email to graduate students and communicated our intent to escalate a strike threat. Just a week later, and a day before the launch of our strike pledge, the MIT administration met us on our core issues, and we reached a tentative agreement (TA). Make no mistake: the MIT admin met with us at the table in response to the significant ripple effects that would occur as a consequence of a graduate worker strike. The TA that was negotiated, which has since been ratified by an overwhelming majority of the GSU membership, empowers and protects graduate workers, so that they can focus on their research with the knowledge that they have strong workplace protections and economic benefits that will allow them to keep pace with the rising cost of living in the area.

MIT is at the forefront of a graduate student labor movement across the country. Since the graduate students voted to form our GSU (affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, or UE) last year, tens of thousands of students have unionized at top universities across the country, including Stanford, Dartmouth, Boston University, Yale, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and Duke. Given our early unionization, these schools are looking to us to see if we can set a precedent in establishing strong protections for graduate students, which would lead to a compelling admissions package for future graduate workers. Our strong first contract will provide MIT with a competitive edge that will support the Institute’s goal to be an innovative leader in academia.

The GSU and the administration are working on specific guidance regarding the implementation of various provisions in the contract, and will be sending out periodic communications on how to handle certain aspects of the contract. As part of our broader communications to faculty regarding the newly-ratified contract, the Bargaining Committee (BC) wanted to highlight some of the biggest changes included in the contract, including those that have positive ramifications for the student/advisor relationship. 

A key complaint of graduate students is that the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response (IDHR) process can often be slow and ineffective: approximately 40% of graduate workers report that they have experienced harassment or discrimination at MIT, yet only a small fraction contact IDHR about these incidents.

The contract establishes that after the IDHR process, all harassment and discrimination cases can be moved to third party arbitration, with arbiters who have experience in academia and can hand down a decision to make the student whole. To ensure IDHR proceeds at a fast pace, graduate students may exit to arbitration after as little as six months, in non-Title IX cases. 

Other key protections of the contract include a “just cause” for discipline and discharge, strong health and safety provisions to protect graduate workers’ physical well-being, and a clear workload clause that will establish expectations around how many hours students can be required to work. Additional support is offered to international employees and graduate workers who need to switch advisors.

The economic package includes a 12.6% stipend increase over the life of the contract, an 83.8% dental subsidy for graduate workers, access to the employee vision plan, and a 70% subsidy on MBTA passes. Students with children are now eligible for a new $10,000 needs-based childcare subsidy.

The MIT administration indicated at the bargaining table that they will extend equity on all of these economic benefits to fellows, including an extra week of guaranteed vacation. We encourage faculty to remain flexible regarding this vacation provision, as has often been the case in the past.

The contract is backed by the power of the grievance procedure, which allows the GSU to support a student in full force. The union’s ability to grieve is also bolstered by the agency shop provision, which means that everyone in the bargaining unit will pay their fair share for representation by the GSU. With the ratification of this contract, we hope to continue to maintain and encourage ongoing broad participation in our union: UE has a track record as one of the most democratic unions in the country, and we hope to continue this tradition. Currently, we are in the process of electing a constitutional committee to write a set of bylaws to ensure that every graduate worker, whether RA, TA, or fellow, has the chance to make their voices heard in our union.

This contract is the culmination of years of graduate workers expressing a desire to unite and democratically self-govern. During that time, the faculty as a whole have always maintained a neutral stance, allowing graduate workers to make important decisions around unionization for themselves. We appreciate this position and hope to see this respectful relationship continue in the coming years. The GSU is excited for the new future that this contract will provide for graduate workers at MIT, and we are confident that future generations of graduate workers and faculty alike will be well served by the strong union we have created as part of this contract.