Victory for Grad Workers, Left Unionists at MIT

By Henry De Groot

On Wednesday, graduate student workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) voted 1785 to 912 in support of unionizing with the MIT Graduate Student Union (MITGSU-UE), an affiliate of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). 

The landslide victory overcame opposition from the university administration and set MIT graduate student workers on the path to collective bargaining and organizing members to win the best contract possible. 

Graduate Students March Onward

Today’s victory at MIT has important implications for the labor and socialist movements. Tied in with the exciting campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks, the MIT victory represents a growing revival of the labor movement driven largely by the younger generations.

The victory is the result of years of organizing among graduate students at MIT and in collaboration with organized graduate students across Greater Boston. Since the National Labor Relations Board ruled private sector graduate student workers to be employees in 2016, the union movement on university campuses has grown, especially among private universities, including Harvard and Columbia. Clark University graduate students in Worcester won their election just last month.

Often hard-science graduate students are less engaged or supportive of unionization, so the victory of MIT represents a potential easing of this challenge as unions grow in popularity. We can hope that a fighting MIT union will set an example for S.T.E.M. students across the country.

A Victory for Left Unionism

The election is also significant because workers voted to affiliate with UE. UE is an independent union, which means it is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. With roots in the Communist Party, UE was the first union chartered by the CIO in 1936 and has a proud history of militant organizing and independence from the capitalist political system. During the McCarthyist period, UE and ten other unions — 1 million workers — left or were expelled from the CIO. Yesterday, the national union represented only some 35,000 workers, smaller than many local unions. 

The increase of over 3,800 MIT members will swell UE by around 10 percent, giving valuable resources and credibility to the national union and the principles it represents. Beyond that, MIT graduate students will lend their skills, knowledge, and energy to the UE’s national bodies. We can anticipate not just exciting organizational collaboration, but powerful academic investigations into left unionism to spring from today’s victory. 

The university administration leaned on a critique of UE in their opposition campaign, highlighting its left-wing political record in an attempt to reframe the question from “Union?” to “This union?” Whether graduates voted for the UE because of or in spite of its political legacy, they overwhelmingly cast their support in favor of unionization in a strong rejection of the university’s red-baiting.

Over the last two years, UE has worked in collaboration with the DSA to build a joint project, the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC). EWOC has channeled energy from the ongoing wave of worker fightback with over 3,000 workers having reached out to EWOC, 1,300 people volunteered with EWOC, and EWOC having supported concrete campaign wins in more than 60 workplaces representing thousands of workers. The lessons from running EWOC were surely at play at MIT, as UE hired EWOC’s sole staffer to run the campaign. 

When we combine the victory for a left union at MIT and an independent union at Amazon with the wave of bottom-up organizing at Starbucks, it draws questions about the vitality of the institutional labor movement of the AFL-CIO and its ability to meet the current moment. What are we to make of this? Is the path forward to organize workers outside of the AFL-CIO in independent unions like the UE? Or does the left-wing of the labor movement need to stay within, and fight within, the established labor movement? These are the questions that face socialists and anyone concerned with building a fighting and progressive labor movement.

Amalgamation and industrial unionism for graduate students?

In Massachusetts alone, graduate workers are now represented by at least four national unions: United Auto Workers (UAW) at UMass, Harvard, and organizing at Boston College and Northeastern; the Service Employees International Union at Brandeis and Tufts; the Teamsters at Clark University; and now UE at MIT. 

Graduate students looking to organize a new union drive will be forced to ask the question: “With whom?”

The less-than-centralized state of graduate student unions is not unique in the labor movement. As exemplified on Twitter, graduate students from across these unions are not hindered from connecting, collaborating and working in solidarity and do see themselves as one big movement. But it is worth asking whether a single graduate student union would have the benefit of values that best represent graduate students, consistent and targeted branding, increased ability to coordinate organizing and workplace action, and a strengthened ability to speak with credibility for graduate students across the Commonwealth and the country at large.

Socialists have generally been in favor of one union per industry, and therefore for the amalgamation of unions within an industry into one industrial union. But again, the question ties in with the question of organizing within or without the AFL-CIO.

In the past, socialist have at times called for integration within the established labor movement, at other times for the establishment of independent unions, and have of course often disagreed among themselves. The answers to these strategic questions cannot be solved by applying a formula, but rather must be worked out by a combination of careful analysis of the current developments and in practice.

In the short term, the job of socialists and labor militants broadly in relation to new organizing is to support workers as they organize union elections and fight for first contracts. 

But in the medium and long term, the socialist labor movement must consider questions of affiliation and amalgamation. For now, don’t wait for the AFL-CIO… organize, fight, win.

Henry De Groot is a graduate student, editor at Working Mass and a Boston DSA member.

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