By Oriana R.
Cambridge, MA – On April 14, MIT graduate student workers showed they aren’t afraid to fight for bold demands against a union-busting administration. Negotiations for their first union contract are heating up, as workers circled and chanted during admitted students’ Spring Preview Weekend. The rally is an important sign that the workers will not bend under pressure to accept low wages and weak contract rights, which would signal vulnerability for the other private university workers following in MITs path. The MIT Graduate Student Union (MITGSU), organized under the United Electrical Workers (UE) international, won their election in April 2022 with 1785 voting “Yes” and 912 voting “No.”
UE is known for its communist roots, aggressive struggle, and rank-and-file control. MITGSU-UE has been bargaining for a contract since September 2022. Negotiations were not public until now, when members organized a rally and “Preview Picket” running from 9am to 5pm. The graduate workers are picketing as a response to lowball proposals coming from MIT’s administration.
A harrowing example from Sophie Coppieters ‘t Wallant stuck with the crowd, “Everyday I’m out here working 10-12 hours producing world class research for this institution, and then I have to go back to a home with literally no heat. We deserve a lot more as grad workers. We make this institution run, and we deserve to be compensated fairly.”
The main issues on the table now are:
- Fair wages and benefits
- Real recourse for harassment, discrimination, and bullying
- A Union Shop so all beneficiaries of the contract contribute dues to the MITGSU
Speeches by members and United Electrical Workers peppered the day every few hours to keep up morale. The union was well organized, with yellow-vested marshalls adjusting the length of the picket, and everyone stationed at a job if they weren’t on the picket line. Ample signs were available for joining picketers, along with a station for water bottles, donuts, snacks and union shirts. There was also a sign-in table to get members and supporters more involved.
One speech by Leah Wallach gestured to the generational fights of workers. “My great uncle was a United Steel Worker, my grandfather was in the carpenter’s union, and his father was a carpenter’s union steward. One of the consequences of this upbringing is that, up until about a year ago I thought that Solidarity Forever was a well-known children’s lullaby, turns out that’s not the case.”
Outside supporters are encouraged to email the Vice Chancellor of Undergrad and Grad Education, Ian Waitz at email@example.com: tell them to support grad working conditions and undergraduate education.
Rallies at Harvard and Northeastern On the Same Day Part of Growing Wave
MIT was one of three higher education worker rallies that day. Unionizing workers at Harvard and Northeastern also held pickets. Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union (HUWU) rallied in response to Harvard’s rejection of voluntary recognition, and the Graduate Employees of Northeastern University (GENU-UAW) held their first rally to protest a court hold-up since filing for a union election in February 2023. The Northeastern Graduate Union court case is particularly vexing as it would threaten all graduate workers’ right to unionize, including at MIT. Both unions are part of the United Auto Workers international. The national movement of unionizing higher education workers in both graduate and undergraduate programs is palpable and feels ever increasing.
Demand 1: MIT Downplays Grad Workers’ Struggles as Cost of Living Makes Survival Hard
Working Mass spoke with bargaining committee members on the picket line. Belinda Li explained that “I’m out here picketing with MIT GSU because we’re demanding a pay raise. MIT is currently proposing a pay cut or effective pay cut, because they’ll give me a 4% pay raise when inflation is 6%.”
In an email to graduate students, faculty, and staff, the MIT Chancellor, Melissa Nobles, and Provost, Cynthia Barnhart, downplayed the right of grad workers to ask for fair wages by claiming they “currently receive the second highest salaries among their peers nationwide.” Ironically that claim is supported by the surge in graduate student unionizations across the country. The administration cites last year’s 9% raise as a reason higher wages this year are unreasonable. Average inflation in 2022 was 8%.
The graduate student union has countered MIT by surveying members and telling their stories about the extremely high cost of living in Cambridge, an aspect that doesn’t lead to fair comparisons with nationwide wages. “I pay 60% of my stipend in rent, right? That means that sometimes, I actually have to ration food in order to survive in this high cost of living area,” says Belinda Li.
Cambridge housing costs are found to be 212% higher than the nation’s average. The union points out that 45% of grad workers have no savings buffer and pay an average of 55% of their stipend towards rent, according to a study by MIT’s Graduate Student Council. This meets the definition of severely rent burdened according to the federal government.
Demand 2: MIT Workers Experience Widespread Harassment – Union Wants Action
MIT workers report 40% having experienced harassing behaviors at the institution, while only 1% report it to MITs Discrimination and Harassment Office. Graduate workers want the right to grieve harassment and discrimination through the union grievance process, but MIT argues it should not be grievable.
Demands made by MITGSU are not siloed to the specifics of this university. The second demand, real recourse, is a galvanizing issue previously fought for by MITs neighbors at Harvard. The Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU-UAW) was unable to win real recourse in their latest contract.
Demand 3: Yes: “Union Shop.” No: “Right to Work”
According to MIT graduate workers, all other unions on campus have a union shop clause: all bargaining unit members who receive union benefits must pay union dues. MIT says that graduate workers should not have this. Union shops are critical to a union’s ability to survive long term. Union shop, a specific type of the broader union security clause, is also part of an ongoing political battle in the United States for decades. Readers might have heard of “Right to Work” states, where union security clauses, which guarantee financial stability and avoid the free-rider problem, are outlawed in the name of an opt-in “choice” for workers. This is a major component of political attacks on union rights since the 1970s.
As graduate worker Leah Wallach said: “So growing up I was surrounded by stories of how unions guaranteed my family safe, healthy, well-paying jobs. But also how decades of anti-union political action meant most of those union jobs had vanished. My parents thought that labor power in America was broken.”
HGSU was likewise unable to win a union shop in their latest contract, leaving the HGSU vulnerable to collapse due to lack of funds for hiring organizers and paying for actions. Theoretically, Harvard can wait out the union for their money to dwindle and the union to internally combust, a strategy that MIT would clearly like to copy. If MIT loses the private sector standard of union shop protection, it would be a bad sign for other graduate unions. The inability for other higher education unions to win real recourse and high pay, along with MITGSU’s two to one election margin are why Wallach also talked about MITGSU as precedent setting. “It’s hard for me to describe how completely thrilled I am to be standing here as a member of the precedent setting, record breaking, admin shaking, MITGSU. Here’s to winning an even more record breaking first contract.” MITGSU would be the first graduate student union to win real recourse in Massachusetts, and the second private university in the country to achieve such a protection.
If MITGSU can win all three demands in this contract, hopefully by their goal of May, they will indeed be setting a precedent, which is why MIT and other universities are doing all they can to stop it.
Yesterday, MITGSU announced they will be holding another picket on May 1st between 9am and 6pm. We hope to see you there!
Speech by Leah Wallach
“It’s hard for me to describe how completely thrilled I am to be standing here as a member of the precedent setting, record breaking, admin shaking, MITGSU. Here’s to winning an even more record breaking first contract. You know, in a way it feels like my whole life has built toward this moment. Let me explain what I mean by that. So my mother is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union. My grandmother was a Teamster. My great uncle was a United Steel Worker, my grandfather was in the carpenter’s union, and his father was a carpenter’s union steward. One of the consequences of this upbringing is that, up until about a year ago I thought that Solidarity Forever was a well-known children’s lullaby, turns out that’s not the case. So growing up I was surrounded by stories of how unions guaranteed my family safe, healthy, well-paying jobs. But also how decades of anti-union political action meant most of those union jobs had vanished. My parents thought that labor power in America was broken. That people my age would never get the kind of job security and benefits that unions gave to them. Years, and decades of anti-union propaganda, of racist and oppressive right to work laws, of legislation meant to erode union security and put corporate rights over workers rights, made people think that maybe we would never get back to that strong union presence, that let my grandparents and great grandparents immigrate here and live well. Well, we’re all here because we know that that is wrong. We’re all here because we’ve come together as MIT employees, as graduate workers, as technical workers, as the next generation of workers across America. And we’re saying that the time of union power is now, the time of union strength is now! Let me hear you, who’s got the power? We’ve got the power. What kind of power? Union power! Who are we? UE. Who are we? UE. Who are we? UE! That’s right.”
Oriana R. is a former union steward, an Allston resident and part of the Boston DSA and the Marxist Unity Group.