MIT needs to take a hard look at labor relations

The administration is jeopardizing the school’s long-term welfare by cutting employee benefits

The most visible and most highly touted aspects of MIT are its faculty and student body. But amid the faculty and students are thousands of hard workers who make possible everything that students and researchers do. The MIT custodians, administrative assistants, police, and countless other employees are just as much part of the MIT culture and success as are the students, faculty, and those ridiculously overworked and underpaid things commonly called post-docs. For anyone who considers the importance of the MIT labor force, it is immediately clear that MIT’s success depends on the groundskeepers, police, staff, custodians, and other facilities personnel. Many of the MIT workers have been on campus for a long time and know the ins-and-outs of the facilities better than anyone else. They know where money is wasted and where inefficiencies arise. With this in mind, it is only logical that the top MIT administrators should make it a priority to maintain and invest in the MIT workforce. MIT administration should consider the campus workforce as an essential partner that is to be respected as much as the faculty and student bodies.

The workers and worker organizations should be invited to participate in important decision-making that impacts the MIT community and workers. It is a hallmark of democracy to participate in decisions that affects oneself. Yet, the MIT Budget Task Force had no worker representatives and only one or two token student representatives per Task Force Committee. Just to put this in perspective, the MIT student to faculty ratio is about 4-to-1, so to keep representation proportional there should have been at least four times more students than faculty on the committees, which was far from the case. And the fact that there were no labor representatives present in the Budget Task Force, which was incidentally called “Institute-wide,” also sent a chilling message to the workers about where they stand on the proverbial “totem pole.” The same Task Force produced recommendations that will have a serious effect on the MIT student population and even more severe effects on MIT workers, in terms of retirement and health care benefit cuts and potential layoffs. So, again, one has to either admit that MIT is not functioning democratically, or that democracy at MIT does not extend to the workers, and barely reaches students.

All these concerns are not just an academic exercise in political science. The MIT police bargaining unit, the MIT Campus Police Association, is facing a tough time obtaining a fair contract with MIT. Is it not fair for them to obtain a minimal raise to adjust for an increase in the cost of living and to keep health care benefit costs stable? Instead, MIT is denying them a raise and is essentially increasing the cost of health care benefits. It is a de facto pay cut. According to the MIT Campus Police Association, the cost of health care to the employee has risen by a factor of 4.2 (from $1,584 to $6,636) over 13 years, while the cost to MIT has increased by 2.5 times. This trend of shifting the cost to the employee has two effects. It reduces the quality of living for MIT workers, like the police, which could have a severe human cost.

The cost of health insurance as a percentage of annual income has increased from 4.4 percent in 1996 to 12 percent in 2009. Imagine a family member with a serious health condition and an increasing cost of health insurance. Not a pretty picture. It is worth remembering that approximately 50 percent of bankruptcies in the US are due to health care expenses. But there is also a cost to the MIT community as a whole. A worker who is not respected by his or her employers will not tend to respect his or her work. Should the MIT community feel safer knowing that the MIT police are not respected by the top MIT administrators, that they are underpaid, and reduced in number?

The potential cuts in benefits are not likely to be limited to the MIT police. MIT custodians and facilities personnel are worried that the MIT administration will seek health care and retirement benefit reductions, as outlined in the MIT Budget Task Force proposals, in their upcoming negotiations. MIT workers did not decide where MIT should invest its endowment and they were not invited to participate in the Budget Task Force decisions, yet they are likely to get stuck making the most severe concessions, in terms of human cost. Since a faculty member cannot fix a cold room that is out of order, or fix a leak in the pipes in the ceiling, we need the MIT laborers to be respected, and treated fairly, so that they can do their job promptly and with dignity.

Administrators have used the economic crisis as an excuse to justify the proposed cuts in worker benefits. It is quite curious that as the administration argues about the need to cut spending, there are several large and very expensive projects in the works (the new Koch Institute, or the Sloan School extension). In 2008, MIT issued a $325 million bond to help finance these projects. As pointed out by the The Tech on Nov. 17, 2009 (“2007–2008 Top Salaries at MIT, With a Bit of History”), top administrators are being paid in the hundreds of thousands with recent increases in pay ranging from $12,000 to $313,141.

Here are some simple ideas to accommodate the needs of workers without MIT running further in debt:

1. Bring workers, not just their supervisors, to the decision making table. Workers know MIT well and can facilitate efficiency well. They can also defend their worker’s rights and interests better when they are a part of the decision making body. In addition, workers can identify projects that can be done in-house without the necessity of hiring expensive outside contractors.

2. Start cutting the salaries of the highest paid MIT administrators and faculty before shifting more costs to the workers. Or use the funds available for raises to top administrators and faculty and shift them to offset costs incurred by maintaining the health care and retirement benefits of workers at the current level. The fact that top administrators and faculty are getting paid in the hundreds of thousands while workers are getting their benefits cut is a slap in the workers face, to put it mildly.

3. Wealthy donors give to MIT. Maybe during the next fund-raiser event, MIT administrators and faculty can raise few million for the workers. It is worth the trouble.

4. MIT should make publicly available detailed financial information of the Institute’s expenditures, investments, and salaries so that the MIT community, as a whole, can make an informed decision as to whether the budget cut proposals are justified.

We hope the MIT community starts demanding that our top administrators show respect to workers and award them fair and just contracts. We, the MIT community, should understand that this is a worthy long term investment. We, the MIT students, faculty, post-docs, and researchers, depend on the MIT workers’ dedication and determination to do their job, so that we can do ours. It is time to return the favor and show the workers that we appreciate their effort. Let’s make them feel that they are part of MIT, not just a second-rate, hired help.

Alexi Goranov and Elcin Unal are postdoctoral fellows at the MIT Koch Institute. Michael Baratta is a postdoctoral associate in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences.