Exploratory Committee surveys MIT community on graduate student unionization

Results show 62 percent of graduate student respondents are in support

8430 net unionization favorability
Net unionization favorability.
Exploratory Committee for Graduate Student Unionization at MIT
8431 support for union advocacy for various issues
Support for union advocacy for various issues.
Exploratory Committee for Graduate Student Unionization at MIT

The Exploratory Committee for Graduate Student Unionization at MIT wrote, distributed, and analyzed an opinion survey on their titular issue. The survey was initially sent to dorm mailing lists last Monday, and final results were released Sunday.

167 of the survey respondents self-identified as PhD students, and 38 self-identified as Master’s students. (This represents about three percent of the total graduate population, based on a 2016-2017 enrollment size of 6,852 graduate students.) Undergraduates and other MIT affiliates were also able to respond, but graduate student data was extracted and analyzed separately.

Respondents ranked their level of support for a potential MIT graduate student union on a scale of 1 (“definitely oppose”) to 7 (“definitely support”). Overall, PhD students averaged 4.86, while Master’s students averaged 5.29.

In their analysis, the committee also distributed the numerical levels into broader categories: support (levels 5 through 7), neutral (level 4), and oppose (levels 1 through 3). Using this metric, graduate students “paint an overwhelmingly pro-union picture,” with 62 percent in support, according to the committee’s email detailing the survey results.

Another survey question asked respondents to select which union-related issues they would want to see addressed in a collective bargaining agreement. Salary, healthcare, and housing came out on top — 65 to 70 percent of all respondents selected them. Most other issues fell in the 40 to 50 percent range, with the exception of safety, which only 30 percent “gave a shit about,” the committee wrote in its email.

The committee also reviewed trends in unionization opinions by department. On one side of the spectrum, 100 percent of Urban Studies and Planning respondents and Science Technology, and Society respondents were pro-union; on the other, 80 percent of Biological Engineering respondents were anti-union. However, the committee cautioned that their sample sizes were very small; in Biological Engineering, for example, only five responses were collected.

Graduate student unionization has erupted as a heated, controversial issue in recent years.

The National Labor Relations Board determined in a 2016 case involving Columbia University that student assistants (teaching and research) at private colleges and universities should be recognized as statutory employees, thus setting a new precedent.

Earlier that year, MIT had filed a joint amicus brief urging the opposite decision, arguing “that its relationship with its graduate teaching and research assistants is primarily an educational one and that unionization of graduate students could disrupt academic programs, mentoring and research,” according to a FAQ website by the Office of Graduate Education at MIT.

These FAQs also contain information on what unionization could mean for graduate students, particularly in regard to voting procedures and the scope of union negotiation powers.

The exploratory committee that organized the survey consists of four PhD students who hope to initiate dialogue around the issue of graduate student unionization at MIT, although they are not explicitly pro-union. They requested to remain anonymous, for fear that if they were seen as leaders of an unionization movement, they would be subjected to “undue scrutiny” from administrators and disapproval from their advisors.

At some peer institutions, the process of unionization has extended far past these preliminary stages. Harvard University, for example, is already well on its way to a second election on unionization. A majority of students voted against it in a November 2016 election, but due to an objection that the administration failed to provide a complete list of eligible voters, the NLRB ruled that a new election must be held.

Editor’s note: The Tech realized after the initial publication of this article that the data in the article, which was based on an email from the exploratory committee releasing the final results, was slightly different from the data in the infographics, which included several more responses.

The exploratory committee explained in an email to The Tech what had happened:

“The survey was supposed to close on January 28th [the day the results were emailed]. Unfortunately, one of our members accidentally clicked the wrong box and reopened the survey at some point on the 29th. About 20 additional responses were submitted in this time, which slightly altered some of the interactive infographics which automatically analyzed the live data.”

We apologize for any confusion this may have caused. The most up-to-date statistics can be found here and here.

Update 2/1/18: The article was updated to add an editor’s note and provide more context for the scope of the survey.