MIT Graduate Student Union holds launch rally Sept. 27

Thirty percent of graduate students must sign cards for union election to take place

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MIT graduate students rally together on Hockfield Court Tuesday for the launch of the Graduate Student Union.
Michele Gabriele

The MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) was publicly announced for the first time and held its launch rally at Hockfield Court Sept. 27.

The GSU had organized for nearly four years before being publicly announced. GSU member Gabriel Nahmias G wrote in an email to The Tech that the GSU did not “want to go public until we knew we were in a position to represent all graduate student-workers at MIT.”

The GSU is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a national, independent, membership-run union.

To petition the National Labor Relations Board for a union election, the GSU must receive 30% of graduate student signatures on union cards. The GSU must then win a majority vote at the election to be officially recognized as a union, at which point it could negotiate a contract with MIT.

Since the launch rally, over one thousand graduate student workers have signed a union card, according to Nahmias.

Nahmias added that the GSU would “democratically determine” issues to negotiate in its contract. The GSU website currently lists five demands for MIT: fair work expectations, a safe and equitable work environment with dependable accountability, financial security and guaranteed support, affordable housing and comprehensive benefits, and equal opportunities for international students.

Additionally, the GSU has worked on various issue campaigns focused on specific challenges for graduate students. These include a mental health campaign through Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, the Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment campaign which combats harassment and discrimination, a COVID-19 relief campaign, and an international student working group.

The GSU also currently includes over 250 union representatives, comprising graduate students from department across MIT.

Nahmias wrote that before going public, the GSU organized by reaching out to student-workers to hear their issues, learning from other university graduate student unions, voting to affiliate with UE, and launching issue campaigns.

The launch rally took place from 5–6 p.m., and several hundred graduate students were in attendance. Many attendees wore red in support of the GSU or held posters reading “MIT works because we do.”

Lucy Hu G, a GSU organizer and graduate student in health sciences and technology, and Ki-Jana Carter G, a GSU organizer and graduate student in materials science and engineering, moderated the rally.

Hu spoke first at the rally, saying “Any grad student can tell you we are not just students — we are researchers, teachers, grant-writers, event organizers… in short, we are also workers … MIT works because we do, and that means we not only need, but we deserve a real say in our working and learning conditions.”

Lucky Pattanaik G, a graduate student in chemical engineering who organized with GSU for over two years, also spoke at the rally. “Fundamentally what this union represents is a shift in the power structure here at MIT away from the administration to the graduate workers, and today is really the start of us translating our collective power and strength into real democratic action.”

Pattanaik also forecasted that MIT would launch an anti-union campaign. “In reality, MIT has been preparing for this campaign for quite some time. They’ve hired a lawyer from one of the biggest anti-union firms in the country as their chief legal counsel. In 2016, following Columbia’s attempts to unionize, they filed an amicus brief with eight other universities opposing the right of graduate workers to come together and unionize.”

Pattanaik added that the GSU had spoken with over 2,500 graduate student-workers, and “an overwhelming majority” were in support of unionization.

Former Graduate Student Council (GSC) President Madeleine Sutherland G, a graduate student in chemistry, spoke at the rally.

Sutherland said that while she was president, the GSC was “compelled [by MIT] to argue about things that should never be an argument … that [MIT] can’t make COVID-testing a de facto condition of employment and then have no accessibility plan … that it’s wrong to let researchers get coerced into working with no pay, that it’s wrong to put grad workers under threat of eviction from grad housing … that it’s simply unreasonable to expect grad workers to progress in their dissertation research without knowing whether they’d be funded the next year or even the next month.”

“Contrary to the way graduate advocates are often characterized, we are not here to disrupt or destroy MIT’s vital mission. We are here to build a better version of MIT,” Sutherland added. “Workers at MIT are forming a union as a way of saying to our employer that there is a minimum standard of living and working conditions that must be met … for us to be healthy human beings and to do the work of education, discovery, and innovation that drew us to MIT in the first place.”

Chelsea Onyeador G, a graduate student in the aeronautics and astronautics department and political action chair of the Black Graduate Student Association, also spoke at the rally, recounting her experience as a Black woman at MIT.

“When I applied to MIT, I didn’t expect that from the moment I stepped on this campus that I’d be pushed to carry the burden of trying to make the space better for the historically marginalized,” Onyeador continued. “Honestly, I spent a lot of time wondering how much more I could achieve without that weight on my shoulders.”

Onyeador also described her experience working on Institute committees and “the MIT admin playbook of … talking circles until students lose bandwidth or simply graduate.” 

“These official committees ultimately end up recommending actions that are performative or make marginal impact.” To emphasize the importance of unionization, Onyeador contrasted these efforts with those made by student advocacy groups who worked to increase the number of covered therapy sessions for graduate students, quadruple the number of Black graduate students within the aeronautics and astronautics department, and bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to MIT’s attention.

President of the Harvard Graduate Student Union Brandon Mancilla and Rohan Chitnis G, graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, also spoke at the rally.

Graduate students can sign a union card or participate in the GSU’s campaign by filling out forms at the GSU website. Additionally, MIT community members can support the GSU by signing an open letter organized by the MIT Student Worker Alliance or by donating to the GSU.

Update 9/30/21: A previous version of this article wrote that the GSU required a supermajority of graduate students to sign union cards in order to hold a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In fact, the NLRB considers 30% of a bargaining unit to be a valid threshold for petitioning for a union election.