Opinion letter to the editor

Some concerns about unionization from a graduate student

Over the last week, MIT’s Graduate Student Union (GSU) has pushed for unionizing graduate students in alliance with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). While several involved with the effort have graciously reached out to provide information, I think a public airing of concerns from a skeptic would benefit all. Understanding that all of us want only the best for graduate students, I summarize those (non-exhaustive) concerns below.

First, the textbook case for unions requires that laborers have few or poor outside options. That is not true here. All of us have exceptional human capital and could therefore get high-paying industry jobs or negotiate our way into other departments. That many of us left or turned down excellent private options to come here is evidence of that fact.

Second, I do not understand the position that collapsing all of us into a single bargaining unit would necessarily be a net positive. As an economics student, I have very different interests from an engineering student, and it is unclear how a union would balance those interests in a way that would make everyone better off. In the language of economics, unionization is not Paretian. Homogenization has its costs.

Third, I worry about inflexibility. I previously worked for the government and was forced to be in a union. The rigidity and duration of the collective bargaining agreement imposed severe constraints on my ability to negotiate with superiors and optimize my work experience. Again, it is unclear precisely how unionizing in this situation would make me and everyone else better off if we are constrained to obey the same contract.

Fourth, I am concerned about the adequacy of representation. What expertise and experience can the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America bring to the table? Does a union which seems to mainly represent workers of an entirely different type than graduate students have the relevant skills to represent an economics student or a chemical engineering student? Why would we expect them to do a better job than the existing structure of graduate students, which evidently has substantial experience negotiating with the administration and, by their own admission, has significant accomplishments? Not only that, but a simple perusal of the UE’s website reveals them to be a politically radical organization with views that many, if not most students would disagree with, so why should we put ourselves in that position?

Fifth, I hesitate over the costs unionization will bring, both implicit and explicit. The explicit burden of fees is substantial, while the implicit transaction costs we bear from extensive negotiation, homogenization, and the looming prospect of strikes are also quite high. I struggle to see an outcome where the expected value of unionizing is sufficiently positive that unionizing is as obvious a decision as the GSU makes it out to be.

Finally, we sit in a privileged position. MIT is the best university in the world, and we are quite lucky to be here. Indeed, many would not only take large pay cuts to be in our place, but would go into substantial debt. Consequently, I don’t feel oppressed; quite the opposite. We are privileged to be here, and it strikes me as fantastic to compare the plight of an MIT research assistant to the archetypal oppressed laborer.

The prospects of unionizing are unclear, and the trade-offs to this point have been poorly defined by the GSU. This is not a free lunch, and, indeed, it is uncertain whether any manna is forthcoming. Further dialogue on this front is essential, and I hope that we can respectfully engage over the coming weeks before a decision is made.

Jackson Mejia is a graduate student in economics at MIT.