Opinion guest column

With a union, graduate working conditions become an institutional priority

The GSU is essential for improvements like raises in graduate stipends and funding support

On Sept. 27, nearly 1,000 graduate workers rallied in Hockfield Court to announce the formation of the MIT Graduate Student Union. On Thursday, Oct. 14, just 17 days later, MIT announced a historically unprecedented mid-year raise for all graduate students. This raise is notable not just for its timing but also because it will be entirely centrally funded, circumventing strain on scarce department resources. By taking decisive collective action and forming a union, graduate students are making our research and working conditions a priority for the vast resources of the Institute.

MIT claimed the unexpected raise was the result of this year’s endowment gains — MIT saw endowment gains of over $9 billion over the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021. However, MIT’s endowment has also seen a positive return on investment every single year since 2010, a growth totalling $19.5 billion. Notably, according to the FY2021 Treasurer's report, MIT’s Net Assets — including endowment, land, buildings, and equipment — currently total over $36 billion. Out of that, $15 billion are in unrestricted funds — funds whose use MIT has complete control over. To put that number in perspective, $15 billion could fund stipends at their current rate for every single graduate student for over 50 years. It could pay for dental insurance for every single graduate student for four thousand years.

Even at the height of the pandemic in 2020, the worst financial year since the Great Recession, the MIT endowment saw an 8% return on investment. One only needs to look at the massive changes to Kendall Square to see that MIT is not shy about spending its money. In 2015, MIT committed over $1.2 billion to fund the Kendall Square Initiative, an amount which was nearly 10% of the endowment at that time. So why has MIT been reluctant to devote even a fraction of those financial resources to graduate student needs?

This reluctance was highlighted during the pandemic. In May 2020, MIT COVID Relief published an open letter calling for funding extensions for graduate students in programs with fixed-term funding who were affected by the pandemic. Crucially, we called for these extensions to be universal, well-publicized, and centrally funded, because we knew that pandemic-related research delays were widespread, and that disruptions to our research would require serious long-term systemic solutions. MIT COVID Relief estimated universal extensions at a mere $3.5 million — money MIT is surely good for.

MIT administration rejected this approach. Throughout 2020, they instead forced faculty and departmental administrators to find the money for extensions from their own strapped budgets. Some programs cut or cancelled admissions to do so. The central administration provided no guidance to graduate students, many of whom were left to navigate a pandemic with profound uncertainty about their income. Meanwhile, graduate students who requested funding extensions through their departments were often subjected to meeting after meeting, if their requests weren’t outright denied. While MIT steadily accrued endowment wealth, many graduate students faced unprecedented financial strain.

It was only in April 2021, a full year after the pandemic began, that the MIT administration finally addressed the issue of pandemic extensions — and only after continued pressure from graduate student advocates. MIT shared an email address that graduate students could use to notify the Office of the Vice Chancellor that they needed a funding extension. This solution was still woefully inadequate: the COVID-19 Research Impact Survey showed that by May 2021 (mere weeks before many graduate students’ funding would end), a majority of students in programs with fixed-term funding were still unaware of the availability of pandemic extensions. The survey also showed that in some programs, 70–80% of current graduate students face ongoing pandemic-related delays to their work. Yet extensions remain an “emergency,” issued on a case-by-case basis; delayed students still have no long-term guarantee of a stipend through completion. This is a massively inefficient response to the long-term challenges of COVID-19. It punts costs to departments; imposes unnecessary stress and worry for students; and takes time away from what should really matter: our research.

Compare MIT to Brown University, where graduate students have been unionized since 2018. In April 2020, only a month after the pandemic lockdown began, Brown and the Graduate Labor Organization (Brown’s graduate student union) came to a written agreement to provide blanket funding extensions to every single third-, fourth-, and fifth-year graduate student. Brown students did not have to spend countless hours individually trying to extend their funding — they got to spend that time on their research.

It would be unfair to say that the Brown University administration cares more about their graduate students or is more generous than the Institute. Instead, by forming a union, Brown graduate students were able to ensure that their research and working conditions are a priority for central administration. Through their union, they had the power to negotiate for pandemic extensions when they needed them, rather than being subject to the whims of the administration’s attention.

It’s encouraging to see MIT respond to our unionization by finally beginning to mobilize their vast resources to prioritize conditions for graduate workers. As an employee of an institution whose endowment just grew by $9 billion, what would you change about your workplace if you could?

We know graduate students are severely rent-burdened, and we know graduate students need better healthcare. We know MIT cited lack of funding in refusing to meet RISE (Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment) demands for departmental diversity officers. And now, we know MIT has $15 billion in unrestricted funds that could immediately improve these conditions. Right now, graduate students spend countless hours tracking down delayed paychecks, navigating unexpected medical bills, and appealing for individual pandemic extensions — time we can’t spend advancing research and careers. With a union contract, we can codify our current pay increase, secure guarantees of annual stipend increases and pandemic support, and fight for the same improvements covering everything from affordable housing to fair dispute resolution procedures that unionized graduate workers have won across the country. With a union, we will make our research the priority.

Sign a union card today at mitgsu.org/sign.

The authors of this article are members of the MIT Graduate Student Union.
Bridget Begg is a seventh-year graduate student in biology.
Yadav Gowda is a sixth-year graduate student in linguistics and philosophy and also a member of MIT COVID Relief.
Sneha Kabaria is a second-year graduate student in chemical engineering.

Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar is a fifth-year graduate student in the Media Lab and also a member of MIT COVID Relief.
Gabrielle Robbins is a fifth-year graduate student in history, anthropology, and science, technology, and society and also a member of MIT COVID Relief.