Opinion guest column

Why we do not need a graduate student union at MIT

MIT has a years-long track record of improving the graduate student experience holistically

9665 stipend chart
Compared to private universities with graduate student unions, MIT has seen higher graduate student stipend percentage increases in several recent years.
Syd Robinson – The Tech

If you are a graduate student, you will have heard about the ongoing campaign for us to organize as part of the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU). You may have received emails and cold calls about their efforts. As of today, MIT does not have a graduate student union, and the GSU does not represent MIT graduate student workers. In order for the GSU to be officially recognized as a union, they require more than 30% of graduate students to sign a union card and must win a subsequent on-campus election with over 50% of the votes.

As you contemplate your personal decision, I would like to argue for why we should not form a graduate student union at MIT. These represent my personal opinions only, and I am not directly affiliated with the MIT administration or the Graduate Student Council (GSC).

Graduate student unions have not secured pay increases higher than those at MIT.

MIT has granted us very fair stipend increases and benefit enhancements in recent years. MIT has especially invested in students that have higher living expenses or lower stipend income (such as with nine-month appointments). Our gains are the result of constructive campaigns led by the GSC.

Every year, MIT works with the GSC to analyze the cost of living for graduate students taking into account on- and off-campus rent, meals, and general inflation. They also compare MIT’s stipends to those at competing graduate schools and make a recommendation for the following year’s stipend rate as well as other benefit enhancements. While MIT makes the final decision, the current administrators have shown a track record of listening and responding to our concerns.

MIT knows that we know best which issues are important to us and shares our goal of improving the holistic graduate student experience as much as possible within their financial constraints. Our collaborative work has led to the introduction and subsequent expansion of grants for graduate families with children, the removal of the 10% lower stipend rate, the addition and improvement of health insurance coverage with graduate stipends, and more, all achieved without a graduate student union.

There exists no evidence that graduate students at top-tier private universities that do have graduate student unions have fared better. Two major private universities with graduate unions are New York University (NYU) and Harvard. (Yale’s unionization campaign ended in 2018, and Columbia’s union remains without a contract since 2016.) As you can see in the accompanying figure, in general, neither university’s union has been able to negotiate higher stipend increases than MIT has offered us through our established process, with the exception of the one-time raise at NYU last year which came with the introduction of a new six-year contract. Harvard’s first-ever union contract last year offered a lower raise than MIT.

It is also worth remembering the existing official MIT policies: MIT grants 10 days of paid vacation to a full-year RA/TA plus typically 12 Institute Holidays per year (this year, there are 19 Institute Holidays). MIT provides three months of paid maternity leave for birth mothers, and one month of parental leave for non-birth parents. MIT offers guaranteed transitional funding for graduate students switching advisors. Some students work with supervisors that grant additional flexibility in these or other areas, such as sick time, bereavement leave, remote work, etc.

Lengthy and protracted bargaining leads to more uncertainty for students.

The Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) won their first one-year union contract in June 2020. It took over 1.5 years of bargaining and mediation, as well as a one-month strike in December 2019, to reach this agreement, which expired again in June 2021. In March 2021, the HGSU began to bargain with Harvard for a new three-year contract, and the two parties missed their deadline for agreeing to a contract. This month, the HGSU voted for another strike, to begin later this semester.

Meanwhile, Harvard’s graduate students work and are paid under the terms of last year’s contract, with no increase in pay. In contrast, MIT granted us a 3.25% pay increase without delay and a further mid-year 3% increase from December, just as high inflation pressures our living expenses.

While it is possible that when Harvard finally ratifies a new contract, back pay for any retroactive pay increases beginning in July 2021 will be agreed upon, this is unlikely to happen until later in 2022. Furthermore, some benefit enhancements such as additional health insurance coverage would not be able to be retroactively paid back and would begin whenever the contract is ratified. This happened at NYU, where they agreed to a new six-year contract for 2020–2026 a year late, in Summer 2021.

Such payment delays — along with the unknown length of strike action and the associated losses in pay — increase uncertainty in the lives of graduate students, who already live with relatively little disposable income and are facing steep cost of living increases this year due to inflation. This is especially the case for one- or two-year master’s students, who could receive back pay after their graduation, too late to mitigate any financial pressures faced during school.

Graduate student strikes are ineffective.

In traditional businesses, strikes are a powerful threat, because a walkout by workers causes immediate and direct harm to business operations and revenue. Workers strike (and forgo their pay) in order to inflict even greater financial and reputational harm on their employer. When an airline’s union goes on strike, flights are inevitably canceled, and airlines lose out on capacity, unable to recover the revenue at a later date.

This is not the case at academic institutions like MIT. If we went on strike, we would only harm ourselves and our campus harmony. Any stoppage of work as a Research Assistant (RA) would only delay our progress in our research and graduation. A strike would be unlikely to cause any harm to research funding, because grants and contracts are paid months and years in advance and not on an hourly basis. If Teaching Assistants (TAs) went on strike, we students would be harmed through delayed grading, missed feedback, or the cancellation of office hours. MIT would not lose any tuition revenue because of a strike.

A university strike is only a shot in our own foot. It is difficult to see any meaningful financial harm that would be suffered by MIT from the strike. MIT is allowed to not pay us for the time we are on strike (and would not hesitate to do so, such as at Columbia University). The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) union that the GSU is affiliated with also does not offer strike pay, which other unions use to partially offset the lost income from strike action.

It is much easier to see the harm a strike would have on our campus culture. The heart of MIT is built around us students going above and beyond because we care about and love the Institute and its people. MIT classes are incredibly inspiring because TAs pour their hearts and souls into creating fun lectures and problem sets or spend long nights planning the 2.009 Build Challenge, not because we are being paid to work exactly 20 hours a week. Otherwise, why do we volunteer our free time planning amazing Campus Preview Weekends or graduate visit days for the next generation of Beavers? Would we really let a strike get in the way of the MIT cultures and traditions that we love so much?

Unions charge membership fees while MIT funds the current GSC.

The GSU would charge us 1.44% of pretax income in membership dues, which would be $620/year at the standard MIT PhD RA rate after December 2021. Two-thirds of the fee would flow to the national UE union, an organization from which we would benefit little. The remaining third would be used to pay for local union organizing costs. Note that currently, MIT pays for the operating expenses of the Graduate Student Council.

Joining a union would shift these costs from MIT to our own paychecks. And make no mistake, every TA and RA will have to pay this fee, whether or not they want to be a member of the union. Non-members are typically asked to pay a solidarity fee equal to the membership dues (as with NYU’s graduate student union), and indeed the solidarity fee is one of the key issues in the current contract negotiations between Harvard and the HGSU (the university is opposed to making non-members pay).

It is true that most advocacy work of the GSC representatives is currently done on a volunteer basis, at most rewarded with the free food typical at MIT. Yet this would not change with a union. In a typical graduate student union, all stewards and committee members, including members of the bargaining committee that negotiate the contract, are elected from volunteers. Little would change, except that we would be paying for the food. At best, only a few executive leaders of the union could be paid a stipend by MIT without having to work as a RA/TA (NYU has three such positions in their contract).

Graduate student unions have no say in campus housing policy.

“The GSU will push MIT to prioritize affordable housing for graduate students” is perhaps the most misleading claim of the GSU campaign. The GSU organizers know very well that affordable housing is a demand that resonates with us and will get us to sign a union card, but they omit the fact that unions have no right to bargain over housing matters, as housing is unrelated to matters of wages, hours, or any other terms of employment as an RA or TA. The GSC represents student opinions on a much broader set of issues than the GSU would be legally allowed to. Our advocacy work makes MIT well aware of student concerns around housing. Because housing should not be an issue in this union campaign, I will not argue further on this topic.

Unions limit MIT’s flexibility in rapidly changing environments.

Let the record stand that MIT’s response to COVID-19 in March 2020 was appropriate, well-timed, and well-executed. In hindsight, there was no viable alternative to ending in-person instruction and research. The administration protected and supported us along the way and has not received enough recognition for its actions. The communication we received has been accurate, realistic, and at no point misleading. For example: MIT committed to not closing graduate housing early on, and never did.

Without hesitation, MIT offered to pay for our moving expenses, flight tickets, and lease cancellations. Over the summer, MIT reimbursed lost income from canceled summer internships and worked to arrange funding extensions for students delayed by the pandemic. MIT and Harvard sued the federal government for the rights of international students to study and work remotely from abroad.

In the fall, MIT provided graduate TAs iPads and internet plans and covered the legal and tax costs of students working from abroad. Our 2020–2021 stipends increased as scheduled without any pay cuts. Despite being subject to very restrictive conditions on campus, we as graduate students fared relatively well through the pandemic and were able to continue our research and teaching.

If the pandemic had happened in the middle of a multi-year union contract, it may have been more difficult for MIT to react as flexibly as it did. While a contract does not necessarily prevent MIT from going above and beyond the funding agreed in the contract, it would not be unreasonable that MIT would negotiate for concessions from the union in exchange for the immediate benefits (such as travel and moving expenses) provided.

Finally, agreeing to a contract with pay increases set three or six years in advance could be unwise, especially when nobody can predict the inflation rate in the current environment. The NYU contract locks graduate students in for a 2.5% annual raise until 2026, which could result in a stipend significantly below the cost of living in New York City in the future.

The university could give further mid-contract raises out of goodwill should competitive pressures add up. But history has shown that the goodwill earned from providing such unilateral raises is easily forgotten when the next round of contract negotiations occurs. For example, an unexpected mid-contract goodwill pay raise by American Airlines has not led to any improvement in its labor relations. This makes it difficult for employers to justify going above and beyond the contract.

Some statements from the GSU cannot be taken seriously.
In order to garner broad support for their campaign, the GSU organizers have begun to discredit themselves by claiming every possible issue on campus as something a union would solve. Every improvement is hailed as a “GSU win,” announced without any further proof that this is indeed the case.

Their most recent statement saying, “Make no mistake, this pay increase is happening because thousands of graduate workers are standing together, signing union cards, and demanding better working conditions at MIT,” is indicative of the echo chamber that the GSU has found itself in. Correlation does not imply causation. As has since been clarified by MIT, the campus-wide raise “was the result of extensive planning that first started over the summer when we began to understand what the return might be on our endowment. This happened well before the Institute had knowledge of the MIT GSU’s organizing campaign.”

And this makes perfect sense. It is unreasonable to believe that senior administrators would be able to get approval for a multimillion dollar permanent wage increase within just two weeks. Neither would it explain why MIT would increase the pay for all its ~13,000 staff members in addition to its ~7,000 graduate students. Dartmouth College issued similar pay raises and bonuses to its staff and students, citing the increased endowment returns without an active unionization campaign.

If the GSU wants to be taken seriously, it should stick to making factual arguments about the benefits of the union, of which there are certainly some, instead of overstating its impact on campus. A 3% permanent pay raise plus an additional 3% increase in the Institute’s tuition subsidy for graduate students, funded with investment returns, is a generous offer that does not deserve mockery with memes, especially since we all could have personally achieved similar returns (the S&P 500 was up 40% in the same period).

MIT can improve the graduate student experience in more dimensions than a union can.

I strongly believe that graduate students have a voice at MIT. In recent years, the many holistic improvements that go beyond simple pay increases have proven that MIT will respond to important graduate student issues, if we present sufficient evidence of the need at hand. Our current structures allow the graduate experience at MIT to be reviewed as a complete package that is a delicate balance between tuition subsidies, summer funding, stipend rates, housing rates, support services like GradSupport and MIT Medical, funds for individual hardships, and funds for student life and student group activities.

A union would break up the package, and any particular gains a union contract would bring in stipends and health insurance could theoretically be countered by regressions in housing or student life funding, which are not part of the bargaining process. You will soon hear the recommendations from Task Force 2021 and Beyond about the future of graduate student funding, some of which demand financial investments from MIT that far exceed the scope that a union contract is able to cover. I am very excited about potential structural changes to external fellowships, summer funding or graduate tuition rates, which could have a far greater impact on graduate students at MIT.

If you are passionate about an issue, I encourage you to join an existing Institute or GSC committee, or even advocate for a new one, if your issue is not currently being covered. Yes, the current structure is not perfect: MIT could compensate students’ time volunteering on committees better, MIT could enforce stronger rules on workload and working conditions, and MIT could make stronger guarantees that existing policies will outlive a change in administrative personnel.

But we are making great strides with our current amicable working relationship between the GSC and MIT. Right now, we are very privileged to have an administration that wants us all to succeed. Let’s not lose this momentum.

Kevin Wang is a graduate student in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. He represents graduate students on the Institute Committee on Student Life and Task Force 2021 and Beyond.