Opinion guest column

The UE isn’t the union the GSU claims it is

Why should graduate students settle for a union that compromises values and fails to protect us?

All financial numbers reported in the opinion piece below are sourced from UEnotforMIT.org — an information site run by graduate students for graduate students, detailing the unique risks and issues with unionization through the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

I support our right to unionize. I support the concept of graduate unionization at MIT. And I would support the Graduate Student Union (GSU) if they were unionizing without the UE. However, they have elected to choose a nearly bankrupt, predatory, and oppressive national union that supports none of our interests.

The UE has minimal financial assets, reporting only $2.5 million in holdings in the most recently available (2018) NLRB mandatory reporting data. This number represents the latest in a steady decline since the early 2000s when the UE assets totaled nearly $15 million and included investments and liquid assets, in contrast to the remaining assets, which are nearly entirely invested in U.S. treasury securities.

The UE does not want us to join to support us. They want the nearly $2 million we will pay in national dues every year. This would increase their annual national budget (currently $4.5 million) by nearly 50%. This capital could help the UE resolve its downward trend, but we shouldn’t be the ones providing the funds unless it benefits us.

The GSU claims that the UE provides invaluable support in our unionization effort, primarily in the form of professional organizers and potential legal guidance around constitution drafting and defense around contract negotiations. However, the legal expenditures of the entire UE — for all of its many local unions (“locals”) — totaled a mere $2.3 million in the past year, less than the $2.8 million we will be paying in dues our first year. (The salaries of professional organizers at MIT contribute a relatively small amount that does not change this comparison.) The bottom line is that the UE cannot support us better than we can support ourselves, at least until we suddenly need financial support we cannot provide ourselves, such as if we strike.

So what happens if we strike and the university docks our pay? Five thousand graduate worker salaries are not cheap and, at an estimate of $20/hour and eight-hour work days, would come to $800,000 per day. This would bankrupt the UE’s entire $2.5 million asset portfolio in three days (were those assets even liquid), and even if the UE applied their entire (newly increased by our contributions) annual dues budget of $6.5 million to our strike pay, it would still run out in about two weeks. For reference, the strike at Columbia this past spring lasted nearly two months. The UE is not nearly large enough to support us financially when we would need it most.

To compound these financial issues, the UE boasts extensive policy positions on a number of issues, many of which I personally find reasonable and agree with, but many others which run directly counter to active, ongoing research at MIT. Their support of the Green New Deal inexplicably includes a denunciation of nuclear power. Their general critique of the U.S. military denounces aerospace research. Their foreign policy exhorts their locals to divest from various U.S. allies such as Israel and Japan. These are all issues that run directly counter to existing MIT programs, both of internal departments and international collaborations.

Although adoption of these policies by individuals is optional, locals of the UE as a whole are expected to conform to these policies and, in fact, are explicitly forbidden by the national constitution to contradict them in their local documents. Thus, aligning with the UE would necessarily introduce these harmful policies to our campus, causing them to remain at best a looming specter and at worst a way to actively discriminate against students on our campus.

Why are we aligning with a union that will take our money and cannot even protect us in our hour of need? Moreover, why should we choose to align with such a union, when doing so will actively compromise the values of MIT students?

The UE needs us, but we do not need the UE. A better graduate union could be formed without any national union, and a better graduate union could be formed with a stronger national union. MIT students would absolutely benefit from a union, but we are not in desperate need for one and shouldn’t just jump at the first to pass by. We have the resources, drive, and privilege to wait for a better union for us.

Rescind your card today. MIT works because we do, but there’s no reason for the UE to do the same.

Please reach out to uenotformit-contact@mit.edu if you want to get involved.

Akiva Gordon is a third-year graduate student in Chemical Engineering. He is one of the primary authors of the information site: UEnotforMIT.org.