Opinion guest column

The MIT GSU and UE will bring a history of social justice to the future of MIT

UE’s proven commitment to fighting injustice makes it the right choice for MIT

Since the MIT graduate student unionization campaign began Sept. 27, the strength of our collective voice has grown. Worker after worker after worker has come forward with issues impacting their research and student life at MIT, and a majority of graduate workers have already signed their union cards in support of unionization. Through thousands of conversations with our fellow graduate workers, we’ve highlighted student issues like affordable housing, COVID relief policies, and funding and compensation. In the wake of the resounding endorsement of the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) by MIT’s Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), the MIT GSU wants to highlight our prioritization of one of the most-voiced graduate worker demands at MIT: a material, institutional commitment to racial and social justice.

At peer institutions, unions have won legally binding protections for students reporting discrimination, input on university harassment and discrimination trainings, and paid positions for graduate workers promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion at their universities. Strong unions have long been at the forefront of social justice — through our partnership with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), the MIT GSU is committed to advancing the rich history of that movement at MIT.

UE at the forefront of labor’s fight for women’s rights

A union is a tool for us as workers to unite and use our collective power, and, by using it, we can fight for more than just fair compensation and benefits. Deep commitment to solidarity — the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all — has given rise to a rich history of workers using the power of organized labor to fight discrimination.

The MIT GSU chose to affiliate with UE in part because UE has consistently been at the forefront of the labor movement’s fight for justice. For example, UE led the fight for equal pay and job opportunities for women, bringing forward a grievance against General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse charging them with discrimination against women in September 1945. UE demanded “the complete elimination of sex differentials in pay rates, the abolition of so-called ‘women’s jobs,’ and their reevaluation in relation to men’s pay scales” — decades before the women’s movement popularized the demand for “equal pay for equal work” in the 1970s — and they won. The National War Labor Board ordered GE and Westinghouse to end sex-differentiated job classifications and pay inequity for women. This order went unenforced, but the demands of UE members persisted. The following year, when workers at GE went on strike nationwide, UE workers stayed on the picket lines an additional two weeks to win an additional pay raise for women workers.

UE also linked the fight for women’s rights with the fight against racism, holding conferences that highlighted the particularly severe working conditions of Black women. At UE’s National Women’s Conference in 1953, Florence Romig, a GE worker from Cleveland, said: "Industries like to put Negro people in the lowest-graded jobs or the most menial jobs… Today, we have many Negro women in production jobs active in [Local 707] and pitching in to help fight discrimination against all women.”

Today, women have substantial representation in UE leadership, including as presidents of many local unions. Almost half of UE international and field workers are women, and women make up one-third of UE’s General Executive Board.

Anti-racism and union power go hand-in-hand

On Sept. 20, 1950, UE dedicated itself to “the elimination of racial discrimination in the electrical manufacturing industry.” This was no easy task — discriminatory hiring practices in this industry meant that Black people made up less than 10% of the membership by the end of World War II. However, thanks to their internal commitment to racial equity, by 1954, UE members succeeded in winning no-discrimination clauses in 87% of all UE contracts. In 1957, after Martin Luther King Jr. thanked UE workers at Westinghouse for holding firm on their demand for a no-discrimination clause in their contract, UE leader James Matles reaffirmed UE’s commitment to eliminating racial discrimination: “We feel it is the special responsibility of the labor movement to make the fight for equal opportunity for the Negro workers in the shops and to end discrimination on the job.”

Along with organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC, unions were a foundational pillar of the civil rights movement. Of the twelve-man organizing committee for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, four were union leaders; A. Philip Randolph, vice president of the AFL-CIO and former president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin, another leader of the AFL-CIO, were the primary organizers of the March. The organizing committee also included Cleveland Robinson, the vice president of the RWDSU who integrated grocery unions, and Walter Ruether, the white President of UAW.

The March on Washington was the culmination of decades of political work, with direct ties to the Montgomery bus boycott, which was financially and organizationally supported by locals of multiple unions, including UE. In an era when most companies and unions remained staunchly segregated, UE was fighting for Black lives via robust, integrated anti-lynching campaigns, demanding non-discrimination clauses in its contracts, and enforcing their locals’ contracts through integrated collective action. Today, UE continues the fight for racial justice, organizing workers who are denied collective bargaining rights by “right-to-work” laws rooted in Jim Crow. UE Local 150, which grew out of organizing by Black Workers for Justice in the 1980s, represents public sector workers in North Carolina. In the face of harsh right-to-work laws, UE has helped secure pay increases and push back against right-to-work policies.

With a union, graduate student-workers can combat discrimination in academia

This history demonstrates the deep connections between labor unions and the fight against racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice in the United States. It is no secret that injustice also persists in academia, where minorities remain underrepresented in PhD programs and tenured faculty have failed to become more diverse. MIT is no exception, with only about 7% of PhD students identifying as underrepresented minorities and just 28% identifying as women (data on other gender minorities is unavailable).

The MIT administration has let graduate student-advocates down over and over again. While the Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) campaign won guaranteed transitional funding for all graduate workers seeking new advisors, which empowered graduate workers to leave abusive advising situations, we advocated for many more changes that the administration refused to implement. The MIT administration also failed to meet almost all of the 2015 recommendations from the BGSA, including funding diversity officers for every department, which was also a key demand of the 2020 RISE campaign. The Institute’s recent Strategic Action Plan, purporting to address systemic campus diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, frustrated even the graduate representatives on the committee.

Graduate workers have worked tirelessly for years to end discrimination in academia: through student groups, committees, working groups, public forums, petitions, and every other method we can find. Now, we want a new solution — one that will give us the power to address the MIT administration as equals: we want a union.

We ask you to join the MIT GSU and UE in the fight against racism and sexism by signing your union card at mitgsu.org/sign.

Ki-Jana Carter is a fifth-year graduate student-worker in DMSE.

Cory Frontin is a seventh-year graduate student-worker in AeroAstro.

Bridget Begg is a seventh-year graduate student-worker in Biology.

All of the authors are members of the MIT Graduate Student Union.