Opinion guest column

Empowering ourselves to be better researchers through unionization

Unionization is necessary for graduate workers to carry out MIT’s essential research

More than 5,000 graduate workers act as MIT’s research engine, accounting for around 65% of the research workforce. We meticulously plan experiments that no one in the world has done before, iterate until the results are scientifically sound, and assemble manuscripts that ultimately contribute to the world’s body of knowledge. As the workers closest to our work, we are the experts on what resources we need in the workplace to successfully produce MIT’s world-class innovations and discoveries. A majority of graduate workers have signed our union cards because we fundamentally believe that we deserve a voice in our workplace — and unionizing is the only way to guarantee us legally-enforceable negotiating power to win the tools that we need to be outstanding researchers. 

Through thousands of conversations with our coworkers, it has become clear that MIT does not provide us with sufficient resources to efficiently produce the best research possible. Many of us lack the equipment and materials we need, have difficulty accessing centralized research infrastructure due to lack of staffing or high turnover (for example, in administrative and core facilities roles), waste excessive time fixing outdated equipment, and have unremediated lab safety concerns. We have been frustrated when we have spoken up about these issues individually and been ignored or dismissed. Even when our advisors have tried to help, the issues only ever seem to rise one or two rungs up the hierarchy of MIT’s bureaucracy, remaining unaddressed. Administrators claim it is out of their hands to address staffing and facilities issues. By standing together on these issues which span labs, departments, and schools, our union can amplify our collective voice to create material improvements on these workplace issues.

Graduate workers at MIT currently lack a well-defined job description, leaving the boundaries of our responsibilities extremely ambiguous. As a result, when there is an inappropriate lack of investment in support staff and research infrastructure, we are forced to pick up the slack. Research already involves an incredibly diverse workload: designing and conducting experiments, fabricating materials and devices, analyzing data and characterizing our systems, generating figures, and writing papers. When we also have to take on administrative or maintenance tasks, it detracts from our ability to do research well

Though many universities, including MIT, claim that graduate students aren’t workers, many MIT graduate researchers spend a disruptive fraction of their time — or even a majority — on tasks that don’t directly advance their research or their education. For science and engineering fields, when a lab doesn’t have a lab manager or consistent administrative support, we graduate researchers are often roped into tasks like:

For graduate researchers, saying no to these tasks complicates our relationships with our advisors. We do this unpaid work because we fear for our funding, timeline for graduation, and prospect for job recommendations. With a union, we will be able to delineate basic job descriptions for graduate workers, and most importantly, we will have the power to ensure our time is spent on advancing research rather than fixing broken equipment. Recognizing the heterogeneity of research across the Institute, we can establish and enforce clear bounds on what an RAship is and is not.

The MIT dogma of decentralization insists that every Department/Lab/Center’s (DLC) needs are so unique that they cannot possibly adopt any of the same policies and practices successfully. But the reality is, across all departments, we share some common struggles that prevent us from researching in an efficient and sustainable way:

Of course, there are still department or field-specific issues. Some departments don’t guarantee PhD students year-round funding. Others have attrition rate gaps and qualifying exam initial pass rate discrepancies between genders and underrepresented minorities. Researchers in the humanities and social sciences have fixed-term funding schedules, with little opportunity for extensions or dissertation-year fellowships. This makes the situation for these researchers more precarious, in particular when they suffer delays to their research, or when the job market worsens, as has happened during the pandemic.

The MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) is composed of a majority of workers in every department to capture a diversity of experiences when developing bargaining goals. Ensuring representation will give us the opportunity to negotiate a contract that meets every department’s — and every worker’s — needs.

Other graduate worker unions have won contract provisions guaranteeing access to the equipment, facilities, and institutional support that graduate workers reasonably need to do their jobs (see, for example, the University of Michigan, University of Connecticut, and University of California system). Contracts also protect graduate workers from overwork and burnout by setting clear standards for work hours and time off — while allowing graduate workers to work more than the specified amount for their own research and teaching goals when they choose to do so. Union contracts empower graduate workers to manage our time in a way that is healthy, balanced, and constructive. 

Teachers unionize to reduce class sizes so they can focus on providing the best education possible to their students. Nurses unionize to fight understaffing so they can give their patients quality care. We’re unionizing so we can focus on conducting world-class research. Only when every single scholar at MIT — every electrical engineer, historian, chemist, architect, evolutionary biologist — is empowered to show up fully for their work will we reach our true potential. Join us by signing your union card today.