Opinion guest column

BGSA votes to endorse MIT GSU

Black graduate students can make long-awaited gains through unionization

The Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) is proud to publicly endorse the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) through a landslide community vote of 92% in favor. 

We acknowledge that the Black student experience at MIT is not monolithic, but nonetheless the vast majority of Black graduate students have gravitated toward the union. There are many reasons for this support, including the fact that with a union, we can use our collective power as graduate workers to win a contract that implements changes the BGSA has advocated for in the past but MIT has failed to address.

The public rollout of the unionization effort in late September 2021 came at a particularly important time for our members. In the summer of 2020, the Support Black Lives (SBL) petition was released to the MIT community and was popularly endorsed, receiving over 5,000 signatures. The petition, as well as the 2015 BGSA/BSU recommendations demand that MIT release a strategic plan that would increase recruitment and retention of Black grad students (currently 3.6% of domestic grad students at MIT are Black, compared with over 14% of the general U.S. population), implement in-person diversity and implicit bias training, publish transparent demographic statistics on enrollment and retention, and offer additional resources to help graduate workers cope with race-based stresses. In addition, the petition demanded MIT implement new models for public safety. While the BGSA considered the petition to have largely been a success in terms of community engagement, we also must acknowledge truly how small the impact of that petition is now, almost two years later. There is no strategic plan. There is no new model for public safety. Today, the select few implementation demands being addressed are progressing at a snail’s pace.

The lack of substantial, tangible impact from the SBL petition showcases the limits of even the most powerful student advocacy campaigns. Under the current system of working with the MIT administration, the wheels of change turn slowly. Student-advocates across campus share the sentiment that a union is the only way to secure real change at MIT. With a union, we will have the legal bargaining power that is absent from the limited advisory role to MIT’s administration that we have played thus far. The power that comes from a union will allow us to accelerate the pace of change. And with a contract, we can prevent MIT from reneging on its promises to do better.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is one of the key issues the MIT GSU is committed to addressing within a union contract, and graduate student unions at other institutions demonstrate that major wins in DEI are possible. At NYU, graduate workers won the creation of a committee comprising union and administration representatives to address campus safety and the role of police on campus. Other graduate worker unions have won commitments to affirmative action in admissions, as well as required reporting of DEI statistics, stronger programs to address discrimination and harassment, and paid positions for students to work on DEI programs and policies (for example, University of Michigan and UMass Amherst). These precedents demonstrate that Black graduate workers at MIT can win policy changes that better support and protect us through unionization. While we do not expect that the MIT administration will grant all of our asks, we trust that with a union contract, we and our fellow graduate workers will have the power to win legally binding changes that address our needs in a way BGSA has never been equipped to do before.

Through the union, we hope to see the needs of Black and other underrepresented minority students prioritized at this institution. While Black students share many needs with the rest of the grad student body such as grievance procedures, access to healthcare and affordable housing, and more, it is particularly important to members of our community that tangible steps be taken to improve DEI at MIT. It is unacceptable that the current timelines for any meaningful DEI improvement are on the scale of years. Changes that members of the BGSA have proposed include funding for additional dedicated DEI student positions, better professional development opportunities (such as funded post-doc positions specifically for historically excluded minority candidates), more Black mental health providers, better access to emergency funding, and a general increase in accountability and transparency from the MIT administration. Additionally, as was a critical part of the SBL petition, meaningful public safety reform is another improvement we hope to see implemented in a timely fashion through unionization. 

The creation of a graduate student union is a natural progression of the work started in the SBL petition. The spirit of that petition centered around holding MIT accountable to the students in our community. One of the pillars of any union is that workers can hold employers accountable to their needs. Indeed, the MIT GSU’s national affiliate, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), and other unions have a long history of fighting for justice and equity in the workplace and beyond. By 1954, a full decade before the Civil Rights Act went into effect, 87% of UE locals had already won non-discrimination clauses in their contracts. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was made possible with the assistance of various labor unions. Justice and solidarity go hand in hand, and that is a motivating factor for our support. We come not from a place of antagonism toward MIT but rather from a place of exhaustion and self-preservation. Many Black people in this community have been deprived of basic decency and respect at MIT, and we feel the GSU is our best chance of ending a seemingly endless uphill battle against an institution that was not built with us in mind.  

There is much to be won through solidarity and collective power. That is why the BGSA has chosen to endorse the Graduate Student Union, and we encourage other student groups to do the same.

Chelsea Onyeador is a fourth-year graduate student-worker in AeroAstro and has served as the Black Graduate Student Association co-President (2019–2020) and Political Action Chair (2020–Present).

Ufuoma Ovienmahda is a fourth-year graduate student-worker in AeroAstro and has served as a co-President of the Black Graduate Student Association since 2019.