Opinion guest column

MIT’s administration seeks to exclude over 1,000 graduate workers on fellowship from unionization vote

Graduate fellows perform the same essential research and teaching work as other graduate workers and deserve a vote on unionization

This January, after MIT’s administration refused to voluntarily recognize the clear majority of graduate workers who signed union cards in support of unionization, they reached out to the MIT Graduate Student Union (MIT-GSU) seeking an agreement on fair terms for a vote on graduate worker unionization. We were hopeful that this meant they were genuinely interested in working with graduate workers to make MIT a more equitable community that represents and responds to the needs of all of its members. Graduate workers representing the MIT-GSU met with MIT’s administrators and lawyers multiple times, and we were able to find common ground on several points about the logistics of an election and the need to hold one this semester, reflecting the urgent need for graduate workers to have a say in our working conditions. However, to our shock, the administration insisted that graduate workers funded by fellowships are not workers and sought to use this artificial distinction to deny over 1,000 graduate workers — approximately 20% of all graduate workers — the right to vote on unionization. Because the administration refused to compromise on this point, we could not reach an agreement, leaving the terms of the election to be set by the National Labor Relations Board in the coming weeks.

The administration’s position ignores the fact that graduate workers funded by fellowships do the same vital work as every other MIT graduate worker. It is difficult to imagine that MIT’s administration is unaware that departments and faculty require graduate workers on fellowship to operate and that, in fact, this is a clear expectation and basic premise of the graduate programs they run. Throughout the Institute, fellows teach and do research with the understanding that this is the work they are paid to do. To say otherwise is to deny the value that graduate workers on fellowship create for MIT through their work.

Two of the authors of this piece, Leah and Ruth, are second-year graduate student-workers in the biology department. Both work full-time on research projects, and this academic year, both were required to serve as teaching assistants (TAs) in addition to their research duties (although neither was officially designated a TA in their appointment letters). Leah and Ruth are paid the same stipend, work in the same department, and are at the same stage in their PhD programs. Both received appointment letters that specify identical terms of employment. However, according to MIT’s administration, Leah is an MIT employee and eligible to vote in the union election while Ruth is not — simply because Ruth is funded by an internal fellowship, whereas Leah is funded by a research assistantship (RA-ship). This is clearly an arbitrary and unjust distinction.

Decisions about whether to fund graduate workers by RA-ship, TA-ship, or fellowship are often made arbitrarily for reasons of administrative convenience, without any difference in work duties. Neither Ruth nor Leah had any say in how they were funded. Moreover, many graduate workers switch back and forth between funding types during their time at MIT. The distinction is so arbitrary that graduate workers may not even know how they are technically funded.

The administration argued that first-year graduate students in some departments who are funded by fellowships during rotations or while solely taking classes are not providing work or services for MIT and therefore should not be eligible for union membership or to vote in a union election. However, rotating students perform work for labs during their rotations, and MIT claims ownership of intellectual property produced by rotating students as it does for all other graduate workers. Moreover, at any other job, an employee who was undergoing required training at the beginning of their employment would not be excluded from classification as an employee.

MIT’s administration claims to believe that all graduate workers have the right to decide whether or not to form a union. However, this attempt to deny over 1,000 graduate workers the right to vote in a union election reveals that either this claim is blatantly disingenuous or that the administration lacks a fundamental understanding of the work we do. In either case, the administration’s position highlights the need for graduate workers to have a seat at the decision-making table, to democratically shape our own working conditions and negotiate a legally-binding contract with MIT that reflects the value we produce for the Institute and the conditions we need to do our best work. All graduate workers — regardless of their source of funding — need affordable housingindependent grievance proceduresadequate medical and dental insurancesupport and protections for international students; and stronger diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Support the right of all graduate workers to a fair vote on unionization and a voice in shaping our working conditions by signing your union card at https://mitgsu.org/sign.

Leah Wallach is a second-year graduate student-worker in Biology.

Ruth Hanna is a second-year graduate student-worker in Biology.

Kai Jia is a third-year graduate student-worker in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Owen Leddy is a third-year graduate student-worker in Biological Engineering.

All of the authors are organizers with the MIT-GSU.