Opinion guest column

The case for labor unions

It is on all of us to ensure that the MIT graduate student labor union comes to life, and we all might finally come to life right along with it

I stepped away from writing opinion editorials to focus on fiction and my responsibilities outside of writing. However, I have been pondering a few questions and like babies they now yearn to break their long silence with a forceful cry. Before I remark on my purpose in writing, I must first acknowledge the friend whose own writing moved me to pick up this pen — Ufuoma Ovienmhada. In her speech at the MIT 2022 Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, Ovienmhada carefully articulated that she “Love[s] MIT;” she cites the beloved bell hooks (1952–2021) who said, “There can be no love without justice,” and, “The heart of justice is truth telling.” She also offers the definition bell hooks used for love, from M. Scott Peck who defined love as “The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Ovienmhada acknowledges that the three truths she offers about MIT may be difficult to hear or embrace, however we are reminded again at the end of her speech of bell hooks’ love ethic, to which Ovienmhada’s speech gracefully pays tribute. We would all do well to listen to bell hooks. We would all do well to listen to Ovienmhada.

In a similar spirit, I have been thinking about the growing movement for a graduate student labor union at MIT. A movement, as I understand it, to form a legal entity with the ability to ensure equity, equality, fairness, and justice on the part of MIT toward graduate students. This movement is steadily garnering support with digital and print media, forums and mixers, canvassing and phone banking, and other investments of time by graduate students, for graduate students. I am encouraged by their steadfast work, knowing full well that they are not only fighting for a labor union, but against misinformation from authority and aversions to the imagination by members of the MIT community. Still, these students find the strength and muster the courage to organize for a labor union despite their reality of being overworked and underappreciated. This context serves as the foundation to my two questions: 

  1. Why are graduate students seeking to form a labor union at MIT? Which is to say, why are graduate students choosing to fight in what is a long battle for a labor union, knowing not only the contentious history of forming labor unions in this country but also that they’d be fighting against a 160-year-old institution of higher education backed by plentiful financial and legal resources controlled by the senior leadership and the Corporation

  2. And nascently, is there not an easier way to fulfill the demands of these graduate students? Demands such as: (1) fair work expectations and all the resources required to do their jobs effectively; (2) a safe and equitable work environment with dependable accountability; (3) financial security and guaranteed support; (4) affordable housing and comprehensive benefits; (5) equal academic and professional opportunities for international students. Fair. Safe. Equitable. Dependable. Security. Support. Affordable. Equal. All of their demands sound reasonable, so why do they need a labor union to convince MIT to fulfill them?

Forming a labor union has historically been done to transfer power from the employer to the employed. I am thinking of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) which was founded in Harlem in 1925 by African American railroad porters and maids at the Pullman Company. Yet, the battle for the BSCP truly started 60 years before, when in the name of inclusion Pullman allowed newly liberated and formerly enslaved folks to work at his company, while taking advantage of their needs by demanding long hours of hard work with poor compensation. Pullman used his power to say that the workers could accept the conditions or quit. Instead, they unionized to fight back and chose a fitting motto — “Fight or Be Slaves.” I am also thinking of the graduate students at New York University who were the first of their kind at a private university to unionize and negotiate a contract with their administration for a living wage, better health care, and greater protections against harassment and discrimination (2001). Although this initial unionization was short-lived due to legal retaliation by NYU (the union’s contract expired in 2005 and wasn’t recognized again until 2013), the pioneering success and a semester-long strike by the NYU graduate students is both commendable in its felicity and inspiring in its landmark success.

Labor unions have been created either proactively using knowledge of the contentious history of workers in this country; or, more often, reactively to an extensive series of unjust violations by an employer that warrants the employed to unionize. The movement for a graduate student labor union at MIT seems to be an example of the latter. Yet, it may not be clear how, because the senior leadership purports that “students are what make MIT” and even recently have spoken with language of support for a graduate student labor union, when in actuality MIT has no desire to give up decision-making power, and understandably so — giving up power means giving up control. MIT may proffer to inform the community about labor unions, yet it continually fails to center the stories of the very students who seek this labor union. And though MIT acts on what it says, its actions continually fall short of its word. Yes, entities echoing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in their halls are likely preferential toward establishing a labor union. But, an entity which only purports to live these values will work behind closed doors to dismantle efforts which challenge their power and strategically stall the progress a labor union promises to their employees — a group which unequivocally includes graduate students .

Those who organize to form labor unions are neither irrational nor impulsive. Those who organize to form labor unions are critical thinkers driven by necessity. It would not surprise me if this necessity stems from the fatigue of graduate students who have endured decades upon decades of neglect by MIT. Thus, forming a union should not be contextualized as graduate students’ first straw, but the next one (maybe the last straw) after decades of trying to work with MIT to solve graduate student problems. Graduate students are taking their livelihoods into their own hands to protect themselves and their wellbeing. In this way, the growing movement for a graduate student labor union at MIT is not separate from the legacy of labor union movements in the United States — it is a part of this legacy. We should be applauding their efforts and supporting their movement with self-invested action.

I remember joining my first labor union. At first, I was skeptical due to what I had heard about unions, but all my coworkers were enthusiastic about it, so I felt open to considering joining. I read the documentation and I remembered my grandfather, Richard, who fought against Phillip Morris for decades as part of  a labor union. I joined. A couple months into the job, I realized I was underpaid and expected to work ridiculous hours. I was slower to realize I was paying for this with my emotional, physical, and psychological well-being. I remember learning that most of my coworkers felt the same way, so it became an item of business in the union meeting. It is not easy to share legitimate concerns with an employer (especially around work conditions and pay), but the union offered me community and allowed my voice to join a chorus of other workers’ voices. Shortly after the legal negotiations with our employer (which a union enables), our pay increased to better reflect our value and our hours were reduced to better match our needs. More than that, I remember learning how the union restored my agency as a worker, which I initially did not know was mine to have because of the way I was conditioned to believe the world works: a world where being a worker means sublimating one's frustrations into pleasing so-called ‘superiors,’ where the fear of losing job security is the stimulus for one’s productivity and the reason for turning a blind eye, and yes, a world where going to graduate school means unavoidable suffering through the coursework and lab work and PIs and faculty and putting up with it all at the cost of one’s health. I refuse to accept this world. Especially, when we live in a country where labor unions exist. In this spirit I am reminded of the late Toni Morrison (1931-2019), who said, “Don’t let anybody, anybody convince you this is the way the world is and therefore must be. It must be the way it ought to be.” Labor unions at their best ensure the working world is how it ought to be, and — most importantly — the members of the union hold the power to dictate that “how.”

During my five years at the Institute — after building relationships with people in the Office of the President, Office of the Chancellor, Office of the Provost; after building relationships with faculty, staff, students, and alumni; after serving this school and the greater MIT community out of love — I have learned that MIT’s number one priority is its capital, both tangible (i.e., physical property) and intangible (i.e., intellectual property and global reputation). The evidence for my claim is found in the stories of students across the Institute and over decades, students like myself who have labored incessantly for life and against death at MIT — to foster DEI as values and not commodities to be exploited for good press; to foster a thriving student community where people are valued as individuals and not merely laborers who produce intellectual property they will never own; and to foster a “truth telling” spirit that rejects the myth of neutrality on issues of justice. We should not need a labor union. We should not need to form a legally-binding entity to negotiate with MIT on issues concerning graduate student life. Graduate students should not have to go to these lengths to be heard and respected. That is, if the students and MIT are on the same page. But, we are not on the same page and have not been for decades. That is why the need for a graduate student union is a need, not a want. 

I use communal language — “we” and “us” — in this writing, because it is important to remember this fight is a collective effort. As my fraternity brother Rev. Dr. King (1929-1968) stated, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” The time is now for us to rise together. Let us refuse to succumb to apathy. Let us refuse to embrace the myth of neutrality. It is on all of us to help the graduate students restore their agency. It is on all of us to ensure that the graduate student labor union comes to life. And who knows? We all might finally come to life right along with it.

Kelvin Green II is an undergraduate senior in Course 8 with minors in Courses 21W and 21L. He has served on the executive teams of the Black Students’ Union, Undergraduate Association, and a plethora of local and Institute-wide committees. He is a brother of Chocolate City and of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Rho Nu Chapter.