Opinion guest column

MIT Chancellor and Vice Chancellor provide important updates on graduate student unionization issues

Nobles and Waitz ‘want all eligible students to fulfill their responsibility to vote on a decision that will have profound impacts on current and future students’ April 4–5

Earlier this week, we wrote to MIT’s graduate students to share the news that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has set April 4–5 as the dates for its on-campus election to determine whether some 3,750 of MIT’s graduate students will form a union associated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

We are pleased that election dates have been set, because we feel it’s crucial that every eligible graduate student be given the opportunity to make their voice heard on this important matter. Our email to graduate students, which we encourage you to read in full, prompted several concerns and questions, primarily from students who are members of the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) — the group of students who have chosen to affiliate with the UE.

Because The Tech is an important source of information for our community and because we’re asking graduate students to critically assess our statements as well as the UE and GSU’s statements before voting in this consequential election, we feel it is important to share our responses and clarifications regarding the concerns we heard from some students affiliated with the MIT GSU. We have included those questions and responses below.

Please know that, no matter the outcome of the election, we will continue our work to support all graduate students. And, in the meantime, please get informed, assess both sides in this debate, and then vote on April 4 and 5. The election’s outcome will be determined by a simple majority of those who vote, but will be binding for both voters and non-voters in the proposed bargaining unit, so it's crucial that you make your voices heard!

Is it true that the UE initially excluded over 2,000 graduate students and then excluded 900 additional graduate fellows? Did MIT’s senior leaders state that students on full internal fellowships should not be in the proposed bargaining unit?

The UE did exclude more than 2,000 graduate students from its initial petition with the NLRB. We highlighted this to make clear that applying federal labor rules to our 7,000 graduate students fundamentally requires drawing lines within our graduate student body. Examples include: Who is a student versus who is a student-employee? What is academic work versus what is employment?

Those 2,000+ students include hundreds of fully self-funded or fully externally-funded students in research-intensive masters and doctoral programs who are also in research groups and labs. The 2,000+ students also include several hundred students on tuition-only fellowships, as well as some students with hourly appointments.

We believe that graduate students who are internally-supported through full MIT fellowship awards are more like externally-supported students than research associates (RAs) and teaching assistants (TAs). This distinction is made in several other graduate student collective bargaining agreements. We also had significant concerns that, if included in the bargaining unit, students on fellowship awards — especially our international students — would lose some of the important flexibilities that come with fellowships. This is why we stated that the 900 students on full MIT fellowships should not be included in the proposed labor union.

MIT and the UE were prepared to have the NLRB decide this issue. And, as students in support of unionization acknowledged last week, MIT expressed a desire to have an election later this spring. But on Monday, Feb. 28, the UE decided to remove the 900 internally-supported fellows from their proposed bargaining unit. That was their decision, not MIT’s. Indeed, we would have preferred clarity on this important issue from the NLRB. We understand that the UE removed the internal fellows so that it could proceed with an election earlier in the spring for the other students in its proposed union.

Ultimately, we do not want to draw any unnecessary lines among MIT’s 7,000 graduate students. However, the unionization process requires us to do that in one way or another.

The MIT GSU’s website states: “RAs and TAs (including hourly appointments or fellowship appointments accompanied by a partial RA/TA appointment) will vote on April 4th and 5th. Following that, the Labor Board will rule on MIT’s argument that Fellows should be denied their right to vote for our union and set a date for a Fellows election.” You said that is inaccurate. What are the facts?

On Monday, the MIT and UE reached a stipulated election agreement, which was certified by the NLRB Regional Director. The agreement does not include a follow-on ruling for fellows, and there is no petition on file in which the UE is seeking to represent fellows. If the UE is planning to file a separate petition for fellows at a later date, they have not shared those plans with MIT, and it is unclear whether such a petition would be filed this academic year or later. The UE has recently added this to their website to clarify their intentions (which we were not aware of): “After we win our union election with the RAs and TAs, we will file for an election with the students on fellowship. The NLRB will make the decision about MIT's issue around students on fellowships. We will then have an election for students on fellowship.” This presumes the NLRB will rule in their favor.

Why is MIT referring to the UE rather than the MIT GSU in communications? 

This is a technical matter, but an important one. The official petition with the NLRB was filed by the UE, not the MIT GSU. Likewise, our election agreement that the NLRB authorized is only with the UE. This is unlike the case at Harvard, for example, where both the petition and the election agreement included the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers (UAW). The UE is the organization we are legally obligated to work with, and MIT does not know how the UE may be coordinating with the MIT GSU and the other students in the proposed bargaining unit. If a union is elected, the UE will be the sole bargaining representative of the student-employees in the bargaining unit.

How can MIT’s administration and the MIT GSU look at the same issues and arrive at such different conclusions?

There are (at least) four reasons. We have different information, different experiences, different expertise, and different views.

How do you respond to some students who are questioning your integrity, honesty, and motivations? 

We have been devoted to MIT for decades and care deeply about this Institution and the unique experience it offers to all students. That's why we embraced roles in student support, academic life, and Institute administration rather than focusing solely on our passions for teaching and research.

We believe in and share most of the goals of MIT students who support unionization. And we often share their frustration about how long change can sometimes take at a large, complex organization like MIT — but we do not believe a union will be able to produce better, quicker outcomes on the issues we mutually care about. We would like to continue to work with all 7,000 students through our time-tested collaborative model (one which together we have improved over time), rather than having the UE inserted as the sole representative for one segment of our students and with a focus on only some issues (wages, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment). Ultimately, though, that will be a decision made by the students in the bargaining unit, not us.

In the days and weeks leading up to the election, however, it is critical that we have a respectful, thoughtful dialogue about this important issue. We will continue to share our perspectives and to encourage all eligible students to critically assess both sides. On April 4 and 5, we want all eligible students to fulfill their responsibility to vote on a decision that will have profound impacts on current and future students.