Opinion open letter

An open letter regarding faculty and the graduate student union

Last fall, faculty in the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER) called on MIT’s faculty and administration to respect students’ right to decide whether or not to support unionization. They also called on the administration and the student union organizers to engage in a collaborative process regarding unionization: for example, by agreeing to ground rules for the organizing, election, and initial contract negotiation if the majority of students voted for the union. Their hope, and ours, is for a thoughtful process with respectful interactions that help MIT to emerge as an even stronger institution. However, the chancellor and vice chancellor wrote to graduate students Feb. 27 stating that “MIT’s senior leaders do not believe that a graduate student union is the best path forward for current and future graduate students.”

While it is the graduate students participating in the election who will decide whether to unionize, the administration and faculty can, and do, exert leverage. On Feb. 2, the chancellor and provost wrote to MIT’s faculty with a set of talking points with which to address their graduate students, along with a list of do’s and don’ts to ensure compliance with the National Labor Relations Act. Among the talking points is this:

“For example, it is permitted for a faculty member to say that they do not wish to see a graduate student union come to MIT or that they hope the union will be defeated. As long as there are no threats or promises, a supervisor or faculty member may freely express their opinion at any time. They may engage fully in a campaign to inform students about the union and/or persuade students to vote against the union.”

Moreover, the vice chancellor has attended at least one departmental faculty meeting to encourage faculty to oppose unionization. These actions are distressing to us as they violate the spirit of neutrality needed to “ensure that faculty-student relationships will not be adversely affected, regardless of the outcome of the organizing process” (IWER letter).

In the current issue of the Faculty Newsletter, one of the authors of the IWER letter notes that while the content of the talking points “is within the law, having faculty (who exercise considerable power regarding the careers of their grad students) counsel with their grad students may not honor the maxim: ‘Let the students decide.’”

We call on faculty to avoid, even if unintentional, the appearance of coercion. We pledge to not attempt to persuade graduate students how to vote on unionization and to avoid presenting one-sided views for or against unionization. We also pledge to work collaboratively with graduate students in research and teaching, as befits the MIT mission, regardless of the outcome of the unionization vote next month.

We encourage other faculty to sign our open letter.


Edmund Bertschinger
Professor of Physics and faculty affiliate, Program in Women’s and Gender Studies

Sally Haslanger
Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies, School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Thomas Kochan
Professor Emeritus, MIT Sloan School of Management and Institute for Work and Employment Research

Phil Thompson
Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning