Opinion guest column

A former GSC President’s call to unionization

Our union empowers our research and teaching in ways that are impossible with the GSC

This is Madeleine Sutherland, fifth year Chemistry PhD candidate. It was my honor to serve as the MIT Graduate Student Council (GSC) President in 2020–21 and as chair of the Ashdown House Exec Council in 2019–20. My time serving in these roles offered me a bird’s-eye view of both the lives of graduate students and the work being done to improve our working conditions. I am sending this memo above all because I love MIT, and I am so grateful to be part of this fabulous community. As Ufuoma Ovienmhada recently illustrated with such crystalline elegance, this love requires me to speak plainly and join my colleagues in collective action to bring about a more just reality.

Many faculty members, including administrators, view us graduate workers as MIT’s most valuable asset. I share their belief that the greatest thing about MIT is our community of scholars, who advance works of immense value to humanity, from discovering and predicting how biological molecules interact, to understanding how organizations of humans can best collaborate to solve problems, to building sustainable and climate change-fighting technology. It’s because MIT attracts such high caliber graduate researchers that we make such an impact on the world, and that makes me want to fight for all of us.

Labs, field sites, offices, and other research environments are workplaces where graduate workers produce tremendous value for MIT, doing the work that earns the Institute prestige, patents, and grants. When negotiating with an administration that refuses to recognize what we do every day as work, I had little power to meaningfully address problems and make improvements in our conditions and compensation. For example, when I needed to discuss the “Research Ramp-Up” plan for campus spaces that failed to account for grad workers’ human needs to eat and drink somewhere, I had to establish a whole new set of connections with parties the GSC doesn’t normally deal with, such as the Vice President for Research (and the Lightning Committee) and Associate Provosts. Nobody on the GSC Officer team really had time to do that, and we were already stretched thin. So, the research I actually came to MIT to do suffered.

Multiple bodies across the Institute refuse to respect the GSC’s democratic processes for choosing representatives to high-impact committees. Further, many administrative offices simply inform GSC officers of a decision mere hours or days before announcing it and then act as though they’d gained our consent. In the same breath, they ask us to do work for them, then fail to act upon the information and insight we generate. In short, we have not been treated like a professional organization of people who are carrying out MIT’s core mission every day.

MIT’s current administration asks us to place our trust in a purportedly collaborative process in which they ultimately have all the decision-making power and we can only provide recommendations and suggestions. But my interactions with our administration and what I saw during my tenure as GSC president undermined that trust.

I cannot trust the administration that agreed to research assistantship extensions for PhD students whose thesis research was delayed by COVID, then waited for eight to nine months (and many emails from us) to actively inform grad students across campus that such funds were available. I cannot trust the administration that doesn’t appear to address the frequency or pattern of lab accidents at MIT and meanwhile creates an environment wherein the grad students and postdocs working in the labs are sleep-deprived and stressed and thus prone to accidents. I really can’t trust the organization within which Campus Planning and Housing administrators promised the City they’d create 950 new beds of grad student housing in the spirit of broad-based demands for affordable housing, then refused to share cost details of Site 4 planning with the GSC until it was too late to avoid “Efficiency” rents equal to 67% of the base 12-month doctoral research assistant stipend.

This administration pats themselves on the back for including the GSC in the annual stipend adjustment process, but those of us who have been on the Stipend Working Group know that process is flawed. We knew that we had a predetermined amount of money and could only make suggestions as to its allocation. The participants consisted of those who read GSC recruiting emails and could take an inordinate amount of time away from their research and teaching work to follow a predetermined process. And the scope of this committee kept growing as we tried — struggled — to address other aspects of our life and work beyond our base stipends.

Successive administrations continue to treat Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) like a “problem” or “issue” to “solve” on a “committee” or “task force.” They fail to recognize that lack of DEI is a roadblock for the whole Institute, one that fundamentally limits our capacity to achieve our mission. That is what happens when skilled and talented people can’t fully participate because of racism, sexism, ableism, and xenophobia. That is the reality our fellow grad workers have documented profusely, methodically, and scientifically, time and again. Many professional and advocacy organizations of grad workers, especially the Black Graduate Student Association, have proffered explicit and well-researched recommendations, which haven’t been prioritized or acted upon. As a union, we set the agenda for improving our institution. We can build on our past victories to secure meaningful institutional change.

The only way to change this status quo with national law behind us is to form a collective bargaining unit — in other words, a union.

As GSC President, I didn’t only work with the administration. I also collaborated with dozens of graduate workers whose innovations and discoveries are changing the world. My experience taught me that it’s MIT grad students I can trust to fact-check, think critically, and plan inclusively on all levels. After all, it was fellow graduate researchers who joined me in documenting the tremendous impact the pandemic has had on our research.

By unionizing, we empower ourselves to use these very skills to shape our working conditions. When it comes to getting you the resources you need to succeed, an organization of your peers is far more trustworthy than an administration which refuses to recognize the basic facts of your position, your daily reality.  Make no mistake — the Graduate Student Union is us. Through forming a union, we give every graduate worker a literal vote in who represents us, and with what agenda, and how we wish to get our voice heard.

That’s why I hope to vote yes the moment we overcome MIT’s attempt to lock us Fellows out of our bargaining unit. I hope you’ll join me!

Madeleine Sutherland is a fifth-year PhD candidate in Chemistry and served as GSC President in 2020–21.