Harvard Graduate Student Union solidarity statement: vote yes to MIT graduate student unionization
Dear MIT Graduate Student Union (MIT-GSU) voters,
Leading up to the certification vote for your graduate student union, we at the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) wanted to share some of our experiences as a union, to help inform your decision.
Unions are, at their core, workers joining together to collectively articulate and advocate for the rights, benefits, and dignity they want. While our union is only a few years old, we are proud to have created an organization where student workers coordinate to advance our common desire for a safe and productive working relationship with our University. We’re not full-time “activists” or “organizers” — we are all students enrolled in difficult and consuming programs, like you. But we organize together as a union because we recognize that we are not only students, but also student workers who run courses, conduct world-class research, and devote countless hours to mentorship and scholarship. Without graduate student labor, how many of your labs and classrooms would run as well? We are proud that our work helps make our University what it is, and we are proud to have a collective voice to ensure that our efforts get appropriate recognition.
We organize together because we know we often deserve better than the status quo. During the years we spend earning our degrees, we’re told to accept conditions and pay that leave most of us chronically stressed, trusting that eventually we’ll get cushy jobs where things will be better. But prestige and promises don’t pay the bills; we’re living our lives now, not just preparing for our lives to begin — whether or not the cushy jobs ever materialize. We’re told to play nice when course heads and principal investigators (PIs) bully or harass us or to accept that we’ll get paid when they get around to it at rates that, for many of us, fail to cover the cost of living. “Grad school is tough,” we’re told. But we know it doesn’t have to be this way.
While you decide how to cast your ballot April 4–5, consider what unionizing has won us in just a few short years:
Better pay. Before we had a contract, the University decided if we received raises any given year. Historically, they usually increased our pay in line with inflation, but in years of supposed economic austerity, they could choose to freeze our pay (as they did in 2017 and tried to do in 2021–22, citing pandemic-related concerns while boasting an $11.3 billion increase to the endowment in that same year). With a union and a contract, we now have a say in what we are paid. As a result, we got a 3% raise in 2020 while faculty took a pay freeze, and a 5% raise this year while the university tried to impose 2.8% on students they claimed were outside our agreement. Through our union organizing, we were also able to bring pay parity to an entire school of student workers: thanks to our contract negotiations, graduate researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are no longer paid at two-thirds the rate of everybody else at Harvard while performing the same work.
Benefits. We won benefit funds for copays, out-of-pocket and dental costs, dependent premiums, child care, and emergencies, putting approximately $500,000 in the pockets of student workers last year. In our recent contract battle, we won even greater funds, a total of $1.55 million for the first year, $2.15 million for the second year, and $2.75 million for the third and fourth years. Starting in September, for the first time in the history of the University, we will have dental insurance (75% premium coverage) included in our health care plan. For many members, these benefit wins are life-changing.
Job clarity, security, and materials. Before our contract, student workers often knew little of what was expected of them, even regarding their basic hours and responsibilities. Course heads and PIs could set unreasonably intense expectations, and there were no guardrails student workers could point to. Now, we receive appointment letters delineating expected tasks prior to starting work; guaranteed pay for cancelled job appointments and if workers leave a work environment because of harassment, discrimination, or abuse; workload limits; remote work accomodations; guaranteed work materials; and private workspaces.
Rights for all members. Graduate school is difficult for everyone, but can be especially difficult for parents, people with disabilities, people of color, international students, low-income and first-generation students, women and nonbinary people, and others who don’t fit the historical mold of what a graduate student looks like. We have fought hard to mitigate the unequal treatment that often falls on these groups, and have won established protected categories in employment (including caste and class background in 2021), reasonable accommodations for pregnant student workers and those with disabilities, funds ($30,000 per year) for immigration expenses, guaranteed increases to stipends for births and adoptions ($7,000 per working parent, increasing 2.25% annually for the next three years), and sick and bereavement leave. We have also created working groups that have issued final recommendations for University-wide policies on Anti-Bullying (including power-based harassment) and Non-Discrimination and Harassment — soon to be implemented to create the first University-wide policies on these issues.
A community that cares. Our union has brought together thousands of people committed to creating a fair and equitable workplace for student workers. One way we show up for one another is through enforcing our rights and benefits via our grievance procedure. But more broadly, we have, for years now, shown up to fight alongside and for one another over hundreds of meetings, rallies, protests, polls, petitions, and direct actions. It hasn’t always been easy, and we still have lots to learn. But we know one thing: if you’re facing an issue in your workplace, a union provides you a concrete place to go where you will be met with support, care, and solutions.
We know you may have heard a different story about our contract from MIT, so we encourage you to view the agreement in full (harvardgradunion.org/our-contract) and judge it for yourself.
Not all of our battles are finished — it turns out negotiating with a $53 billion institution takes more than one contract fight. Our fight for Real Recourse, in particular, has been met with disappointing resistance by a University not incentivized to hold tenured harassers and abusers accountable. We were able to secure a legal fund for survivors going through the Title IX process and guaranteed pay for researchers who leave a lab due to harassment or discrimination, but this is far from enough. Since ratifying our contract, we have continued to organize around Real Recourse, and it is at the forefront of our union’s current efforts.
But our decision to ratify a contract without all our original demands is not proof that unions aren’t worth your time, as MIT admins would have you believe. It’s evidence that unions are democratic organizations whose goal is to empower workers to decide how and when to fight for what matters most to them, not to impose some external agenda. HGSU hosted a lively debate in daily email digests on whether to accept our most recent contract or to keep fighting for more, with union leaders and rank-and-file members arguing both sides of the issue. The decision to ratify the contract was then made by a democratic vote of our members, who judged for themselves whether the deal was good enough to accept — as you will be able to do with every future contract, if a majority of voters vote to certify MIT-GSU.
Ultimately, the choice to unionize is yours. If we could go back in time, we’d do it again in a heartbeat, and we hope you make the same choice April 4–5.
From up the river in solidarity,
HGSU-UAW Local 5118
The HGSU Executive Board consists of President Koby Ljunggren, Vice President Amulya Mandava, Recording Secretary Tina Wei, Financial Secretary Steffan Paul, Guide Mark Wright, Sergeant-At-Arms Margaret Czerwienski, and Trustees Zeke Benshirim, Rachel Petherbridge, and Denish Jaswal.