Opinion guest column

We have genuine love, strength in numbers, and unity on our side

Reflecting on the GSU on the eve of our historic election

A year ago, many graduate workers hadn’t even heard of our union. Now we’re only a week away from having a real voice on campus.

When I first heard about the unionization effort three years ago, I was immediately on board. I had been at MIT long enough to know that most people here don’t have a real say in how the university works, and having a union to change that for grad students made a lot of sense. But I didn’t know the first thing about organizing. I met with the other grad students who wanted a union — there were only a few dozen of us then — and I learned pretty quickly what it looked like to build a union: talking to people, finding out what mattered to them, and taking collective action to move forward together.

I wasn’t a very outgoing person; I didn’t like meeting new people, and I was afraid of embarrassing myself in conversations with people. But I wanted to try anyway, because I felt like I couldn’t just stand on the sidelines while other people did the work to build this thing that I really wanted. So I started talking to my friends and coworkers, and they started talking to their friends and coworkers, and in September 2021, we had over 1,000 people at our launch rally.

24 hours after we launched our union, 25% of graduate workers had joined. Just a few weeks later, a clear majority had signed their union cards. In workplaces with more worker-friendly labor laws, that would have been enough to win recognition. Now, over 2,000 graduate student-workers have signed our vote yes petition to publicly support our union.

Reaching this point has taken a lot of hard work, and MIT’s administrators haven’t made it easy. Unfortunately, they have a lot of advantages over grad workers. They use a dozen different soapboxes to scare grad workers from taking a single step out of line. They hand out talking points to confused faculty whom they order to do their dirty work for them. They have a war chest to pay for fancy lawyers so they can try to disenfranchise a fifth of grad workers. But we’ve overcome every single one of those obstacles.

For every anti-union administrator, there’s a thousand grad workers who can’t afford rent, who can’t take time off to see their families, who can’t get access to the equipment they need to do their research. And those grad workers have shown that they are ready to vote YES for our union. MIT has money and cheap tricks on their side — we have genuine love, strength in numbers, and unity on ours.

Making our hopes a reality

When deciding to come to the Media Lab, I was told that we were about to embark on a radical research experience different from any other research institution in the country. I was told that research was going to be fun and flexible and that we would have the agency to freely explore our passions in our work. However, once I joined the Media Lab, I found that these had been false promises. My principal investigator (PI) was chronically late to meetings or would miss them entirely without warning. At the same time, he micromanaged me meticulously, sporadically calling me to ask why I wasn’t appearing online on Slack during the workday. It quickly became clear that I was nothing more than a code monkey for a PI who didn’t care at all for my development.

I repeatedly brought these issues to a Media Lab administrator. She was nice and supportive, but the interventions she could offer were limited. My situation continued to worsen, so we escalated the issue to my department's academic head — who was not only good friends with my PI, but also the very man who had hired him. Eventually, every single research assistant (RA) in my group raised concerns about my advisor, but our working conditions remained unchanged.

If I wanted to continue at MIT, I needed to change my PI. I quickly found that this wasn’t an easy thing to do in my department, which  was especially cagey when it came to funding. The department went back and forth for months, and with each passing month, I felt more and more precarious. Ultimately, out of luck, I was able to join a new lab with a PI who actually cares about my work.

No one on this campus should have to face the anxiety I felt during these long months. Our union has since fought for and won guaranteed transitional funding for RAs in precisely the same situation I was in. Had this change come one semester sooner, my security at MIT would never have been left to the whims of my department. This is why we need a union: so we can secure this kind of institute-wide policy change in a union contract.

As I started to organize with our union and have conversations with fellow graduate workers at tabling sessions, office walkthroughs, and dorm visits, I learned firsthand that funding security was just the tip of the iceberg. From having a fair grievance procedure and affordable housing to simple things like dental care and proper parking access, we have so much to fight for and so much to win.

Changing MIT for the better is just the tip of the iceberg; we are organizing a union for a better world.

Over the last six months, we've been inspired by the incredible organizing that has taken place on this campus. We have learned so much from being part of this campaign. We’ve built a vast network of union reps, created a broad and inclusive organization by reaching out to workers from every corner of this campus, and supported each other in the face of MIT’s aggressive anti-union campaign.

For many of us, these lessons won’t end at MIT. We are scientists, technologists, designers, artists, writers, and tinkerers, and we will spend our post-MIT careers working at cutting edge technology institutions all over the world — from global biotech firms like Moderna or Pfizer to bootstrap startups building the future of the internet.  We’re inspired by all of our colleagues who will move forward together not only to win our election, but also to bring the community and solidarity that we’ve built over the course of this campaign to workplaces all over the world.

JS Tan is a second-year graduate student at the Media Lab.

Ki-Jana Carter is a fifth-year graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering.

Maddie Derry is a fifth-year graduate student in Chemical Engineering.