The risks and costs of unionization
Before voting April 4–5, graduate students should carefully consider the potential risks, losses, and costs that a union can bring
On April 4 and 5, many of MIT’s graduate students will participate in a confidential election to decide whether the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) will represent them for collective bargaining.
We’ve previously described our position, the limits of unionization and labor bargaining in graduate education, and the gains won for all MIT graduate students through our current collaborative processes. Today we share some of the risks, losses, and costs that graduate students might face if a union is elected:
The risk of strikes and disruptions: Strikes and delays can occur during contract negotiations. In fact, the UE’s policy book 2021–23 calls for “the continued use of the strike as the primary weapon against the employer.”
It took Columbia’s student union more than five years to reach a first contract following its election, and students were on strike for a total of 132 days during this period. In all cases, between 475 and 1,504 days elapsed before a first contract was reached between student unions and private universities, and strikes are very possible during negotiations, putting academic progress at risk and important financial and policy improvements on hold.
The likely loss of a nimble, responsive, and student-driven stipend process: Harvard and Columbia’s students are now locked into multi-year, union-negotiated contracts with 3% increases in the out years. By contrast, our student-led process considers cost-of-living increases on an annual basis and is responsive to high-inflation pressures such as those that exist today. As a result of this process, MIT’s stipends are already higher than those at nearly every private university that has a graduate student union.
Costly union dues: Union members may pay dues of up to $550 per year, without any guarantee of better benefits or compensation.
The UE and its supporters in the MIT Graduate Student Union argue that a union would change campus for the better. It may also change it for the worse:
The UE would introduce a third-party entity on campus: The UE is a national organization with its own political and financial interests, which may or may not align with graduate students’ interests. The UE can use member dues to advance these interests, including supporting its broader national organization, which is something students opposed to the UE have raised concerns about. In addition to the UE’s national political agenda, the new local union leadership would likely have its own priorities that students may or may not agree with.
The UE would be able to pressure students and may continue to use students’ personal information, even after a victory: We’ve received reports during this campaign of students feeling pressured by union supporters. Unfortunately, behavior like this is likely to persist if the UE is successful. The union would need to seek new student members, garner student support for their bargaining and political positions, and likely persuade students to strike. And it would still be able to access personal contact information that MIT was required to produce last month. (Students may contact our Institute Discrimination & Harassment Response Office or Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards if they have experienced any conduct that violates MIT policy).
The UE will impact student-advisor relationships: We know that the overwhelming majority of graduate students have a positive view of the quality of academic advising and guidance as well as their interactions with faculty.
Institute Professor Phillip Sharp and Professor Alan Grossman have authored an op-ed in The Tech about the consequences a union would have on student-advisor relationships. Among their observations: “a unionized environment … reduces flexibility in favor of a highly structured relationship between manager and workers. We believe that such industry-framed relationships are ill-suited to the nature of and rapidly evolving opportunities in graduate education, where individuality and flexibility are necessary to foster a dynamic trajectory for graduate students.”
Every eligible student should critically assess the different positions in this debate and vote on April 4 or 5 in Morss Hall in Walker Memorial. This election’s outcome will be determined by a simple majority of those who vote but will be binding on everyone in the proposed bargaining unit — even for students who don’t vote or who don’t want a union.