Opinion guest column

Our facilities workers deserve a fair contract now, not a pay cut

The MIT community is organizing to demand that MIT invest in its people and mission

Many of us know our facilities workers as the friendly faces who brighten our day whenever we see them in our halls, labs, offices, and residences. Our 600 facilities workers — who won their union with SEIU 32BJ 75 years ago — keep MIT safe, open, and running, working tirelessly at all hours of the day to clean, maintain, and repair our labs, offices, homes, and campus. This university, and all of its groundbreaking research and teaching, would grind to a halt without their efforts and contributions. They also kept MIT safe and open throughout the pandemic as essential workers who put their lives and those of their families on the line to allow COVID-19 research to continue on campus.

Now, facilities workers are simply asking for a fair union contract that meets the rising cost of living. But, unfortunately, MIT is dragging its feet.

MIT’s administration seems to think that our facilities workers deserve what amounts to a pay cut. During the same pandemic year that facilities workers put their and their families’ health at risk, MIT’s endowment skyrocketed by 49% to over $27 billion. With inflation exceeding 9% earlier this summer, facilities workers came to the negotiating table proposing what they have always won from MIT: a fair raise that justly accounts for the rising cost of living, as well as facilities workers’ critically important contributions to the growing university. MIT has responded with a pittance, initially offering a paltry 1% raise before budging to 2.25% after the facilities workers organized demonstrations on campus. That amounts to a roughly 6-7% pay cut when inflation is taken into account.

And that’s not all. The MIT administration is insisting on a drug and alcohol testing policy, which would basically enable MIT to test any worker at any time. Not only is this policy an arbitrary and demeaning invasion of privacy, but it would also open the door for MIT to abuse this testing to discriminate against workers. For example, a supervisor would be able to abuse their position of power to punish a worker who stands up for themselves by forcing them to take a drug test, bullying the worker by threatening their job and livelihood. Where is the respect for our essential workers now?

At a time of historic endowment growth, the MIT administration is doubling down on cutting costs at every turn to the detriment of our university and community. For example, MIT is shifting to contracting out graduate housing. The new West Campus Graduate Residence under construction has been leased to and will be fully operated by American Campus Communities, a Texas-based, for-profit real-estate developer. This change will not only exacerbate MIT’s pattern of luxury apartment prices, but could also exclude our unionized facilities workers from working in the new MIT residence, in favor of subcontracted labor. Subcontracting with non-union labor cuts costs by driving down wages, eliminating benefits, and ultimately offering less accountability for MIT. This is at the same time that MIT closed down our pharmacy and asymptomatic COVID-19 testing.

The pattern is clear. MIT's administration continues to chase profits rather than devoting its immense resources to supporting the well-being of the people that keep MIT functioning.

But the workers who make this campus run — including our facilities workers, dining workers, librarians, and graduate workers — are fighting back by organizing together through our unions. This fight is not just to improve our working and living conditions, but to build an MIT that truly invests in its people and lives up to its mission. On Wednesday, Sept. 7, our facilities workers held a speakout and march, where undergrads, graduate workers, post-docs, and staff came out in solidarity. The MIT community stands firmly in solidarity with our facilities workers, and we will continue to stand with them until they win the contract they deserve — and beyond.

Sign onto the MIT Student Worker Alliance We Support Our Facilities Workers! petition here.

Thejas Wesley is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering, a member and bargaining committee representative of the MIT Graduate Student Union, and a member of the MIT Student Worker Alliance.