MIT GSU-UE heralds upcoming bargaining meeting with Sept. 12 rally

Organizers and invited speakers discuss bargaining goals, boost morale, and state grievances

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The Graduate Student Union (GSU) rallies together outside of the Stata Center, Mon.
Courtesy of Kai Jia

The MIT Graduate Student Union (MIT GSU-UE) held a rally on Hockfield Court Sept. 12 ahead of its Sept. 19 bargaining meeting for its first contract with the MIT administration.

Sophie Coppieters ’t Wallant G, an MIT GSU-UE organizer, Bargaining Committee (BC) member, and graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, kickstarted the rally.

“We grad workers all came to MIT to do world-class research and to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues,” Coppieters ’t Wallant began. “We all realized that in order to be able to do this work, we need decent working and living conditions.”

MIT facilities staff members under the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ branch were also present at the rally. Coppieters ’t Wallant commented on their recent attempts at arriving at a contract with MIT: “In this year of 9% inflation, and with MIT’s endowment growing by 55%,” MIT is “refusing to offer our essential custodial staff more than a 1.5% pay increase. We all realize this is just a pay cut.”

She also cited MIT’s attempts to implement a “discriminatory drug testing policy” for facilities staff. “Shame on MIT, and we want MIT to know that we stand in firm solidarity with our custodians and their union in their contract fight.”

Ruth Hanna G, a third-year graduate student in Biology and MIT GSU-UE organizer, commented on the work-life balance concerns that graduate students face, saying that “MIT’s own data show that over half of grad workers often feel overwhelmed by what we have to do, and 38% of grad workers have felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

“We deserve to not just survive at MIT, but thrive here,” Hanna continued. “But we see the MIT administration consistently makes decisions that sacrifice our health and well-being,” citing MIT’s discontinuation of asymptomatic COVID-19 testing, the closing of specialty divisions at MIT Medical and the MIT Pharmacy, the lack of dental insurance, and MIT’s “cruel” policy of discontinuing health insurance coverage when graduate students go on medical leave.

“MIT admin need to know that when they are sitting down at the bargaining table next week, they are not just bargaining with the 24 members” of the BC, but with “thousands” of graduate students, Hanna said.

Hanna added that two ways graduate students can “join [the MIT GSU-UE] in this fight” include signing a union card and joining the Contract Action Team.

Coppieters ’t Wallant then invited Vice President of the Boston Teachers Union Erik Berg to speak. Berg said that he was present to “bring solidarity from the Boston Teachers Union,” commenting on how graduate students and education workers have “a lot in common.”

Sihan Chen G, a third-year graduate student in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, member of the BC, and international student from China, spoke next. As an international student, Chen said that he faces “obstacles and challenges in order to do research, teach, and to develop our career” in the U.S. In particular, these issues stem from having one’s “visa status hanging over their heads.”

Chen applauded MIT and Harvard’s 2020 efforts in suing the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement due to the Trump Administration’s “racist and xenophobic [international] student ban.” However, “just a few months later” MIT issued a notice “that they will essentially cancel all remote appointments while the pandemic was still raging in the U.S.,” forcing “over 600 grad workers to come back to the country within a month, or lose their job and likely their visa.”

Regarding the process of being able to stay and work in the country, Chen said that it was unfair that “to be an international grad worker,” one had to be “rich, or lucky, or both.” Chen added that the “nationality and economic background” of graduate students “should not be an obstacle standing in the way” of “mak[ing] contributions to human knowledge.”

While Chen acknowledged that certain policies are out of MIT’s control, he said the students want to work with the Institute “to mitigate the disparity between domestic and international grad workers as much as possible.”

Coppieters ’t Wallant then invited Evan MacKay, a rank-and-file organizer and member of the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) bargaining committee, to the stage. “Our membership supports [the MIT GSU-UE] from the bottom up and we’re eager to continue” this support, MacKay said, adding that MIT and Harvard graduate students have a “shared struggle.” In addition to issues cited by the previous speakers, MacKay also acknowledged the struggles faced by those affected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and those seeking childcare.

MacKay highlighted that “the power inside the bargaining room” does not arise from “getting the right, smart people” on the bargaining committee but rather comes from “outside the bargaining room” through an “engaged membership.”

“Organizing is something all of us do together,” not “something that just happens from people with titles or special positions within the union,” MacKay said. Organizing and working together helps individuals petition for a list of demands and “react to intimidation alongside one another,” MacKay said.

MacKay also shared insights based on the HGSU’s past, saying “I wish that [the HGSU] had done a better job” in the beginning “openly disagreeing and asking questions about” what “these disagreements meant.”

Belinda Li G, a second-year graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and representative for the BC, spoke after MacKay. As a resident of Site 4 with a monthly rent of “60% of your stipend,” Li said that “the only reason” she “managed to scrape by” was because she had “savings from previous jobs,” something that “the vast majority of grad students do not.”

Even with these savings, Li said that she was “still under significant financial stress to the point where [she] felt the need to ration food.” Li cited how in a 2019 MIT survey on graduate student life, “over 75% of grad workers are stressed about rent.” The “average MIT grad worker pays over 50% of their stipend” in rent, which Li stated that under “federal standards,” MIT graduate students are “severely rent burdened.” In addition to rent, Li noted poor housing conditions, delayed repairs, and having “no real” COVID-19 protocol “two years into a pandemic.”

Li added that the MIT administration “can argue that… housing is not a mandatory subject of bargaining,” but this is because “employers are usually not landlords for their employees.” In cases where “employment is so intimately tied with housing, it is completely reasonable to negotiate on housing.”

Li said that the MIT administration “will also argue that they are simply accounting for the housing market.” However, given that “MIT is the biggest landowner in Cambridge,” the Institute has “significant control over the housing market.” “When MIT built Site 4, they tore down the older, more affordable Eastgate dorm and replaced it with a bunch of commercial offices and labs,” which she said did not “sound like an act of simple survival in the face of rising housing costs.”

The next speaker was Carl Rosen, the General President of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (of which the MIT GSU-UE is to become a local chapter). Rosen said that he has worked with the BC “all summer,” to put together a “great set of contract demands” based on MIT GSU-UE member input and “surveying the best of what’s elsewhere in the country.”

“I have not seen such a well-organized group — again, a self-organizing group of workers — in recent memory, and that is tremendously exciting,” Rosen said. The work of “thousands of graduate workers” over the “last couple of years” ensures that “go[ing] into the [bargaining] table,... the administration has to hear you.”

“What I’ve seen here today” and “over the last period convinces me that you’ve got what it takes to win that fight,” Rosen concluded.

Coppieters ’t Wallant then introduced Jonathan Tagoe G, a Masters student in Mechanical Engineering and BC member. As an MIT undergraduate of the Class of 2021, Tagoe said that “MIT admin kinda does what it wants. Either they blindside us with policy that affects us” or “they may ask us for feedback” but not take it into account.

“If MIT wants to negotiate fairly in good faith, let’s do it,” Tagoe said. “But we gotta be real with ourselves here…. This is going to be a contract fight, and it’s not going to be easy…. But we gotta stick together.” “Each of us” must “put in the work” to “do what we can,” Tagoe said.

Tagoe added that “it’s going to take clear, consistent communication about what’s happening at the bargaining table and quickly building up pressure to make MIT budge when we need them to.”

“We need folks engaged, ready to participate, and most importantly, just being good members of the MIT community and sticking by each other,” Tagoe said. While the MIT GSU-UE has “support,” “no one else can fight this fight for us.”

Joshua Talbot G, a graduate student in EECS and MIT GSU-UE organizer, closed out the rally with live music.