A union made a difference for me

DEI means supporting and empowering minority workers

Graduate student workers at the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program (MIT-WHOI) decided overwhelmingly to unionize when a huge majority of us signed union cards over the last few weeks. After seeing what unionization did for my community growing up, I am confident unionization can be a tool for building a graduate experience of greater stability, security, and support for all of us, regardless of our backgrounds.

I arrived at WHOI as a first-gen student in 2020, 3,000 miles away from my friends and family, in the middle of a global pandemic and a national reckoning with police brutality and institutional racism. As I tried to find my bearings in an unfamiliar environment, feeling isolated and insecure, I came across a statistic on graduate student attrition rates (rates at which students leave the program without a degree) in the earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences (EAPS) department: a shocking 25% average and an incredibly disheartening 42% for under-represented minorities like myself.

I then realized that I felt not only isolated and insecure but also completely powerless to do anything about it on my own. These sentiments deepened when I took part in departmental diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) discussions on racism in academia, where I noticed that although my life experiences were useful contributions to the conversation, they alone were nothing when stacked against the institutional legacies and cultures that maintained the status quo. Despite all of the rhetoric and emails on DEI, I didn’t see anything changing to give people like me the support we needed.

It wasn’t until I got involved in building our union that I felt welcome at MIT. For context, I grew up in a relatively small town adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles called San Pedro. Much of my community is working class and non-academic — hardly any of the adults I looked up to as a kid had a college degree. The only doctor I knew was my pediatrician, and yet my community was full of families of diverse ethnicities who lived with dignity, with the means to support themselves and each other. The reason for this? A strong union.

Walk in any direction in San Pedro and you are bound to see union posters in the windows of small businesses and houses: “We support the ILWU & they support US!” Many members of my family are part of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 13. They work tirelessly every day to move thousands of shipping containers full of goods through the largest port in the country. Since the 1930s, their union has been “dedicated to the idea that solidarity with other workers and other unions is the key to achieving economic security and a peaceful world.”

Join them at the dinner table or downtown at the bar and you would hear conversation on topics ranging from the next jobs coming in to the union meeting coming up later that night or the upcoming contract fight with the Pacific Maritime Association. Parked outside, you might see a family SUV with a window decal declaring “Union Strong,” “An Injury to One is an Injury to All,” or (I finally understand this one now) “Organize or Die.”

Of course, being a worker in a union is more than aesthetics and talk. What was clear to me was that the adults who I looked up to had agency in their workplace and that they were proud because this meant that their families had intrinsic access to good healthcare, vacation time, school supplies, housing, and every other basic material need that a family needs to thrive. Whenever a contract expired and those things came under attack, they didn’t have to beg for better working conditions because they weren’t alone in fighting for their dignity as workers — not only did they have each other, but they had the broader community backing them as well.

Unfortunately, only a small portion of workers in San Pedro were unionized when I was growing up, so many did not experience the security my family did. Like almost all Black and brown working class neighborhoods in the country, ours was not unfamiliar with the issues of poverty, addiction, housing and job insecurity, police harassment and violence, underfunded public education, and so much more. While I made it to MIT, I have had many friends who I know are just as deserving of such an education but simply faced too many obstacles along the way. I can say with confidence that without growing up in a union family and the stability it offered us, I would likely not be here today.

Even so, making it all the way to graduate school was a struggle. I often think about the EAPS attrition statistic referenced above and how often I have come close to personally contributing to it were it not for a bit of luck. After using up my savings to make the cross-country move, I struggled to find housing that I could afford on my stipend for my partner and myself. I don’t know what we would have done had someone reasonable not answered our desperate, urgent Craigslist ad for housing. Like many other first-gen grad students, my family was in no position to assist me, financially or otherwise. Immediately, I found myself alone in having to learn how to adapt to an environment characterized by individualism, prestige, affluence, and whiteness (both within the institution and outside of it). I felt extremely isolated, and my mental health plummeted as a result.

I chose to study the ocean at MIT and WHOI because the ocean has always played a significant part in my life. I know many other kids who grew up like me would love to do the same, would have so much to contribute to the future of marine science as well as the strength of their communities at home.

It doesn’t need to be like this. Why should we have to rely on luck to be successful even after we make it through the trials of academia and into a grad program? Why should we have to beg administrators to take into account our experiences, to prioritize the things we know we need to survive in this environment?

We know that WHOI and MIT say they are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, we do not know if they are actually in a position to listen seriously to their most marginalized and vulnerable workers. Like with the ILWU workers from my home community, our union gives us a vehicle to stand in support of each other as graduate student workers of many different backgrounds, advantages, and disadvantages. We can fight to guarantee all grad workers at WHOI live a dignified and comfortable life, where our needs are met and we are treated with respect, so we can focus on our academic and research goals.

Together we can sit down at the table with the administration and make sure not one of our voices is left out and discounted. Together we can make WHOI an institution that is truly welcoming of everyone.

We all have a story, and we’re all in this together. Join your fellow graduate student workers by signing a union card and sharing your story today!

Jacob Partida is a third-year graduate student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program and an organizer for the GSU-UE.