Opinion guest column

IDHR alone won’t protect us: Creating an MIT that works for us all requires a fair contract

We deserve a strong grievance procedure at the Institute

Where we are now: unionization and bargaining

Over the past few months, the Graduate Student Union (GSU) Bargaining Committee has participated in multiple sessions of contract negotiations with MIT’s administration. In this time, we have worked through our non-economic proposals and the administration's counterproposals on many of the issues afflicting us as graduate student-workers at the Institute. We have made some important steps already through this process to improve our experience as grad workers here. At the same time, the members of the administration are dragging their feet on a number of key demands. Among these demands is a comprehensive non-discrimination clause and a grievance procedure that empowers us grad workers to address harassment and bullying effectively. We must not let them block these crucial demands.

MIT’s administration is proposing that our grievance procedure, the provision that gives the whole contract teeth, does not apply to any issue of discrimination, bullying, or harassment, including sexual harassment and assault. They also proposed to remove any commitment to promptness with respect to student disability accommodations, restricting the contract to codifying MIT’s existing accommodation policy. This is common throughout the MIT administration's counterproposals, where we see our strong proposal language undermined and chiseled at, reduced to reiterating current standards and policies full of holes.

In cases of discrimination, harassment, and bullying, we are directed to report to the Institute Discrimination and Harrassment Response (IDHR) Office instead of using our proposed union grievance procedure. However, in practice, this process has been confusing and difficult for workers to navigate, requiring extensive documentation of the incident and placing the burden on the student-worker to pursue recourse through a frustrating process. It can be an isolating experience, making it easy for workers to become discouraged from speaking out and susceptible to having their issue dismissed. Furthermore, the final judgment for incidents taken through the IDHR process is left up to MIT, with appeals going to the Provost, further reducing the chances of a fair, unbiased judgment.

The current process for recourse secures all power in the hands of the administration. We, as student-workers and victims in these situations, deserve a clearly laid out procedure where we are empowered to speak out about our grievances and supported throughout the process to reach a fair resolution. Our current grievance procedure proposal would work as this alternative, allowing us to address any violation of the contract including discrimination, harrassment, and bullying. Legally protected union stewards would be there to help inform and support student workers throughout the process. And the ability to escalate to neutral arbitration ensures that a fair resolution is met and adequate protections from retaliation.

Many who have not navigated this process or spoken to others who have may not see the importance of having this contract language on a personal level. With the challenging process offered by MIT currently through IDHR, many will not feel they can use this process to address issues until they fester and become far more serious and unbearable. With a union grievance procedure, we could address issues long before they become more serious. Addressing the misbehavior and mistreatment our co-workers face will also help to raise the standards for how we can all expect to be treated with respect, dignity, and fairness on the job.

Contract proposals advance demands for justice on campus

In contracts with graduate student unions, universities have agreed to grievance and arbitration procedures for a number of issues, including changes to wages, work expectations, and workplace safety. For example, if a lack of safety provisions puts student workers at risk of physical harm and a department or administrators refuse to provide a solution that keeps student-workers safe, the union can take the case to a neutral third-party arbiter to enforce the contract. Yet, many universities such as Harvard have refused contract provisions that would subject protections against harassment and discrimination to this same enforcement mechanism, despite the fact that such issues are central to workplace safety, particularly for systemically and historically marginalized groups on campus.

Over the last several years, student advocacy campaigns on campus have drawn attention to the pervasiveness of racial, sexual, and gender harassment and discrimination at MIT, the dramatic negative impacts that this has on the climate of research and teaching at the Institute, and, especially, the personal health and professional impacts on students. In 2020, the Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) Campaign — a united effort of MIT graduate students led by Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, Black Graduate Student Association, and Graduate Student Council Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee — called attention to how the organizational climate and culture at MIT facilitates bias, discrimination, and harassment, linking multiple types of harm together and pressuring MIT administration to reconsider existing workplace practices and norms, including its policies and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct against faculty and staff through the IDHR Office.

The RISE Campaign sought to build on the Black Student Union and Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA)’s Support Black Lives at MIT petition, which was released in the summer of 2020 and received over 5,000 signatures from members of the campus community. The petition called attention to MIT’s unwillingness to address systemic patterns of racial bias on campus, including fears of discrimination and harassment by MIT Police that are widely shared by members of the Black community on campus. The petition demanded MIT implement accountability and oversight mechanisms for police activity on campus and ultimately alternatives for dispute resolution and public safety. Yet two years later, these demands have largely gone unaddressed. In an op-ed published in The Tech earlier this year, BGSA leadership called for the continuation of this advocacy work and the prioritization of the needs of Black and other historically marginalized students at MIT through the GSU: “Many Black people in this community have been deprived of basic decency and respect at MIT, and we feel the GSU is our best chance of ending a seemingly endless uphill battle against an institution that was not built with us in mind.” A grievance procedure provides another mechanism for identifying allegations of misconduct against faculty and staff, including police.

Organizing around and winning a comprehensive grievance and arbitration procedure through the GSU contract fight is one way to help advance the popularly endorsed demands and important advocacy work of BGSA and the RISE Campaign, as well as a multitude of other committees, working groups, public forums, and petitions through which graduate workers have worked tirelessly for years to address discrimination in academia. Grievance and arbitration would create additional mechanisms by which students could bring forth and bring together claims of identity-based harassment, inform and educate the campus community and the general public about the actual rates of such harms, and seek remedy or restitution outside of upper-level administration.

How we win: strength and solidarity

Winning our contract with provisions that can build a truly inclusive and just MIT for all students and workers will require demonstrating our strength and solidarity as a collective. In a piece in The Tech from this past spring, Kelvin Green detailed historic and current labor movements that offer inspiration on how unions have built solidarity to make real the values that “diversity, equity, and inclusion” espouse not just for their members but for society in general — like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters or New York University’s graduate workers union. What unites such successful labor-organizing efforts is that they pushed forward strong demands that would improve conditions for everyone in their communities and backed those demands up with inclusive organizing that built solidarity in their movement and with interconnected struggles.

Yet, we need not look deep into the past, or even to the recent organizing victories of the Amazon Labor Union, Starbucks Workers United, and others for this inspiration. There is abundant inclusive labor organizing here on MIT’s campus that exemplifies how union organizing builds our collective voices and allows us a path towards better conditions for workers and students on campus and beyond. This includes the MIT Student Worker Alliance, a coalition of MIT undergraduate students, graduate workers, employees, and contract workers across campus, which has come together to push for robust safety protections from COVID-19, inflation relief for employees, organize advocacy for reproductive justice, and more. This alliance is a result of the solidarity across different groups of workers that principled union organizing creates — as MIT graduate student-workers are fighting for our first contract now, facility workers at MIT were engaged in an ongoing struggle against pay cuts and for a fair contract.

Similarly, at Northeastern in Boston, dozens of student groups and individuals formed the Huskies Organizing With Labor, a coalition of students, faculty, and student organizations that has stood in solidarity and supported dining hall workers at Northeastern in Local 26, who earlier this year won their most lucrative contract in local union history. This is the power of labor organizing that considers the many challenges faced by workers of all occupations, races, genders, sexualities, and more identities and positionalities — which are precisely the considerations that led to the development of a proposal for a comprehensive grievance process. Like throughout the rest of the country, in order to win better conditions and dignity at MIT, we must understand that these fights are not only intertwined, but they are one and the same — this is as true historically as it is today.

Demanding the contract that we need and building the community we want

So what are we workers, and all students, at MIT called to do? To start, we must understand that solidarity is a verb; it is an active and principled process that involves committing ourselves to each other toward the betterment of all. For issues like the lack of sufficient grievance processes and others named above, it is not enough to stand by and wait for MIT’s administration to treat our coworkers and classmates better and to take responsibility for the work environments they enable. We have seen how insufficient current policy and enforcement can be, and only through coming together as a collective can we see the improvements necessary for a better life at the institute for all.

We have to move past words and broad statements about “belonging” and take action to see a truly inclusive community formed here at MIT and codified through a contract. Events like town halls and subsequent actions happening this week are examples of what it will take to apply pressure on the administration. These are opportunities to participate, learn more about the struggles faced by fellow coworkers, and stand together in solidarity so the MIT administration understands that this is not trivial. Ultimately, we are only going to be able to win a fair contract for grad workers at MIT with a just and empowering grievance procedure in the same way that we won our union in the first place. We need to come together and show the administration that we are united and ready to do what it takes to get the contract we deserve.

We highly encourage folks to join the Contract Action Team to also help with outreach, communications and actions to help us all achieve the fair contract we deserve. And beyond this, we can all have conversations with our coworkers about the contract proposals — how they might concretely and positively impact each of us and our communities on campus. We all have a role in normalizing these conversations, building stronger relationships in our workplaces, and building an MIT that works for all.

Austin Cole is a second-year Master’s student in Business and City Planning and currently serves as the Political Action Chair of the Black Graduate Student Association and a member of the MIT Graduate Student Union Contract Action Team.

Enjoli Hall is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Urban Studies and Planning, a member of the Black Graduate Student Association, and a departmental organizer with the MIT Graduate Student Union.

Jonathan Tagoe is a second-year Master’s student in Mechanical Engineering and currently serves as the Events Co-Chair of the Black Graduate Student Association and Bargaining Committee representative of the MIT Graduate Student Union.