MIT graduate workers win precedent-setting first contract

On Sept. 22, the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) – UE Local 256 ratified their first contract by a margin of 95.8%. After years of building their union and a year of contract negotiations, MIT graduate workers won a historic victory including protections from harassment, discrimination and bullying, an economic package with a net compensation improvement of more than 10% on average, and union security, which will allow for a strong union that can effectively enforce their contract.

The fight for this groundbreaking contract was necessitated by the unfair conditions graduate workers at MIT face. For one, graduate students often aren’t seen or treated as legitimate workers, despite the fact that their labor creates all of MIT’s value and prestige. Many of the graduate students work in laboratories with health and safety violations galore. The university’s negligence has resulted in several of these workers being hospitalized from these unsafe conditions. What’s more, graduate workers are especially vulnerable to harassment and discrimination, with 40% of graduate students reporting experiencing harassing behavior. Yet, the only avenue MIT offers for recourse is a bureaucratic and biased arbitration process sanctioned and controlled by the university. Less than 1% of graduate students have used the process, illustrating the lack of trust in the system, and those who have used it found it to be confusing, isolating and burdensome. International student workers also are particularly unprotected at MIT. Often, their visa status is contingent on their enrollment at the university and prohibits them from working elsewhere. Ultimately, graduate workers at MIT experience the same exploitation as any other worker, and it is just as much their right to demand what’s theirs from the boss.

‘Ready to strike if we have to

To pressure administration into meeting the demands around these issues, the GSU has been steadily upping the ante over the past year by holding various different actions and campaigns. June Stenzel, a graduate worker at MIT and GSU Bargaining Committee member, told Liberation News, “It’s taken a lot to get us up to this point. We had a huge ‘Get Out The Vote’ about a year and a half ago to … get recognition for the graduate student union. The last entire year has been a real process of negotiations, of meeting MIT at the table, while also continuing to build our organizing capacity through information campaigns [and] really high participation pickets.” But even with all this, MIT continued to drag their feet during negotiations, refusing to budge on the core demands. The gradual build up in pressure was necessary, but in the end there was only one way to truly force MIT’s hand — posing a credible strike threat. The GSU gathered hundreds of RSVPs for a General Membership Meeting planned for Sept. 13 to formally launch their strike pledge. Like clockwork, MIT met with the bargaining committee on Sept. 12 and agreed to all three of the union’s key demands, just 24 hours before the commitment to strike was launched. What MIT once claimed was impossible at the beginning of bargaining suddenly became possible overnight.

We’ve heard this same story not too long ago. Just under three months ago on July 5, UPS claimed they had nothing left to offer the Teamsters economically, walking away from the bargaining table. The Teamsters answered by rolling out widespread practice pickets across the country, teasing a strike just around the corner. Just like MIT, UPS came running back to the table shortly after, agreeing to all of the Teamster’s core demands. UPS and MIT caving so abruptly proves that meeting their worker’s demands was never impossible — it just wasn’t in their interest. But they could easily recognize that a work stoppage would’ve been even more catastrophic for them: MIT and UPS work only because the graduate students and Teamsters do. 

The connection between these two struggles certainly did not go unnoticed by the GSU: The union sent a contingent of graduate workers to join the Teamsters in their practice pickets. Even more generally, Nishad Gothoskar, a graduate worker and GSU Bargaining Committee member, commends how “as a result of the organizing happening here on campus, workers are becoming connected to labor struggles that are happening all around.” Workers everywhere make the world run. The wins for MIT GSU and UPS are wins for the entire working class. Sneha Kabaria, another graduate worker and Bargaining Committee member, reflects on this point: “I really hope that this is something that we’re gonna carry with us past graduate school — elevating this consciousness that workers have rights and workers have power and we can fight for better.”

A victory for graduate workers across the United States

In their historic collective bargaining agreement, MIT graduate workers won real recourse for harassment, discrimination and bullying with the option of full neutral third-party arbitration in all cases. This has been an issue long debated between graduate worker unions and university administrators, and represents a major victory for the graduate student union movement. In a similar vein, MIT graduate workers won an agency shop, meaning that all graduate workers will be members of the union or else pay an agency fee to cover the costs of collective bargaining. This will ensure a strong and secure union moving into the future, which will allow MIT graduate workers to not only enforce their current contract, but to continue to negotiate strong contracts in the future. As Kabaria put it, “as long as there’s an MIT, there’s gonna be an MIT graduate student union.”

In addition to these long contested victories, MIT graduate workers will enjoy an improved economic package, including a stipend increase of 5.4%, vision and dental benefits equivalent to what other employees at MIT receive, child care subsidies and a $1,200 grant for international students to cover immigration fees. MIT graduate workers also won strong health and safety protections, protections from overwork, and provisions for a more inclusive workplace environment.

This contract is so historic because it sets the stage for tens of thousands of graduate workers who are now bargaining their first contracts. Graduate workers at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, University of Minnesota, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Dartmouth and more have seen what can be won through collective action and are eager to follow in MIT graduate workers’ footsteps in winning groundbreaking first contracts. 

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