A majority of graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have signed cards in favor of unionizing, and the group asked the administration to voluntarily recognize the union.
“We invite you to the bargaining table not as adversaries but as allies in the pursuit of knowledge and a better world. We implore you to choose the path of collaboration over the path of conflict, and we eagerly await your decision,” the group wrote in a letter submitted to President Rafael Reif earlier this week.
University spokesperson Kimberly Allan said the administration “plans to carefully consider the request.”
If the university does not voluntarily recognize the union by Dec. 26, the student group will enter a formal election process with the National Labor Relations Board. Its national affiliate is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.
The MIT union is poised to represent more than 5,000 graduate student employees who work as teaching and research assistants and who generate revenue for the Cambridge university through intellectual property, grants, and collaborations with private enterprises.
“It’s a reflection of the democratic power that we as graduate students have built. People have joined this movement for a variety of reasons but they all relate to deeply felt systemic issues that MIT has failed to make any movement on,” said Lucy Hu, a graduate student in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology. “A union is the way we make a meaningful and material change.”
Affordable housing is a unifying issue for the graduate students, many of whom say that 50 percent to 80 percent of their $3,200 to $3,600 monthly stipends go toward rent — a threshold categorizing them as “severely rent-burdened,” according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In a 2020 op-ed, graduate students expressed frustration over the university’s investment in luxury properties rather than affordable housing. They also criticized campus-wide rent hikes and the displacement caused by the demolition of Eastgate, which was a below-market housing complex for families in Kendall Square.
“I know students who are skipping meals to pay rent. It’s really egregious,” said Ki-Jana Carter, a graduate student in the material science department.
Carter said the students drew motivation from successful union drives in recent years by peers at Tufts University, Harvard University, and Brandeis University. And, he said, they will continue to work in solidarity with students at Boston University and Boston College who have not reached contract agreements with their schools.
At MIT, Hu said she was moved to join the union because harassment and abuse from advisers, faculty, and department leaders is “almost inescapable.” She said the administration has enabled and been negligent in many cases, citing the university’s decision not to fire professor Seth Lloyd over his connections to convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein. MIT limited Lloyd’s pay and his involvement in undergraduate advising for five years.
Hu said she has experienced this harassment firsthand, including when a faculty member told her he was hoping to use her to raise money from Japanese donors, said Hu, who is Chinese.
She’s tired of “historically marginalized populations being viewed not for their contributions as scientists but as diversity grant money,” she said. The union would push for third-party grievance procedures for cases of harassment and discrimination.
Cory Frontin, a graduate student studying aeronautics and astronautics, has worked as a teaching assistant for several semesters to help fund his education. He loves teaching, but with his wife expecting a baby in March, he’s become frustrated by the lack of financial stability for graduate student workers.
Every class of MIT employees has access to childcare subsidies — except graduate students, he said. A major life decision for Frontin and his family “suddenly was put into stark contrast” with his academic career goals.
“When you’re doing very economically valuable research for private organizations and you’re sacrificing your body and your time to teach folks out of an altruistic sense and the university just takes advantage of that, it rubs me the wrong way,” he said. “I’m really excited to see the union push back against policies that advantage our willingness to teach at our own expense.”
Julia Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.