One week after publicly announcing our strike plan and 24 hours before the public launch of our strike pledge at a huge General Membership Meeting, the graduate workers of UE Local 256 (MIT-GSU) won a strong tentative agreement for our first contract. By Friday, September 22, we ratified our first contract, ending a 12-month struggle negotiating with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Graduate workers, who perform a variety of teaching and research tasks essential to making MIT function, voted overwhelmingly to unionize in April 2022 after years of organizing around the issues that many had been demanding for decades. “Time and time again, we saw that without our union, MIT was all talk and no action. I was really motivated along with my coworkers to fight for this contract to hold MIT accountable and to raise the standard of working conditions for all graduate workers on campus,” said Ruth Hanna, a graduate worker in the Biology department and longtime union organizer.
“Graduate student workers are seen as mainly just there to get a training education, like an apprenticeship. As an extension of that, the university, our employer, doesn't really see the need to respect the contributions that we make,” said graduate worker and longtime GSU organizer Daniel Shen. “These workers are doing the bulk of not just the teaching and the research, but also just the small daily activities that are necessary to actually manage the structure of the lab.”
The graduate workers of Local 256 were able to secure a strong first contract featuring wins that pushed the envelope of what is possible in a graduate worker contract.
One of the highlights of the contract is the ability to pursue fair recourse for cases of harassment and discrimination through the union grievance procedure. Harassment is a rampant issue for graduate workers across academia: at MIT, 40 percent of graduate workers have reported experiencing harassing behaviors. This contract win means that, for the first time ever, these cases can be brought to a third-party arbitrator, instead of employees hired by MIT. Furthermore, a union steward can accompany an aggrieved worker throughout the entire process.
Another highlight is dental insurance. For the first time ever, graduate workers at UE Local 256 will now have dental insurance coverage, with the employer paying 83.5 percent of the premium. “This is something that various graduate student committees have been writing to the admin for decades now at this point. If you look back at the student newspaper, there's an article from the early 2000s demanding dental for graduate student workers,” said Shen. “Dental coverage is not something that's been standard at MIT for graduate students, but in this contract we were able to win dental insurance subsidies equivalent to that of other employees on campus.”
Other wins in this contract include raises of 5.4, 3.5 and 3.25 percent over the three years of the contract, a $1200 lump sum payment for international workers to pay for visa fees, a needs-based $10,000 childcare grant available to graduate workers with children, and a 70 percent subsidy for public transportation available to all graduate workers.
The contract also secures a groundbreaking health and safety article mandating that MIT provide proper training and equipment to workers who work in labs and research groups, and promptly fix issues found during workplace safety evaluations — including ones that extend beyond basic OSHA protections. Our discipline and discharge article states that employees cannot be fired without just cause. Though MIT fought hard against including protections for academic discipline and discharge in the contract, we were able to win a memorandum of agreement where MIT agreed to create an academic appeals process, vetted by the union, with clear timelines and expectations. Moreover, our contract is the first graduate union contract to expand intellectual property rights for graduate workers: MIT graduate workers now have the same intellectual property rights as faculty and staff.
Most impressively, we were able to win a strong union security clause through the form of agency shop, a standard provision at many UE locals that says all workers must contribute to building a strong, financially stable, and united union based on broad membership participation. “For me, one of the most critical, perhaps the most critical issue was union security, because at the end of the day, I think we need a union more than we need any particular benefit,” said graduate worker and bargaining committee member Chelsea Spencer.
Throughout the contract fight, we focused on building up increasing pressure on MIT administration through mass membership participation and collective action, culminating in a credible strike threat.
This began with issues-based campaigns in the fall of 2022 focused on particularly acute issues like health and safety, harassment and discrimination, and international worker rights. These issue campaigns consisted of town halls, testimonial collections, and marches to build membership participation and begin to pressure MIT administration. Several wins were secured early in the contract fight as a result of these issue campaigns. For example, after a fiery membership town hall on health and safety and over 100 worker testimonials detailing the egregious health and safety violations and their terrible impacts on workers, MIT caved and agreed to strong comprehensive health and safety protections including both OSHA and non-OSHA hazards.
Membership actions continued to escalate throughout the spring with thousands of union members participating in a photo petition in support of their economic demands. Their participation culminated in two all-day practice pickets with hundreds of members on the picket line every hour. After each practice picket, MIT came back to the bargaining table with an improved offer. But as the end of the spring semester approached, MIT administration continued to stonewall us on three of our core demands: an economic package that keeps up with the cost of living, real recourse for harassment and discrimination, and union security for a strong union into the future. Our membership resoundingly voted to reject MIT’s subpar contract offer in May of 2023.
Over this summer, we worked to systematically build up a credible strike threat because we understood that the only way to force MIT to settle was to demonstrate that we as a united membership were ready to strike if needed. We held multiple mass meetings with all of our union organizers and collectively had hundreds and hundreds of conversations with our co-workers to build unity around our strike threat. We were able to launch a powerful strike threat because we focused on having conversations with and mobilizing every member of our bargaining unit. We did this by systematically building out our organizing structure so that we could reach hundreds to thousands of members.
We were set to launch our public strike pledge at a massive General Membership Meeting on September 13 to demonstrate to MIT our commitment to this contract. However, one day before our General Membership Meeting, and just one week after we publicly announced our strike plan, MIT administration scheduled an emergency bargaining session and caved on all three of our core demands. As Ruth Hanna noted, “When faced with our strike threat, all of the things that MIT administration had said were impossible became possible overnight. The timing makes it really clear that the strike threat won us our contract. MIT realized that its graduate workers were prepared to strike and that was a risk MIT wasn’t willing to take.”
After securing the first contract, the real work of union-building starts. We are currently in the process of drafting our first constitution and establishing a solid steward structure so that the members’ hard-fought win is secured and enforced.
Looking forward, we aim to lay a solid foundation for the next contract fight by continuing to encourage ongoing mass participation from our membership. “A contract is just an instrument of power and the contract itself is not going to create on its own the conditions for a better workplace at MIT,” said bargaining committee member Chelsea Spencer, “It is something that unionized graduate workers can use to fight for better conditions.”
In the context of the broader labor movement, we hope our contract win can set the standard for other graduate worker unions nationally. Many of our sibling locals, including UChicago GSU, Cornell GSU, Dartmouth GOLD-UE, University of Minnesota GLU, John Hopkins TRU, and Stanford GWU are fighting for the same key issues such as living wages, union security and meaningful recourse through the grievance procedure. Our contract wins on these issues set the precedent for their fights, connecting graduate labor struggles nation-wide through sustained solidarity.
Ultimately, it is the rank-and-file members that will maintain our local as a fighting union. Organizing and educating remain the primary means to fight for more, which Spencer sees as a way to “have a radical shift” in graduate workers’ understanding that the conditions they work in are changeable. By winning a strong union capable of improving the working and living conditions for graduate workers, “this contract fundamentally changes the balance of power on campus,” said Ruth Hanna.
The membership of UE Local 256 (MIT GSU) includes graduate research assistants (RAs), graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate fellows. Though fellows perform the same work duties as RAs and TAs, MIT continues to insist on carving out fellows from the bargaining unit. We are taking steps to have the graduate fellows included in the bargaining unit.
The Local 256 bargaining committee consisted of Ajay Brahmakshatriya, Stefan Borjan, Sophie Coppieters 't Wallant, Christian Cmehil-Warn, Mingjia Chen, Sihan Chen, Robert van der Drift, BreAnne Fleer, Nishad Gothoskar, Maggie Hughes, Rahul Jayaraman, Sneha Kabaria, Mak Kirkman-Davis, Ricardo de Levante, Belinda Li, Daniel Magley, AJ Miller, Hanna Mularczyk, Felicia Rodriguez, Reca Sarfati, June Stenzel, Chelsea Spencer, Felicia Rodriguez, JS Tan, and Leah Wallach. Former members are Oluremi Akindele, Ayelet Carmeli, Zoe de Beurs, Angela Lee, Bensu Manav, Daniel Miller, Arrow Minster, Jonathan Tagoe, Hina Walajahi, Anna Waldman-Brown, and Thejas Wesley.
The local is assisted by UE Project Organizers Maddie Dery and Thejas Wesley, and Local 256 staff Jeff Rosenberg. UE General President Carl Rosen and International Representative Valentina Luketa also provided support during the contract campaign.