Organizers and guest speakers discuss bargaining goals, morale and state grievances
The MIT Graduate Student Union (MIT GSU-UE) held a rally on Hockfield Court on September 12 ahead of its September 19 negotiation meeting for its first contract with the MIT administration.
Sophie Coppieters ‘t Wallant G, MIT GSU-EU organizer, Bargaining Committee (BC) member and graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, kicked off the rally.
“We graduates have all come to MIT to do world-class research and solve some of the world’s most pressing problems,” Coppieters ‘t Wallant began. “We all realized that to be able to do this job, we need decent working and living conditions.”
Staff members from MIT facilities under the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, were also present at the rally. Coppieters ‘t Wallant commented on his recent attempts to secure a contract with MIT: “In this year of 9% inflation and with MIT’s endowment growing 55%”, MIT “refuses to offer our staff more than a 1.5% pay raise We all realize that’s just a pay cut.
She also cited MIT’s attempts to implement a “discriminatory drug testing policy” for facility staff. “Shame on MIT, and we want MIT to know that we stand firmly with our custodians and their union in their contract fight.”
Ruth Hanna G, a third-year graduate student in biology and an MIT GSU-EU organizer, commented on the work-life balance issues facing graduate students, saying that “MIT’s own data shows that more than half of graduates often feel overwhelmed with what we have to do, and 38% of graduates felt so depressed that it was hard to function.
“We deserve to not only survive at MIT, but to thrive here,” Hanna continued. “But we see the MIT administration constantly making decisions that sacrifice our health and well-being,” citing MIT’s halt to asymptomatic COVID-19 testing, closure of specialty divisions at MIT Medical and MIT Pharmacy, lack of dental insurance, and MIT’s “cruel” policy of discontinuing health insurance coverage when graduate students go on sick leave.
“MIT administrators need to know that when they sit down at the bargaining table next week, they will be negotiating not just with the 24 members” of British Columbia, but with “thousands” of graduate students, Hanna said.
Coppieters ‘t Wallant then invited Boston Teachers Union Vice President Erik Berg to speak. Berg said he was there to “bring the solidarity of the Boston Teachers Union,” commenting on how graduate students and education workers have “a lot in common.”
Sihan Chen G, a third-year graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences, member from British Columbia and an international student from China, then spoke. As an international student, Chen said he faced “hurdles and challenges in doing research, teaching and developing his career” in the United States. In particular, these problems arise from the “visa status hanging over the head”.
Chen applauded efforts by MIT and Harvard in 2020 to sue the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the Trump administration’s “racist and xenophobic” policies. [international] student ban. However, “a few months later” MIT issued a notice “that they would be essentially canceling all remote appointments while the pandemic still raged in the United States”, forcing “more than 600 graduates to return to the country within a month, or lose their jobs and probably their visas.
Regarding the process for staying and working in the country, Chen said it was unfair that “to be an international graduate” one had to be “rich, or lucky, or both.” Chen added that the “nationality and economic background” of graduate students “should not be an obstacle in the way” of “doing[ing] contributions to human knowledge.
Although Chen acknowledged that some policies are beyond MIT’s control, he said students want to work with the Institute “to bridge the disparity between domestic and international graduates as much as possible.”
Coppieters ‘t Wallant then invited Evan MacKay, a grassroots organizer and member of the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) bargaining committee, to the stage. “Our members support [the MIT GSU-UE] from the bottom up and we look forward to continuing “this support,” MacKay said, adding that graduate students at MIT and Harvard have a “joint struggle.” In addition to the issues cited by previous speakers, MacKay also acknowledged the challenges faced by those impacted by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and those seeking child care.
MacKay pointed out that “power inside the negotiation room” does not come from “getting the right smart people” on the negotiation committee, but rather from “outside the negotiation room”. thanks to “committed members”.
“Organizing is something we all do together,” not “something that just happens to people with special titles or positions within the union,” MacKay said. Organizing and working together helps individuals demand a list of demands and “react to each other’s bullying,” MacKay said.
MacKay also shared insights based on HGSU’s past, saying, “I wish [the HGSU] had done a better job ‘at first’ of openly disagreeing and asking questions about ‘what’ those disagreements meant.
Belinda Li G, a second-year Electrical and Computer Engineering (EECS) graduate student and representative from British Columbia, spoke after MacKay. As a resident of Site 4 with a monthly rent of “60% of your allowance”, Li said the “only reason” she “managed to get by” was because she had “savings on previous jobs”, something that “the vast majority of graduate students do not.
Even with those savings, Li said she was “still under significant financial stress to the point where [she] felt the need to ration food. Li cited how, in a 2019 MIT survey of graduate student life, “over 75% of graduates are stressed about rent.” The “average MIT graduate worker pays more than 50% of their stipend” in rent, which Li said under “federal standards,” MIT graduate students are “very heavily burdened with rent.” In addition to rent, Li noted poor housing conditions, delayed repairs, and having “no real ‘COVID-19 protocol’ two years into a pandemic.”
Li added that the MIT administration “may argue that…housing is not a mandatory subject of negotiation,” but that’s because “employers generally don’t own their employees.” In cases where “employment is so intertwined with housing, it is quite reasonable to negotiate over housing”.
Li said the MIT administration “will also argue that it is only considering the housing market.” However, since “MIT is the largest landowner in Cambridge”, the Institute has “significant control over the housing market”. “When MIT built Site 4, they tore down the older, more affordable Eastgate dorm and replaced it with a bunch of commercial offices and labs,” which she said “didn’t look like a simple act of survival in the face of rising housing costs”. .”
The next speaker was Carl Rosen, general president of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (of which MIT GSU-UE will become a local chapter). Rosen said he has been working with BC “all summer,” to put together a “great set of contract requests” based on feedback from MIT GSU-EU members and “analyzing the best of what is happening elsewhere in the country”.
“I haven’t seen such a well-organized group — again, a self-organized group of workers — in recent memory, and that’s extremely exciting,” Rosen said. The work of “thousands of graduate workers” over the “last two years” ensures that “[ing] in the [bargaining] table,… the administration must hear you.
“What I’ve seen here today” and “over the last period convinces me that you have what it takes to win this fight,” Rosen concluded.
Coppieters ‘t Wallant then introduced Jonathan Tagoe G, MSc Mechanical Engineering student and member from British Columbia. As an MIT undergraduate in the class of 2021, Tagoe said, “The MIT administrator kinda does what he wants. Either they blind us with a policy that affects us,” or “they can ask us for feedback,” but they ignore it.
“If MIT wants to negotiate fairly and in good faith, let’s do it,” Tagoe said. “But we have to be real with ourselves here…. This is going to be a contract fight, and it’s not going to be easy…. But we have to stick together. “Each of us” must “put in the work” to “do what we can,” Tagoe said.
Tagoe added that “it will take clear and consistent communication about what is happening at the bargaining table and quickly increase the pressure to get MIT moving when we need it.”
“We need people who are committed and willing to participate and, more importantly, just be good members of the MIT community and stick together,” Tagoe said. While MIT GSU-UE has “backing”, “no one else can fight this fight for us”.
EECS graduate student and MIT GSU-EU organizer Joshua Talbot G closed the rally with live music.