FAQs about Graduate Student Unionization
Updated September 7, 2022
On April 6, 2022, Chancellor Melissa Nobles and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz announced the results of the April 4-5 graduate student unionization election; congratulated current and past MIT GSU-UE members on their four years of dedicated work that culminated in the union’s victory; and committed to bargain in good-faith with the union over the terms and conditions of employment for bargaining unit members.
The following frequently asked questions provide answers to questions the community may have in light of the new graduate student union. Community members with questions about unions and unionization that are not addressed below may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
BACKGROUND / MEMBERSHIP
Q: What does it mean that MIT now has a graduate student union?
A: MIT is required to recognize the union as the exclusive bargaining representative of all graduate students in the certified unit. This means, among other things, that the Institute would not be able to work with any other body or organization, including the MIT Graduate Student Council, on matters affecting wages, hours, and working conditions for those in the certified unit, nor could MIT negotiate directly with any individual member of the unit on any matter affecting wages, hours, and working conditions, unless otherwise authorized by the contract.
MIT and the union will also have to meet their obligation to negotiate in good faith for that initial collective bargaining agreement. First contracts can take a very long time to finalize: A June 2021 Bloomberg Law analysis estimated that, on average, it takes 409 days for new unions and their employers to sign their first collective bargaining agreement; in all cases involving student unions at private universities, more than a year elapsed between a successful unionization vote and arrival at a ratified initial contract. At Harvard University, this process took almost two years, and at Columbia University, there is still no contract four years after the union’s certification.
Q: Who is included in the bargaining unit?
The bargaining unit certified by the NLRB is:
Graduate students enrolled in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) degree programs who are employed to provide instructional or research services, including research assistants, teaching assistants, and instructor G’s, but excluding undergraduate students; graduate student resident advisors; graduate fellows who are not also employed as either research assistants or teaching assistants; hourly graders who are not also employed as either research assistants or teaching assistants; graduate students not seeking MIT degrees, including visiting students; office clericals, managers, guards, and supervisors as defined in the Act.
However, certain research assistants in the Linguistics and Political Science departments; hourly employees who are not graders and who may provide instructional or research services; and graduate students conducting research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) who are either supervised or paid by MIT (but not both), are neither included in or excluded from the bargaining unit covered by this certification, inasmuch as the parties did not agree on the inclusion or exclusion of these classifications but agreed to vote them subject to challenge and resolution of their inclusion or exclusion was unnecessary because their ballots were not determinative of the election results.
Q: Will MIT share graduate students’ email addresses or other contact information with the union?
MIT is required to provide information about graduate students to the NLRB in response to any petition for representation that may be filed. When this occurs, the union would have access to the same information MIT provides to the NLRB. This information could include addresses, job classifications, phone numbers, and personal email addresses. MIT would have to disclose such information to the NLRB and to the union in the event of a scheduled NLRB election.
Note: MIT respects the privacy of our graduate students and generally does not disclose personal information about them to third parties except with their consent, or to MIT-sanctioned organizations and MIT personnel on a need-to-know basis. Further, many of our graduate students may also be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and MIT does not provide personal information about employees to organizing unions outside the formal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING / NEGOTIATION
Q: Where can I learn more about the progress of the Collective Bargaining agreement?
We will keep the MIT community updated on progress. You can also find relevant news and resources by visiting this website.
Q: Could MIT make exceptions to provisions in a collective bargaining agreement to accommodate the needs of individual graduate students?
A: As a general rule, no. MIT would be bound by the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. Unless such exceptions are provided for in the contract or otherwise agreed to by the union, they are not permitted.
For example, if a contract set parameters on the work hours for a research assistant, an individual graduate student would not be able to make personal arrangements with their advisor or PI to work outside those parameters, unless the contract provided for exceptions or unless the union agreed to such arrangements.
Q: In collective bargaining negotiations, can MIT propose its own provisions or changes from the status quo?
A: Yes. Both MIT and the union representatives are free to propose any items or provisions for the contract, including changes from the status quo involving wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
Employers and unions are required by federal law to bargain collectively over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” Other issues of importance to many students — such as local housing costs and participation in Institute decision-making — are outside the scope of what is required to be negotiated.
Q: What is the process for changing affiliations after a union has been established?
A: Once a union is certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union may not be removed unless decertified by the NLRB. Similar to the certification process, employees seeking to remove or replace the existing union with a different union must get at least 30 percent of their coworkers to sign cards in order to file a petition asking the NLRB to conduct an election.
GENERAL INFORMATION ON UNIONS AND THE UNIONIZATION PROCESS
Q: What is the NLRB?
A: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a federal agency created to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a federal law to protect the rights of employees and employers. The law protects the rights of employees to choose or reject union representation.
Q: What is a union?
A: A union, or labor organization, is any organization or association of any kind in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers on wages, benefits, hours, grievances or other terms or conditions of employment. A union that represents a majority of employees in an “appropriate bargaining unit,” and that has been certified by the NLRB following an election or voluntarily recognized by an employer, serves as the representative of that bargaining unit on all such matters involving wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. An appropriate bargaining unit is a group of employees who share a clear and identifiable community of interest sufficient to be represented by a union.
A union that has been certified by the NLRB, or that has been voluntarily recognized by an employer, negotiates a contract (also known as a collective bargaining agreement) on behalf of the bargaining unit to establish the terms and conditions of employment, including such things as wages, hours of work, benefits, and other working conditions. A union also represents its members when disputes arise over the terms of the contract.
Q: What are union dues?
A: Dues are the cost of membership in a union. They are used to cover the costs of negotiating a contract, contract administration and resolutions of grievances (claims of breach of contract). In addition, unions also use dues for the purpose of organizing employees at other employers, and to make political contributions.
Q: What is the election process to form a union?
A: The election process is conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB. An election is typically held within approximately three or four weeks after the filing of a representation petition by the union, but the timing may differ depending upon how the NLRB treats outstanding bargaining unit issues, and how long it takes to resolve those issues. Once an election date is set, secret ballot voting would likely take place in a central location at a designated date and time, or by a mail-in process, as determined by the NLRB.
The election outcome is determined by a simple majority of those who actually vote, not by a majority of all eligible voters. Union representation will be determined by voters, and will be binding on both voters and non-voters in the proposed bargaining unit. Therefore, it is important that all members of a proposed bargaining unit vote, even if they are not interested in unionization.
Those who have already signed membership or authorization cards are not obligated to vote in favor of the union during the secret ballot election: They are free to change their mind. Once a petition is filed with the NLRB, and the showing of interest is confirmed, membership or authorization cards usually serve no further purpose.
Q: What does the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) say regarding negotiations?
A: Section 8(d) of the NLRA states:
For the purposes of this section, to bargain collectively is the performance of the mutual obligation of the employer and the representative of the employees to meet at reasonable times and confer in good faith with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, or the negotiation of an agreement, or any question arising thereunder, and the execution of a written contract incorporating any agreement reached if requested by either party, but such obligation does not compel either party to agree to a proposal or require the making of a concession.
Q: Is anything required to be in a collective bargaining agreement?
A: No, the NLRA does not require that any particular right or provision be part of a contract. Collective bargaining agreements normally have provisions on compensation and benefits, workload and assignments, hours of work, grievance procedures and a variety of other provisions, but no particular provisions are mandated by law. You may find some contracts have a particular provision but another contract might not — it all depends on what those parties have chosen to include in their agreements. The law requires good-faith negotiations over mandatory subjects of bargaining. However, the law specifically does not require either party to make a particular concession or to agree to a particular proposal during negotiations.
Q: What might be covered in a union contract?
A: The NLRA requires employers and unions to bargain collectively over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” These are called mandatory subjects of bargaining, over which the parties must negotiate.
Other topics of interest that do not fall under the umbrella of mandatory negotiations might be addressed by the parties as “permissive” subjects — topics over which neither side is required to negotiate. Items such as the hiring process and housing costs would fall into that category. The NLRB has not yet addressed with any specificity what “terms and conditions of employment” are in the graduate student context. In a case involving Columbia University graduate students, the NLRB stated that academic decisions remain the prerogative of the university, but what constitutes an academic versus a non-academic decision is not yet clear.
There may be many issues of importance to our students that would not be considered mandatory subjects of bargaining under the law, such as concerns about student housing.
Some guidance about the terms and conditions that may be addressed in a contract can be gleaned from examining other graduate student contracts. For example, the contract between Harvard University and its graduate student teaching and research assistants represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) covers numerous terms and conditions of employment such as salaries, benefits, working hours, and grievance procedures; nondiscrimination provisions; leaves of absence; job postings; and access to offices.
However, many rights are retained by Harvard. In the Harvard contract with the UAW, the university retains the exclusive right to determine and control the university’s mission, objectives, priorities, operations, and resources, among many other rights. Harvard also retains the right to control “all matters of academic judgment and decision-making, including ‘who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching.’” All matters affecting research methodology and materials, and external grants including application, selection, funding, administration, usage, accountability, and termination are also retained by Harvard.
Also, there are great variations in union contracts because it is up to the parties to those contracts to decide what they will agree to and what they will not. The appearance of a clause in one contract — no matter what it is — does not guarantee that it will appear in an MIT contract if the union were to be elected.
Q: How many graduate student union contracts are there around the country?
A: There are about 42 graduate student contracts, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. The majority are at public universities; there are only nine graduate student union contracts in the private sector, at American University, Brandeis University, Brown University, Columbia University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, The New School, New York University, and Tufts University.
Q: Are state labor laws different from the NLRA?
A: Yes. In many cases, state and federal laws differ significantly when it comes to issues such as bargaining topics, negotiation impasse procedures, the right to strike, and required union membership. For example, strikes are prohibited under most state laws, making strikes rare at public universities, but strikes are legal in the private sector.
Many state laws also, for example, specify what issues are considered “terms and conditions of employment,” and therefore subject to collective bargaining, and what issues are “academic,” and therefore not subject to collective bargaining. Federal law is not tailored to address the issues of academic and educational matters related to graduate student activities.
Q: How long do student union contract negotiations typically take? Have students represented by unions at other universities gone on strike?
A: A June 2021 Bloomberg Law analysis estimated that, on average, it takes 409 days for new unions and their employers to sign their first collective bargaining agreement (CBA). * Negotiations began in October 2018 and ended in June 2020, and included a 29-day strike in December 2019. The parties initially agreed only to a one-year contract, which expired on June 30, 2021. The parties agreed to a second contract, which was ratified in November 2021, with 70.6 percent of voters in support of the new deal, and after a three-day strike and the threat of a second strike.