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3 Questions: Implementing the MIT Graduate Student Union’s collective bargaining agreement

Ian Waitz describes the three-year contract that will change and enhance MIT’s graduate student policies and procedures.
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Ian Waitz posing in a jacket and open-collar shirt
Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education Ian Waitz

When eligible MIT graduate students voted to be represented by a union in April 2022, the decision set in motion significant changes in the graduate student ecosystem at the Institute. Moving forward, graduate students in the Graduate Student Union (GSU)’s bargaining unit — about 3,500 research assistants, teaching assistants, and instructors-G — will be represented by the GSU and covered by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). MIT negotiated with the GSU throughout the 2022-23 academic year, ultimately reaching a CBA that was ratified by a union vote on Sept. 23, 2023. Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education Ian A. Waitz, who helped lead the negotiation process, explains the nuts and bolts of the CBA, how it will be implemented, and other graduate student support measures that are underway.

Q: What are the highlights of the CBA reached between MIT and the Graduate Student Union?

A: First of all, it’s important to note that the CBA covers the terms and conditions of employment for anyone in the bargaining unit — all grad student RAs, TAs, and instructor-Gs (which are graduate students with considerable teaching experience) — whether or not they have elected to join the union and become union members. There are a number of economic provisions and benefits in the agreement, including salary increases of 5.4 percent, 3.5 percent, and 3.25 percent over the three years of the contract; an 83.3 percent subsidy of the individual dental care premium and an increased MBTA subsidy; and grants to defray expenses that certain groups of graduate students have, such as international students and students with families. The Office of Graduate Education (OGE) created a grad student benefits table that spells out further details.

We also reached agreement on non-economic provisions, such as the grievance and arbitration process and a no-strike clause. Finally, we agreed that the GSU would be an “agency shop,” which means that all RAs, TAs, and instructor-Gs are required to pay 1.44 percent of their RA, TA, or instructor-G wages to the union as a condition of their employment, whether or not they choose to be a member of the union. I provided more information about this contractual provision in an email I sent to all graduate students.

Again, these are just a few highlights. There are many other issues we agreed upon during the yearlong negotiation process, so I would encourage anyone who is interested to take a look at the Collective Bargaining Agreement [Touchstone authentication required]. As for students who are not in the bargaining unit, such as those on fellowships, we are committed to ensuring a level of equity regarding stipends and various benefits, and we want to make sure they understand all the ways they are supported. The benefits table has more information about benefits available to students on certain fellowships.

Q: What does implementation of the CBA entail, and how is it progressing?

A: Well, not surprisingly, implementation is complex. The CBA represents about 60 pages of contractual commitments that came into effect all at once. Some changes that we are making may seem relatively straightforward, like issuing bargaining unit members retroactive 5.4 percent salary increases. But even that involved 5,000 different appointments, many with unique characteristics. And for the sake of equity, MIT also raised the stipends of most students who are on fellowships, and therefore are not part of the bargaining unit, by 0.15 percent, to bring their AY [academic year]-23-24 stipend increase to 5.4 percent as well. There are several other new benefits — MBTA passes, the new dental insurance subsidy, parking — that also require new policies, procedures, and systems.

Other issues we need to address are organizationally complicated in that they involve all supervisors and administrators of graduate student employees, as well as the graduate student employees themselves. One example is how we manage graduate student appointments. Before the CBA was ratified, our system was very simple: Faculty and staff who supervise graduate students would notify their departments about the appointment and funding source. Now we need to process appointments sooner, and faculty and staff supervisors need to provide many more details about the appointment, such as hours students are required to work and the duties they are expected to perform.

Moreover, we need to efficiently document changes in a student’s appointment status, because their status may impact whether or not they are in the bargaining unit. For example, a student might be on an RA one semester, and then the next semester they might be on a fellowship, and are therefore not in the bargaining unit. This all needs to be tracked carefully and in a timely way.

Yet another change is that we are now required to formally review and act on a dozen different kinds of leaves. And students in the bargaining unit are required to formally submit requests for most types of leave. Some of these are handled centrally, some (like vacation) are handled by the individual graduate employee supervisor. Students on fellowships will continue to arrange for flexibility/time away from their academic requirements as they always have, by working with their advisor or with their department and GradSupport as appropriate for longer times away.

We will also have new requirements for formal review and approval of outside professional activities that graduate student workers may wish to pursue.

In order to address many of these new procedures, IS&T [Information Systems and Technology] and the broader MIT CBA implementation team have launched a new system comprising a student appointment portal, a supervisor portal, and an administrator portal.

In addition, those of us who supervise or work with graduate students will need to be clearer about our expectations for academic work. We’ve received a lot of questions from faculty about how the 20-hour workload for graduate students in the bargaining unit relates to academic requirements, like completing a thesis. To iron all of these issues out, the Committee on Graduate Programs (CGP) and OGE are developing policies for departments so that they can communicate their expectations. CGP and OGE will also be issuing guidance on the creation of a new graduate academic performance group, made up of students, staff, administrators, and faculty, to look at cases related to academic performance.

Needless to say, making these kinds of changes is a challenge for a decentralized institution like ours! But we are embracing it, because ultimately it will benefit all of our students and programs.  

Q: Besides the CBA, what other priorities is MIT working on to support graduate students?

A: One of the priorities that we have been focusing on for the past few years is graduate student professional development. The Graduate Student Professional Development Refinement and Implementation Committee, which was an outgrowth of Task Force 2021 and Beyond, has been meeting for over a year now and is working to design a professional development requirement for MIT PhDs. The committee, which is made up of faculty, administrators, and PhD students, has visited a number of departments, student groups, and co-curricular offices to ask for input and spark conversation about professional development at the graduate level. Some of the ideas they are currently exploring are ways in which PhD students might benefit from forming a committee of professional development mentors, and also how internships might be made available as a professional development activity to interested PhDs. 

In addition, Career Advising & Professional Development, in collaboration with partners, is just now unrolling two new professional development certificate programs on research mentoring and grant writing training. The Research Mentoring Training Certificate is a collaboration with the Engineering Communication Labs, and 245 PhDs and postdocs applied for this program. The Grant Writing Training Certificate Program, which is a collaboration with the Office of the Vice President for Research, was also received well, seeing 325 applications for the 100 available places. It’s exciting to see this ongoing improvement in MIT’s professional development programming taking shape.

Ultimately, our goal to enhance the life and learning experience for graduate students has remained a north star. MIT has been and remains one of the best places in the world to pursue an advanced degree in everything from philosophy to urban studies to mechanical engineering. While unionization is changing how we manage our graduate teaching and research enterprise in some fundamental ways, we are embracing it with a spirit of opportunity. We are particularly grateful for all of our campus partners, especially our graduate administrators, instructors and faculty, and other staff, who are working with us to adapt and respond to all that we need to do with such grace.

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