Opinion letter to the editor
Over the past week, MIT’s Graduate Student Union (GSU) lobbied for the unionization of graduate students in alliance with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (EU). While several people involved in the effort graciously reached out to provide information, I think a public disclosure of a skeptic’s concerns would benefit everyone. Understanding that we all want only the best for graduate students, I summarize these (not exhaustive) concerns below.
First, the textbook case for unions demands that workers have few or few outside options. This is not true here. We all have exceptional human capital and could therefore get well paying jobs in industry or negotiate our entry into other departments. The fact that many of us have left or turned down excellent private options to come here is proof of this.
Second, I do not understand the position that bringing all of us together in one bargaining unit would necessarily be a net benefit. As an economics student, I have very different interests than an engineering student, and it’s hard to know how a union would balance those interests in a way that would improve everyone’s lot. In economic language, unionization is not Parétienne. Homogenization comes at a cost.
Third, I am concerned about inflexibility. Previously, I worked for the government and was forced to join a union. The rigidity and duration of the collective agreement placed severe constraints on my ability to negotiate with superiors and to optimize my work experience. Again, it’s not clear exactly how unionizing in this situation would make me and everyone better if we were forced to obey the same contract.
Fourth, I am concerned about the sufficiency of the representation. What expertise and experience can the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America bring to the table? Does a union that appears to represent mostly workers of a completely different type than graduate students have the skills to represent an economics student or a chemical engineering student? Why expect them to do a better job than the current structure of graduate students, who clearly have substantial experience in negotiating with administration and by their own admission has made significant achievements? Not only that, but a simple read of the EU website reveals that it is a politically radical organization with views that many, if not most students would disagree with, so why should we put in this position?
Fifth, I hesitate about the costs that unionization will entail, both implicit and explicit. The explicit fee burden is substantial, while the implicit transaction costs we incur due to extensive negotiation, homogenization and the looming prospect of strikes are also quite high. I find it hard to see an outcome where the expected value of unionizing is positive enough that unionizing is as obvious a decision as the SSG claims.
Finally, we are seated in a privileged position. MIT is the best university in the world and we are very fortunate to be here. Indeed, many would not only accept significant pay cuts to be in our place, but would also go into substantial debt. Therefore, I don’t feel oppressed; rather the opposite. We are privileged to be here, and it strikes me as fantastic to compare the fate of an MIT research assistant to the archetype of the oppressed worker.
Prospects for unionization are unclear and compromises at this stage have been poorly defined by SSG. This is not a free lunch and, indeed, it is not certain that all the manna is coming. Continuing the dialogue on this front is essential and I hope we can respectfully engage in the coming weeks before a decision is taken.
Jackson Mejia is a graduate student in economics at MIT.