Without a union, MIT is failing GRAs and undergraduates alike
Broken buildings and precarious housing can’t be fixed by individual action
As a graduate resident advisor (GRA), I provide guidance, resources, and a sense of community to the undergraduate students that live in MIT’s residential facilities. I live with and get to know my residents, help them build community with each other through social events, and support them as they navigate the challenges of being college students. Interviewing to be a GRA at MIT is a very thorough process, involving multiple rounds of interviews with both housing staff and students. In return for GRA-ing, I do not pay rent for my room. While working for an institution that plans for graduate student-workers to be severely rent burdened, the ability to save money on a graduate stipend is a huge financial advantage.
Starting my first semester as a GRA last fall, I was thrilled to get started and meet all my residents. However, I quickly discovered numerous issues. When I moved into my room, the ceiling leaked every time it rained. It stayed this way for three months. MIT administration has neglected to maintain their buildings for years, all while charging the same price for a crumbling building. Simple tasks like repairing the washer are left on hold for months with no update on when the repairs will be performed. MIT has identified over $2 billion in maintenance backlog on campus, and by their own admission, many of the undergraduate houses are in “poor condition.”
Like many other GRAs, I quickly discovered how hard it was to advocate for myself in this role. When submitting requests for repairs, my concerns were quickly written off as a personal failure rather than an earnest request. In response to issues with heating that left me working in my room at my desk in a down jacket and sleeping in my winter camping sleeping bag liner, I was advised to use the thermostat. Trying to maintain adequate living conditions was exhausting, frustrating, and totally disruptive to my research, my studies, and my GRA responsibilities.
I was placed in the precarious situation of having to report concerns to the very people that could drop me as a GRA at any time for any reason. (The GRA agreement states: “An appointment may be terminated at any time if your House Leadership and/or Residential Education determine you are not fulfilling all written expectations and/or the responsibility of the role”). Initially, I felt like I didn’t have a right to raise concerns about my living situation — “You don’t pay rent,” I would tell myself. “How can you possibly complain?” The extent of the issues with my living space ultimately left me without a choice, but coordinating meetings with MIT’s administration requires immense effort despite inconsistent results.
These issues are not uncommon for GRAs. Moreover, it’s not just GRAs who are affected by building negligence. The students living in these houses deserve to have a building that is liveable and fully functioning. And if we as GRAs can’t even get our own heating fixed in a reasonable time, how can we possibly help our undergraduates overcome their own challenges at MIT?
How would a union help?
When the union reached out to me after hearing about my ceiling, they provided me with legal resources and support, even before being officially recognized. It was immensely helpful to have a group of fellow graduate student-workers helping me figure out how to navigate my situation, especially because I had exhausted all formal channels.
With a union, GRAs and all other graduate students will have the collective power we need to resolve our issues. We would be able to:
Negotiate a contract: GRA working and living conditions are related to the larger housing issue, which will be a major concern in negotiations with MIT.
File grievances: With a union, GRAs could file grievances to resolve our issues together rather than being forced to deal with them as isolated individuals who can easily be ignored.
Have a permanent organization to fight for our needs: MIT has already shown, and is showing right now, that they do respond to pressure when we’re organized. The union provides an ongoing organization that can apply that pressure when we need it.
Graduate students deserve decent living conditions, and a union can provide the support for even niche situations like mine to make sure my voice is heard. To win our union, we need to show MIT that we are united by signing the VOTE YES PETITION and showing up to vote yes for our union April 4–5.
Sydney Dolan is a third-year PhD student in AeroAstro and a GRA of a sorority.
Ki-Jana Carter is a fifth-year PhD student in Materials Science and Engineering and a GRA in Baker House.
Alyssa Rudelis is a fourth-year PhD student in Physics and a GRA in Maseeh Hall.
Editor’s Note: It should be noted that GRAs who are not separately employed as a research assistant, teaching assistant, or instructor G and undergraduates are not eligible to vote per the National Labor Relations Board’s requirements. According to a recent letter from Chancellor Melissa Nobles and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, MIT is not legally obligated to and would not negotiate over housing as a part of collective bargaining because the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America would represent “just a portion of [its] graduate students” and that “labor bargaining is primarily about the terms and conditions of employment.”