Why an “Open Shop” is Better for Graduate Students in the Bargaining Unit

As MIT and the Graduate Student Union (GSU-UE) negotiate a first contract, one critical area of disagreement is whether the collective bargaining agreement will include a “union shop” or an “open shop.”  The GSU-UE is demanding a union shop arrangement, which would take away student choice by requiring all RAs, TAs, and Instructor Gs to join and pay dues or, at a minimum, pay agency fees to the GSU-UE. Membership dues are estimated to be $670+/year for the average full-time appointment (based on current funding levels).

While union shops are fairly common among staff unions, the relationship between MIT and its graduate students is not a typical one-dimensional, employer-employee relationship. Students come to MIT principally to study under the direction of MIT faculty. MIT is committed to preserving this fundamental academic relationship and wishes to avoid situations where current students may face unnecessary obstacles to completing their degrees, or where prospective students may decide to go elsewhere.

MIT believes the GSU-UE’s demand is misguided because it would:

  • Eliminate student choice
  • Introduce an outside fee on bargaining unit members’ ability to pursue their academic programs
  • Interfere with students’ ability to complete their degrees if they do not pay, and
  • Potentially impact MIT’s competitiveness in attracting new students

Instead of a union shop, MIT is proposing an “open shop,” which would allow bargaining unit members, both today and in the future, to decide for themselves whether or not to join the union and pay dues or agency fees to the GSU-UE.

The information below summarizes MIT’s key concerns with the GSU-UE’s position on the question of whether the contract should allow for an open shop or a union shop.


MIT’s Position: Open Shop

  • Students in the bargaining unit are free to choose union membership and would not be forced to pay dues or agency fees to the GSU-UE. All bargaining unit members, regardless of whether they decide to join the union or not, would still benefit from the provisions of a final contract.
  • An open shop would also make the GSU-UE responsible for regularly proving its effectiveness, and the value of its representation, to attract new members.

GSU-UE Position: Union Shop

  • Students in the bargaining unit, both today and into the future, will be forced to pay dues or agency fees to the GSU-UE, or lose their TA, RA, or Instructor G positions. This would include students who voted against the GSU-UE last spring as well as new students who have had no voice in the decision to unionize or the current negotiations.
  • A union shop would require bargaining unit members who are opposed to the UE’s political philosophies and positions (e.g., nuclear energy and Israel [1]) to provide financial support to the UE.
  • Finally, by forcing all bargaining unit members to pay dues or fees, a union shop would reduce the incentive for the GSU-UE to show its effectiveness, and the value of its representation, in order to attract new members.

Extra Fees

MIT’s Position: Open Shop

  • $0 with an open shop.
  • No mandatory dues/fees unless a student proactively decides to join the union.

GSU-UE Position: Union Shop

  • $670+ per year in dues for a unit member with an average full-time appointment (based on current funding levels) with a union shop.
  • Requiring graduate students to pay a third-party organization in order to hold any RA/TA/Instructor G appointments amounts to a fee on their ability to pursue their degrees.

Academic Impact

MIT’s Position: Open Shop

  • An open shop will in no way impact students’ academic progress. It would protect students from the additional requirements and stress involved with financially supporting the GSU-UE.

GSU-UE Position: Union Shop

  • A union shop could inflict unintended and harmful consequences because bargaining unit members who fail to pay dues/fees would be discharged from the RA/TA/Instructor G positions that fund their education.

MIT Competitiveness

MIT’s Position: Open Shop

  • MIT remains focused on its mission: providing world-class education and research.
  • The choice and flexibility provided under an open shop is essential for many current and prospective students.
  • Securing an open shop arrangement would help MIT continue to attract talented students from all over the world.

GSU-UE Position: Union Shop

  • MIT may be placed at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting students, given that most universities in our peer group do not have unions/union shops for graduate student-employees. Neither unionized Harvard nor Columbia have union shops.
  • Union shops are outlawed in the public sector and, in the private sector, in 26 states. No public schools with unions have union shops, such as the University of Washington or University of California schools. Other peers do not have unions at all, such as Cal Tech and Princeton.

A Deeper Dive Into the Issue

  • The GSU-UE bargaining unit has higher turnover compared to staff unions because students only hold their graduate appointments for a temporary period of time. This means that:
    • Most of the voters from last April’s unionization vote will be gone within a few years; and
    • New students coming in will have had no voice on unionization.
  • Some students have voiced opposition to the UE’s political philosophy and positions on certain issues (e.g., nuclear energy and Israel [1]) and do not want to be affiliated with the organization or financially support it – especially since two-thirds of dues payments would go directly to support the UE, rather than the GSU[2]. Indeed, some students have already urged the administration not to agree to a union shop for this reason.
  • With an open shop, bargaining unit members would be free to join and pay dues on their own and the GSU-UE would still have ample opportunity to recruit students. For example, MIT has already agreed during contract negotiations that the union will have access to certain orientation events, as well as access to directory information of unit members, and are free to solicit students to become union members and pay dues voluntarily.

1 See “The UE Isn’t the Union the GSU Claims It Is,” The Tech, Nov. 3, 2021.

This update is intended to provide factual information about a topic of great interest to MIT and the GSU-UE. As bargaining continues and new information becomes available, MIT’s and the union’s positions on this issue may evolve.