Why MIT Does Not Believe Fellows are Employees

Since before the April 2022 election of the GSU-UE, one ongoing area of disagreement between union leaders and MIT involves the potential inclusion in the bargaining unit of graduate student fellows. (These are students who have fellowship awards and who do not also have partial research assistant (RA), teaching assistant (TA), or Instructor G appointments.)

As is the case for all graduate students in research-based programs, fellows have rigorous academic requirements, which include original research toward a thesis. However, the Institute maintains now, as it did before, that:

  • Graduate student fellows are students only–not employees–and therefore are not eligible to be in the MIT GSU-UE’s collective bargaining unit;
  • Equating a student’s thesis research to employment service for MIT (as the GSU-UE seeks to do) may lead to significant negative impacts for MIT’s international students, who are subject to 20-hour/week employment caps during academic terms; and
  • Including fellows in the bargaining unit may lead to a loss of other important flexibilities that currently come with fellowships:
    • More flexibility in academic research opportunities; and
    • More flexibility during transitional funding periods.

Despite these concerns, the GSU-UE has continued to advocate for the inclusion of fellows in the bargaining unit and filed a petition last fall with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking a ruling that would allow them to vote on whether to join the existing bargaining unit.

In March, the regional director of the NLRB issued a decision holding that the graduate student fellows in the GSU-UE’s petition are not employees under federal labor law because they are not required to perform services to MIT in exchange for their fellowship funding. The regional director also explained that international students would suffer a “grave disadvantage” if the union’s arguments were adopted. The GSU-UE is now seeking an appeal of the NLRB regional director’s decision by the full Board of the NLRB in Washington, DC.

The 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.

Fellows are Students Only, not Employees


  • Students who are on MIT fellowships receive financial support to pursue their academic programs.
    • Unlike students on RA or TA appointments, fellows are not required to perform specific work or services, or work on a faculty member/PI’s specific research project or course, as a condition of receiving their award.
    • Fellows receive their financial support so long as they continue to make satisfactory academic progress.
  • This means they are not employees under federal labors laws.


  • The GSU-UE’s position is significantly broader than the NLRB’s decision in the Columbia case, and does not acknowledge any difference between academic work and employment services.  It ignores the foundational academic relationship between MIT and our graduate students, and is inconsistent with federal research administration requirements, immigration regulations, and federal taxation rules.

Promoting Equity Among All of Our Graduate Students, Including International Students


  • MIT maintains that a student’s thesis research is not equivalent to employment services and should not count toward the weekly employment cap set by federal immigration law for international students.


  • If thesis research is deemed equivalent to employment service, as the GSU-UE argues, then this would result in an inequitable, two-tiered system where MIT’s international students would be unable to dedicate sufficient time to their theses to make satisfactory academic progress or would have longer time-to-degree periods as compared to domestic students.

Promoting Academic Flexibility


  • Fellowships are highly desirable for the freedom and prestige that they bring, among other reasons.


  • Including fellows in the bargaining unit may lead to a loss of flexibility, specifically:
    • Less flexibility in academic research opportunities; and
    • Less flexibility during transitional funding periods.

Additional Information

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.