Update on MIT GSU-UE’s petition to add fellows to the current bargaining unit

On November 16, 2022, MIT informed graduate students, faculty, and staff who work closely with graduate students that the MIT GSU-UE filed a petition1 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to add graduate students on fellowships to the current collective bargaining unit of RAs, TAs, and Instructor Gs2. The NLRB held a hearing on this petition from October 19-24, where MIT and the union presented their respective positions on the petition.

On November 10, MIT filed a post-hearing brief detailing why the Institute maintains, as it did this past spring, 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. Specifically, in the brief, MIT argues that:

Unlike the student-employees in the current bargaining unit of research assistants (“RAs”), teaching assistants (“TAs”), and instructor Gs, fellows have no service requirements tied to their fellowship awards. They are not required to work on a particular faculty member/principal investigator’s (“PI”) research project or course in order to maintain their funding. Instead, their fellowship funding is akin to a scholarship, and they receive such funding to pursue their own academic programs and objectives. A fellow retains their fellowship award so long as they make satisfactory academic progress, which is a baseline requirement for all students to maintain active enrollment status at MIT.

During the NLRB hearing, the union argued that a graduate student’s thesis research amounts to employment service for MIT, and, therefore, all fellows are employees because they perform thesis research and also receive financial assistance from the Institute. In its brief, MIT highlights several serious concerns with the union’s argument, including:

…If thesis research is deemed equivalent to employment services, as [the union] argues, then the time an international student spends on thesis research would count toward the 20/hr-week employment cap set by federal immigration law for these students. 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, at a minimum, would require significantly more time to obtain their degrees as compared to their domestic-student peers.

MIT’s concerns about the union’s argument extend beyond students on fellowship awards. Specifically, if the NLRB were to accept the union’s position that thesis research is equivalent to employment, this would mean:

…International graduate students on full-time TA appointments would not be able to conduct any research during the terms in which they hold TA appointments.

International graduate students on full-time RA appointments would not be able to conduct any research beyond the 20 hours/week spent performing their RA duties, even if their RA research is entirely distinct from, and does not advance, their thesis research—as is the case in several of MIT’s departments.

For international students on full fellowship awards, MIT would be required to cap their total research time at 20 hours per week.

Any international students who exceed 20 hours of weekly research work would be in violation of the terms of their visas and subject to deportation.

Moreover, in all of these situations above, the MIT brief makes the case that if fellows are determined to be employees and included in the current collective bargaining unit…

…international students would experience substantial delays in their ability to advance their academic work and, accordingly, would require additional semesters (if not years) to graduate. And, ironically, a student’s receipt of a full-time RA or TA appointment—which is a mechanism for providing financial assistance to a student so they can pursue their academic program—would actually prohibit an international student from separately pursuing the very academic program that the RA/TA appointment was meant to support in the first place.

Those wishing to learn more about the position MIT outlines in the brief can read:

The MIT GSU-UE, in parallel, filed their own post-hearing brief. The NLRB will now review both briefs. It will likely be several weeks or months before the NLRB issues a decision. In the meantime, MIT remains committed to negotiating in good faith with the union over the terms and conditions of employment for student-employees currently in the bargaining unit.

1Representation petitions are filed by employees or unions seeking to have the NLRB conduct an election to determine if employees wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining with their employer (source).

2See the full description of the current bargaining unit.

3Students in F-1 or J-1 status are allowed to work on campus (at MIT, for MIT, paid by MIT) up to 20 hours per week while school is in session (fall and spring semesters). Students can work on campus more than 20 hours a week only during official Institute vacation periods of at least one week in length (IAP, Spring Break, summer).

4Argument sections:

I. Graduate students on fellowship awards at the Institute are not employees within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the act.

II. The petitioner’s legal arguments are flawed and its rebuttal evidence is insufficient to establish that fellows are employees under the act.

III. The petitioner’s contention that all research done by a fellow constitutes employment work is erroneous and can lead to adverse and unintended consequences for the Institute, the petitioner and to the fellows.

IV. Similar public sector case law supports MIT’s position that fellows who are not expected to provide any services to their universities are not employees.

V. Industry practice supports MIT’s position because other collective bargaining agreements have excluded fellows, or those with comparable titles, from units of graduate research and teaching assistants.