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MIT workers rally for pay raise, new contract

Anna Lamb
MIT workers rally for pay raise, new contract
MIT workers represented by SEIU 32BJ demonstrate in Cambridge. PHOTO: ANNA LAMB

Dozens of Massachusetts Institute of Technology custodians, carpenters, tradespeople and their supporters rallied on the university’s campus last Wednesday, calling for a new contract in the wake of pandemic-induced economic hardship facing workers across the country.

Represented by local 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the group says nearly 600 workers are calling on MIT to provide better wages without a proposed drug testing policy they believe penalizes employees who continued to show up throughout COVID shutdowns despite health risks and uncertainty.

“Today we’re fighting for fair wages and a strong contract without punitive drug testing,” said Tony Anzalone, a custodial foreman who’s worked at MIT for 26 years. “You should not have that — especially for the essential people that came in, like so many fellow 32BJ members at MIT. I came into work every day during the shutdown, like everybody else did and worked hard. We deserve this contract.”

Union representatives have been in negotiations with MIT for months. With a contract originally set to expire June 30, the deadline to reach a new agreement has already been extended twice. In at least one proposal set forth by MIT officials, workers were offered a 1.5% raise if they agreed to an additional term of changing the university’s drug testing policy from its current stipulation. Presently, MIT tests for drugs if there is an accident involving a vehicle, and the change would test people “on suspicion,” according to 32BJ SEIU.

Employees said Wednesday that they want more.

Neil Cunningham, an MIT employee for 33 years, stressed the costs that COVID had for the essential workforce that continued to do in-person work throughout the pandemic.

“We came to work, you guys didn’t. It’s time to get down to brass tacks and talk money,” he said.

Wednesday’s rally, which took place on the steps of the MIT Student Center, was also attended by state Rep. Marjorie Decker, whose district largely covers the city of Cambridge. She spoke out against the university’s attempt to mandate drug testing in order to increase wages.

“As somebody who grew up in poverty, and also somebody who has worked on poverty, mental health and substance use issues as a policymaker, the common denominator to ensuring that children’s mental health is actually attended to is making sure their parents are not struggling in poverty,” she said. “If you care about substance use, then you do not penalize your workforce. You do not make it something that people have to be afraid of addressing.”

Many of those in attendance to support custodial staff also donned the red T-shirts of MIT’s graduate student union that formed in spring — a symbol to many of the changing face of national unionization.

“Coming here on a college campus, where you have different pots of people doing this work that are also wanting to fight for their working conditions — it’s an exciting time,” 32BJ SEIU Executive Vice President Roxana Rivera said. “As we start the school year here at MIT, and the MIT graduate students are organizing for their contract, there’s solidarity lines that are crossed, and that is of value.”

MIT was the latest in a string of prestigious universities where graduate students formed a union, after students working nearly 40 hours a week in labs and on teaching responsibilities began to demand compensation for their contributions to their departments.

Jonathan Tagoe, a second-year mechanical engineering student, spoke in solidarity with MIT workers, pointing to the marginal increases in proposed contracts.

“After their endowment grew by 55% to $27 billion [last] year, with inflation going up to 9%, they said you all can get 1.5% wage [increases]. That’s a pay cut from MIT,” Tagoe said. “We’re not going to sit still, we’re not going to be quiet. We’re fighting because we know that’s the only way for us to win the contracts that we deserve.”

The rally ended with a march through campus, including though some of the university’s halls, as workers and their supporters chanted slogans such as “When we fight, we win.”

Representatives say they hope to have a final contract as soon as possible, with the negotiation deadline extended to Sept. 30.