From the Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU): Our proposed platform

April 3, 2023, 5:30 a.m.

Today, after many years of graduate student organizing, Stanford graduate workers will finally get the chance to join many of our peer institutions and unionize. This is a great day to be a graduate student at Stanford. Although we have talked to many of you face-to-face, you may still reasonably ask: what does the Stanford Graduate Workers Union stand for? How will my needs and concerns be addressed by joining a union? In response to these excellent questions, we share our platform below and invite you to visit our union website here or attend a union information session on April 6 at 6:30 p.m. in EVGR B 144. These are only some of the things for which we stand; this list will only continue to evolve as the union grows to hear and represent every graduate worker on campus.

Our proposed platform

As Stanford graduate workers, we know that Stanford works because we do. We conduct research and teaching integral to the University’s operation, reputation, and mission. We also know, however, that as graduate workers almost all of us are forced to navigate unjust working conditions in some form during our academic careers at Stanford.

SGWU is fighting for a union because the problems we face as graduate workers are solvable. We believe that the ability to engage in collective bargaining with the University administration — in other words, participation in the decision-making that affects us — will help us build a Stanford where all graduate workers can thrive.

Our proposed platform, which consists of five core points, emerged from the preliminary results of the Institutional Research & Decision Support (IR&DS) Expenses Survey (AY 2022-23), the Graduate Student Council (GSC) Summer Affordability Survey and Bill on Affordability (October 2022), the GSC petition (February 2023), the results of the IR&DS Ph.D. Exit Survey, the IDEAL Survey, and thousands of conversations between workers over recent years. This proposed platform, inspired by the gains of other graduate worker unions, is just a starting point. Stanford’s graduate workers will democratically decide what to fight for through a bargaining survey disseminated before contract negotiations.

Ultimately, by participating in this process, graduate workers gain democratic decision-making power in two ways: We build a union that is by us and for us, in which each graduate worker has a voice, and we secure the ability to demand greater fairness, transparency, and democracy in the University operations that impact nearly every aspect of our lives.

SGWU will fight for:

  1. Affordable living conditions for all graduate workers.
  2. Comprehensive benefits for all graduate workers and their dependents.
  3. Safe and healthy workplaces free of power abuse, harassment, and discrimination.
  4. Improved support for international and immigrant graduate workers.
  5. Democratic decision-making power and transparency.

Affordable living conditions for all graduate workers

As the GSC has made clear time and time again, Stanford graduate workers are, and have been for some time, subject to an acute affordability crisis. This crisis disproportionately affects international and immigrant workers, parents, first-generation students, and workers from low-income backgrounds. 

The University recently announced that its AY 2023-24 minimum assistantship stipend will be $50,616. This figure falls significantly below the “Very Low Income Limit” of $59,000 for a 1-person household in Santa Clara County established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in FY 2022.* This will be the third consecutive year that our salaries have not kept pace with inflation — in other words, our real wages have gone down each year for the last three years. Meanwhile, Stanford’s cost of living calculations show that in AY 2023-24, approximately 48% of our stipends will go to rent; we graduate workers know that, for many of us, this figure is significantly higher.** This percentage has increased steadily over the last decade: In 2013, it was just over 40%.

Stanford is our employer and often our landlord. We live in an area with one of the highest costs of living in the country, and the math just isn’t that complicated. We need a living wage, annual raises that match the rising cost of housing and inflation rates, public transportation and parking subsidies, an expansion of Marguerite shuttle routes and schedules, the elimination of graduate worker fees, and housing that is actually affordable. We recommend that Stanford reduce rents charged by Residential and Dining Enterprises (R&DE), as graduate housing in particular is subsidized by taxpayers via property tax waivers.

We emphasize that the needs of graduate workers and faculty are often mutually aligned. We advocate for the elimination or reduction of graduate tuition, a decrease in overhead costs, and the elimination of Terminal Graduation Registration (TGR) tuition. By minimizing the tuition rates charged to principal investigators, external grants will be able to support increased labor and material costs.

A living wage is a critical step on the path to achieving racial and class-based equity, which are persistently skewed in many Stanford doctoral programs.

* As the GSC has pointed out, the margin between Stanford’s minimum assistantship stipend and the region’s “Very Low Income Limit” as stipulated by HUD far outpaces the corresponding margins for Stanford’s peer institutions.

**  The federal government defines a household as “rent burdened” when more than 30% of its income goes to rent and as “severely rent burdened” when more than 50% of its income goes to rent.

Comprehensive benefits for all graduate workers and their dependents

More than one in three respondents to the IR&DS Expenses Survey reported that they had foregone medical, dental, or vision care because they could not afford it. Many of us have had the experience of having our requests for reimbursement for medical expenses from the Emergency Grant-in-Aid fund rejected arbitrarily, or of struggling to obtain adequate mental healthcare. Meanwhile, the Graduate Family Grant fund provides each household with up to $20,000 in support, even though, as the GSC notes, the cost of childcare alone in our area ranges from $20,400 to $28,880. These conditions render graduate work and academic professions significantly less accessible to all of us, and especially to those with chronic illnesses and disabilities. There is currently no recognition of rights for graduate workers with disabilities as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Office of Accessible Education (OAE) policy changes are difficult to track.

The University must provide full dental and vision coverage, expand mental healthcare options, increase the number of mental healthcare workers at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) so that every graduate worker has access to a therapist they trust, offer health insurance for dependents at no additional cost, eliminate the Vaden Health Fee, grant at least one quarter of paid medical leave with guaranteed placement in housing, and allow graduate workers to enroll in a retirement plan.

Moreover, we need parental leave for graduate workers, lactation rooms, and access to subsidized child and elder care. Comprehensive benefits have been shown to contribute to gender inclusion and equity, which are persistently skewed in many Stanford doctoral programs.

Safe and healthy workplaces free of power abuse, harassment, and discrimination

The results of the IDEAL Survey demonstrated that power abuse, harassment, and discrimination are rampant at Stanford — and that these issues are magnified for those of us who hold one or more marginalized identities. All too often, we are left with few to no good options for resolving situations that impede our ability to do our work and cause us physical and psychological harm, as institutional channels for reporting are often designed to protect the University instead of us. As a result, our experiences end in silencing, intimidation, and retaliation rather than justice, transformation, and healing.

We need a fair, efficient, and effective grievance procedure through which graduate workers can choose to resolve power abuse, harassment, discrimination, and retaliation issues with the support of a union advocate; a neutral, third-party arbiter in cases in which the graduate worker and union advocate are unable to come to an agreement with the University; union representation in disciplinary proceedings; clear, transparent standards for disciplinary proceedings themselves; and collectively negotiated contingency plans for graduate workers when a supervisor is publicly accused of abuse. In addition, Stanford must improve its policies around race, gender, and disability justice, and we should have a say in the development of these policies.

We will fight for improvements to our work conditions, including the maximum research and teaching load that can be required of graduate workers by their supervisors, professional feedback and development, and performance evaluation. Stanford Ph.D. students rank the availability of faculty, program structure and requirements, and work commitments as the top three most significant obstacles to academic progress. We need professional workplace standards to remedy these problems.

Improved support for international and immigrant graduate workers

International and immigrant students constitute a significant portion of the graduate worker body, yet those of us who are not U.S. citizens face significant logistical and financial barriers that interfere with our work on a daily basis.

We will fight for reimbursements for visa fees, a grievance procedure for graduate workers who have been unjustly terminated and fear deportation, improved legal resources as well as tax and immigration counseling for international and immigrant workers and their dependents, paid leave for immigration hearings and foreign elections, flexibility for workers returning to their home country to visit loved ones or renew visas, strengthened resources for workers navigating culture shock and a lack of community, and the University’s promise not to allow entry or provide information to governmental agencies about graduate workers for the purposes of detention or deportation based on immigration status.

Democratic decision-making power and transparency

Despite the fact that the research and teaching we provide are indispensable to Stanford, we exercise little power in Stanford’s decision-making processes. The GSC supports unionization because its recommendations are consistently dismissed and ignored, and are in no way binding for administrators. As the GSC noted in its recent petition, this year the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education promised to consult the GSC before setting the minimum graduate assistantship stipend for AY 2023-24, only to next contact the GSC 48 hours after publicly announcing that stipend.

Stanford must guarantee graduate worker representation at all levels of the University, including seats on the full Board of Trustees. Graduate workers must hold voting power on the issues that affect them, which include everything ranging from graduate housing to the University’s investments to campus safety policy.

Tania Flores, Gabriela Basel, Hanon McShea and the Stanford Graduate Workers Union

Tania Flores is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures. Her research focuses on race, gender, and empire in modern Spanish cultural production. She was born in Cuernavaca, México and raised in northern California.

Gabriela Basel is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Chemical Engineering. She studies disease progression simulations for healthcare decision-making.

Hanon McShea is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Earth System Science. Hanon studies the dynamics of protein evolution on long timescales, particularly enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of biological membranes.

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