Stanford graduate student-workers launch unionization campaign

April 3, 2023, 5:32 a.m.

Graduate student advocates at Stanford are publicly launching a campaign to unionize graduate student-workers Monday morning in what is shaping up to be a watershed moment for labor relations at Stanford and across higher education.

If successful, a collectivization effort would be a “complete game-changer” by giving graduate student-workers contractual bargaining power with University administration, according to Katherine Whatley, a fourth-year Japanese literature Ph.D. student and Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU) organizer.

The potentially transformative move would offer all students who earn money from the University, a group of approximately 5,000 students primarily composed of master’s and Ph.D. students, the right to join the nationally-affiliated SGWU.

The interest in launching a union at Stanford comes amid a rising tide of graduate student-union momentum at peer institutions across the country. Following a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2016 that enshrined the right of all graduate student employees to organize and collectively bargain with their academic institution, student workers at six of the top 10 universities in the country have launched unions at their respective schools.

The push for increased organizational power at Stanford through unionization is rooted in concerns over what organizers see as an inherently asymmetrical power dynamic between graduate student-workers and the University.

Whatley cited housing as an example of the unique relationship between graduate-student workers and administration at Stanford. Because of the high-priced housing markets in the Bay Area, students often have no feasible option other than to live on campus, giving the University a unique amount of power as both the landlord and primary employer of graduate student-workers.

“[The University knows] how much money we make,” she said. “They take home a lot of that money, and sometimes a majority of that money, for unaffordable housing.”

According to Whatley, this is just one puzzle piece of the larger affordability problem for graduate student-workers, a persistent issue that Whatley said the University has failed to adequately address. She added that graduate students have attempted to advocate for change “through the means provided by Stanford,” such as the Graduate Student Council (GSC), but they “have just not seen that any of those channels have worked.”

Earlier this year, the GSC passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in the University in response to administration’s perceived inaction on affordability issues. The vote followed the announcement of a cost-of-living adjustment of graduate student wages for the 2023-24 academic year that fell below inflation rates for the third year in a row.

University spokesperson Stett Holbrook wrote in a statement to The Daily that the University “[works] hard” to “understand, appreciate and be responsive to” Stanford graduate students’ needs.

“To that end, the university has taken a number of actions in recent years, including 12 months of funding each year for at least five years, expanded supplemental need-based support and 100 percent coverage of the Cardinal Care health insurance premium for doctoral students,” Holbrook wrote. “With regard to assistantships, it’s important to note that the minimum assistantship for the 2023-2024 academic year represents a base rate of pay. Many doctoral students receive more.”

For many graduate student-workers, the University plays several roles. As Ph.D. students, individuals are required to earn funding for their studies through research assistantships or teaching assistantships. In exchange, students earn stipends averaging around $13,000 quarterly on their way to a degree. Throughout that process, graduate students also are able to earn recognition by publishing research and academic work under the aegis of Stanford. 

Still, graduate student-workers argue that they are unable to earn an adequate living wage at Stanford, and that the University’s role as an academic institution, an employer and a landlord gives administrators control over nearly every aspect of student lives, stifling individual advocacy efforts.

This nearly unchecked power, according to the unionization organizers, is part and parcel of what allows Stanford to function so efficiently as an elite research institution while also bringing in over $100 million in surplus most years. According to William Gould, a labor law professor and former chair of the NLRB, it’s not a power that they will readily give up.

“I think the University’s reaction will be hostile,” Gould said. “Traditionally, many employers in the private sector resist unions because unions mean a democratic system in the workplace. It means that there will be an impartial way of resolving differences during the term of the agreement by bringing in a neutral arbitrator giving the workers a voice in shaping their own employment, status and destiny. That doesn’t sit well with many employers who want to control that themselves.”

Whatley said that organizers are concerned that the University will use “scare tactics” to attempt to discourage unionization. “We call on Stanford to be neutral and allow us, as workers who have the right to organize and who have the right to collective bargaining, to form a union,” she said.

According to Holbrook, the University “would never retaliate against anyone for engaging in protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act.”

Part of what makes public support of unionization so daunting for Stanford students, and why representatives from the SGWU say their group has worked so furtively toward unionization, is the University’s track record as a stark opponent of unionization.

According to Gould, Stanford has shown its willingness to fight “tooth and nail” against budding union efforts. In 2016, Stanford signed onto a legal challenge against student unionization, arguing that collective bargaining intrudes upon the academic freedom of private universities, and that it could worsen relations between students and the administration.

“Stanford considers graduate students to be students, not employees. Academic decisions with respect to graduate students should be made by the University and not by outside parties, including unions,” wrote former Stanford spokesperson Lisa Lapin in a 2016 statement to The Daily.

Holbrook partially reiterated this stance in the latest statement, writing: “We believe that our relationship with graduate students is first and foremost an educational one.”

Regardless of the University’s position on unions, there is no ambiguity about the legality of such an action. Retaliation against individuals for supporting or joining a union is expressly prohibited and students could take the University to court for treating supporters unfairly.

The one holdup, Gould said, is that the law moves slowly: “Justice delayed is justice denied. On the other hand, this union should feel relatively confident because I think that this is the most pro-labor NLRB since the end of World War II.”

Whatley said that graduate student-workers want to show the University that they have “solidarity with each other” and “strength in numbers,” adding that unionization is protected under state and federal law and that international graduate student-workers are also “safe” and “encouraged” to participate.

Unionization efforts at other universities have given Stanford organizers “a huge sense of solidarity and inspiration,” Whatley said. “We’re coming on this huge wave of graduate student union activity.”

Last November, 48,000 academic workers across the University of California (UC) system went on strike to demand fair compensation, public transit subsidies and improvements regarding childcare, job security and other issues. The strike, which ended in December, was the largest among academic workers in U.S. history.

At Stanford, the steps that SGWU leadership must take next to unionize are set clearly in front of them. Having already affiliated with the national United Electrical Workers (UE) union, the organizers will now seek official support from the student body. While the legal threshold for unionization is only 30%, in order to build an effective union, more than 50% of the eligible graduate student community has to sign onto “cards,” or authorization forms, indicating their willingness to join the union. SGWU is aiming higher, according to Whatley — the organizers hope to achieve closer to 65% support as a show of solidarity.

Whatley said that the implications of a successful unionization effort would extend beyond Stanford.

“If we have a union here, that will mean that there will be a whole new generation of students who will go on to run companies, maybe start companies, be professors, hold all kinds of jobs, perhaps hold positions in politics,” who will know about and be part of a union, Whatley said. “And that’s a complete game-changer.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the Stanford Solidarity Network (SSN) is now the Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU) and include comments from the University.

Tammer Bagdasarian '24 is an Executive Editor for The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. He previously served as a News Managing Editor. Contact him at tbagdasarian 'at' stanforddaily.comAnne Li '24 is a news desk editor, staff writer and former beat reporter. Contact her at anneli ‘at’

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