From the Community | Why undergraduates should support the unionization effort

April 5, 2023, 5:37 p.m.

This week, Stanford’s graduate students joined the nationwide movement for the unionization of academic workers. After years of organizing the University’s nearly 10,000 graduate students, graduate student workers announced plans to unionize, marking the occasion with a rally and thousands of signed cards. This year has already been marked by major actions by the graduate body at Stanford: the Graduate Student Council (GSC), for example, held a momentous Vote of No Confidence in the administration and circulated a petition to demand support from Stanford on skyrocketing affordability issues. The move to unionize and create a legal structure for graduate student representation is an immense step in building power to make much-needed changes.

It’s a cause for celebration that our teaching and course assistants who shape our undergraduate experience can better advocate for pay raises and researchers can campaign for improved conditions. Stanford graduate students are in one of the most precarious positions of all graduate workers in the country — the affordability crisis in the Bay Area, with which we are all intimately familiar, has dramatically pushed up housing prices and living costs to an unlivable point for many. Graduate students earn around 50k per year, based on Stanford’s minimum salary data and Graduate Student Solidarity Network reports, which classifies them as very low income in Santa Clara County. According to graduate organizer and PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures Kat Whatley, most Stanford graduate student workers are paying well over the federally recommended 30% of income limit for monthly rent, making them rent-burdened. These conditions mean graduate students who are not single, childless and debt-free are extremely squeezed financially and often cannot choose to conduct research and further their educations at Stanford at all. This is unacceptable, particularly when these student workers are employed by one of the richest universities in the world.

Unionization has the potential to change this, improving not only the lives of graduate students but also our lives and education as undergraduates. While graduate students face some unique challenges, many of their concerns are shared by the entire student body and the Stanford community as a whole. The unaffordability of on and off campus housing squeezes all of our finances. The dearth of free, expansive, accessible transportation makes all of our lives on campus more difficult. Lack of diversity in the graduate student body constrains the knowledge and experience that we all can learn from in our courses and research. Our central concerns are shared.

Affordability is a central field of collective concern across all levels of the student body. High rents for graduate students dissuade undergraduates from pursuing postgraduate education at Stanford — who but those without student debt and financial obligations can afford rents that are often 50% or more of graduate salaries — and mirror rising undergraduate housing costs that put many students in a financial bind.

Both undergraduate and graduate students can rarely elect to live in cheaper housing because it simply doesn’t exist at Stanford (the average rent in Palo Alto is $3,485 a month). Our undergraduate student body has an extremely high percentage of students living on campus despite students not being required to live here — around 98% of us live in University housing — largely because there is so little affordable housing off campus, severely constraining housing options, and many students on financial aid do not receive the support they need to pay for housing on campus.

Graduate students too are disproportionately constrained to on-campus housing, unlike most graduate students at other peer institutions, and as mentioned above are often rent-burdened by housing costs in University apartments. Graduate organizers have thus established that housing affordability is a central concern of the union effort, committing to fighting for affordable housing on campus. Unionization could transform the field from which students can advocate for University changes around affordability, building precedent for more affordable undergraduate housing and making graduate studies at Stanford more accessible to current undergraduates.

These shared benefits are also quite clear in issues of transportation. With wide-reaching ramifications for affordability, equity and safety, Marguerite expansion has been one of the most discussed issues of the year. Without these lines and a holistic, accessible transit system, both undergraduate and graduate students struggle to find safe transportation at night, access resources like grocery stores and pharmacies and get off campus with the same ease as students with cars. Students have fought to reinstate pre-COVID lines, extend hours and make transportation generally more accessible. Just a couple of weeks ago, after an aligned push from the Undergraduate Senate (UGS) and GSC, administrators announced that they were considering piloting a return of the Shopping Express line. When this was confirmed at a GSC meeting, members said that they would continue to champion full reinstatement. A graduate student union could be extremely powerful in this effort as a legal entity that can push for these demands.

Low wages for teaching assistantships and research positions, inaccessible and expensive mental and physical healthcare resources, and public safety systems that fail to protect us and instead target communities of color are among other concerns the union has the potential to transform. All are critical issues on campus, and steps by administration to ease them have been minimal. These shared priorities are already targets of joint resolutions between the GSC and UGS, but resolutions alone don’t always lead to change.

A union can be a more powerful force that the University must take seriously. Union organizers have also expressed excitement when it comes to partnerships with undergraduates on unique concerns for us as well, committing to support us on our biggest issues.

To undergraduates reading this, do not give weight to fear-mongering that a graduate student union will be bad for us in any way. Claims that increasing graduate pay or subsidizing their housing will increase costs for undergraduates is a scare tactic to divide us — Stanford has the resources to do right by all of its students. Building student democracy through collective bargaining on the graduate level is an opportunity for all of us to grow our power in shaping Stanford. This is a long fight, and our public support is crucial to the union campaign’s success. To learn more about the union, please visit the union’s website. If you would like to help support efforts directly as an undergraduate, you can reach out to [email protected] and sign on to the undergraduate letter of support for the union.

Sarah Reyes is a sophomore majoring in Urban Studies and Sociology. She organizes for workers’ rights and housing justice with Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) at Stanford.

Danny Sallis is a sophomore studying Computer Science. He also organizes with SWR.

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