From the Community | What administrators and faculty should know about graduate student unions

April 12, 2023, 1:57 p.m.

I read with interest the email that the President and Provost sent to the Stanford community with regard to the efforts of Stanford graduate students to unionize. Unfortunately, it contains some basic misunderstandings regarding this activity. I am writing this piece because I believe that if Stanford is going to move toward a more equitable and just set of working conditions for its graduate students, a better grasp of the issue is warranted.

I speak as someone who was involved in organizing as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and who has maintained a keen interest in this topic. This past December, I devoted an episode of my podcast, “Speaking Out of Place,” to interviews with student organizers, strikers and faculty at not only four campuses in the University of California system, but also with their counterparts at the London School of Economics and at other universities and colleges in the United Kingdom, who, as part of the massive University and College Union (UCU), were also on strike.  Of the many notable things I learned was that the activists on both sides were very aware of what was going on across the Atlantic, and that their goals and values were very similar, as were their grievances. What we are witnessing is a seismic shift in post-secondary education and the conditions under which people work.

Let me quote this part of the President’s and Provost’s letter to the Community, which captures the core of my concerns:

We encourage every graduate student to consider closely what it means to become a member of a union, what it means to engage in collective bargaining and what it means to have their educational experience governed by a collective bargaining agreement. It is important to note that, if elected, the union will represent not only today’s graduate students, but also future graduate students, who will not have the same opportunity to vote on union representation.

The impression one gets from these words is that many of the graduate students who are embarking on this effort are naïve and unfamiliar with unions, collective bargaining and the effect unionization might have on future graduate students. It suggests that, rather than work under a collective bargaining agreement which they have helped create, graduate students might prefer to work under conditions over which they have no control, that is, the status quo. The Graduate Student Council’s recent vote of no confidence in the administration should give pause.

In fact, the campaign at Stanford is not unlike the efforts at the UC system, at UCU in the United Kingdom, or the efforts we see at Princeton, Harvard, Duke, Columbia, the New School and elsewhere. So far, in the United States nearly 30,000 graduate students have unionized. Most of these endeavors have been years in the making. Some have been in process for nearly a decade, as working conditions for graduate student workers across the US have steadily deteriorated. Most graduate students consequently know more about this topic than many administrators and faculty — they, not administrators or faculty, have to deal with these radically diminished conditions every single day.

To give a vivid account of their concerns and beliefs, I include below samples of comments I gathered. I cite UK organizers at the London School of Economics on various topics and their counterparts in the University of California system to convey how the grievances of Stanford graduate workers are not at all unique, either in this country or in the UK even. When one realizes this, one can gain a better sense of the dimension, duration and depth of these issues.

Why unionize, why strike?

  • We are here because of the increase in the precarity of the workplace … it’s created a cost of living crisis. It means that we can’t afford basic necessities including food, rent … we’re in crisis mode. Everything is deteriorating. There are race pay gaps, there are gender pay gaps, and there are disability pay gaps, which are atrocious and persistent and structural. And we need to fight back. We need to change the working conditions… Everyone is exhausted all of the time. (UK)
  • These are sector-wide issues that are endemic to higher education in the UK at the moment and that have been brewing and building for a very long time. (UK)
  • We all work at The University. I expect The University to compensate me in a way that allows me to live a decent life. Why would I not expect that? (US)

Workload and Institutional Response and Priorities

  • Whether I have to grade a hundred or 200 or 300 student essays, it’s totally immaterial to the institution as long as they can get me to do it — it doesn’t actually really matter to them. Whereas if you invest money in a big, shiny building, it’s like what (political philosopher) David Harvey calls a spatial fix, right? (UK)
  • [Administrators] want desperately to give students this impression that they are getting this very special education, when in reality those of us who are delivering the teaching are in this incredibly precarious existence and haven’t seen a pay raise in basically forever. (UK)

Commitment to both teaching and research while fighting for decent working conditions

  • A strike is a full-time job. That’s pretty much the best way to put it. It is very disruptive, but there’s also a lot of comradery, we’re all making sure we take care of each other. We have different teach-ins. We’re talking about doing skills shares next week. But the back channels of a strike, it’s a lot of work. I would much rather be teaching. (US)
  • I would rather not be doing this, but I have to do it. That’s, I think, the main takeaway. It matters a lot what we’re fighting for. It matters a lot what we’re doing, and I feel good about what we’re doing, but at the same time, I find joy in pursuing academics. I find joy in being able to be with my colleagues in the classroom. And I enjoy being able to teach. I enjoy being able to work with undergraduate students and help them with their education and furthering themselves. (US)

Bad faith arguments that unionization hurts undergraduates

  • That’s why the argument that the students are the ones that suffer when we go on strike is a totally bad faith argument — if anyone cares about the students, it’s us. If anyone who’s making that argument saw how much extra unpaid work that we put in, they would hopefully recognize that there’s something totally wrong here. (UK)
  • This narrative that the strike is somehow harming undergraduates — that is no different than using undergraduates as a human shield. On top of that, they’re victim blaming, right? They’re actually blaming people who are structurally and systemically and financially and physiologically vulnerable to their hyper-exploitation and blaming them for causing harm to undergraduates. But University of California undergraduate students are not stupid. (US)

Doing this for future graduate students

  • I’m one of those students that is trying to graduate this year. I don’t think I’m ever going to see the finished contract. I’m not going to get any raised wages. I’m not going to get a cost of living adjustment.  But I’m out on the line or I’m here making calls or arrangements or jumping onto podcasts to fight for the people who were coming after me. (US)
  • I’m getting nothing. I don’t want anybody after me to get that. That’s also why I’m fighting for all these other rights. I’ve had access need problems, and I’ve been told, no, your disability isn’t good enough, we don’t believe you. (US)
  • [Comment from UC professor]: So these are the folks who actually have the future of the university in their hearts and on their minds, right? These are the folks who are struggling for that. That’s the other layer of admiration and respect I have for the people who are on strike. (US)

Finally, and very importantly, one should recognize that unionization enjoys a great deal of support from undergraduates, who have spoken at pro-union events and rallies. Graduate students, despite their overwhelming burdens, have shown themselves time and again to be empathetic, diligent and caring. I repeatedly heard testimonials from undergraduates to that effect. Their support for graduate students might be summed up in a statement that was made often — “the only people on campus who actually know my name are other undergraduates, and my TAs.”

To conclude, the administration’s letter ends with assertions of care — but after years and years of neglect, something more than fine words is necessary. Those involved in the effort to unionize know full well that it is extremely unlikely that they themselves will benefit in any way from their efforts. They are working for a union out of a profound sense of obligation to and solidarity with all those who will follow. They do not wish on others the suffering they have endured. And they also do this out of a deep commitment to quality education — they feel that the conditions under which they are forced to work make it nearly impossible to be the teachers, and researchers they wish to be.

I write this because I care about Stanford, and I worry that if we go forward without fully understanding the nature of the fight for unionization — why it is necessary, and just how deeply its supporters understand its nature and importance — we will not have the kind of productive discussion we need.

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