Stanford graduate workers unionize

July 6, 2023, 8:29 p.m.

In a landslide vote, 94% of Stanford’s graduate worker voters said ‘yes’ to being represented by the Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU), according to an email announcement on Thursday. The final vote count was 1639 to 108, with a turnout rate of just over half.

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certification of the results will cement the Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU), affiliated with the United Electrical Workers (UE), as the official representative of eligible graduate students in collective bargaining with the University.

Now that the University’s graduate workers have unionized, the SGWU’s next steps involve figuring out bargaining priorities and electing a bargaining committee.

The SGWU email announcing the results included a link to a bargaining survey and information about bargaining committee nomination. Chris Gustin, a fourth-year applied physics Ph.D. candidate and SGWU organizer, said that the union hopes that “all grad workers can fill out that bargaining survey to rank their priorities in bargaining.”

The SGWU email stated: “We will also fight for fellows who Stanford excluded from the initial vote. We consider fellows to be full members of our union and encourage fellows to run for the bargaining committee and fill out the bargaining survey.”

Jason Anderson, SGWU organizer and fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics, said that the SGWU “is going to be ready to bargain with Stanford as soon as possible.”

In a Thursday email to the Stanford community, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell wrote that they look forward to “working in good faith with SGWU.”

“As has been our position throughout the election process, we are dedicated to the success of our graduate students and to our education and research mission,” Tessier-Lavigne and Drell wrote. “These commitments will continue to guide us. We will provide information to our community about the next steps in the bargaining process as it becomes available.”

Stanford joins a growing list of private universities in the U.S. where graduate students have voted to unionize.

In March, graduate students at the University of Chicago voted 1696 to 155 in favor of unionization in an NLRB election. USC, Yale and MIT are among the other private universities where graduate students have voted to unionize within the last two years.

The SGWU kicked off its public unionization campaign with a rally at White Plaza on the first day of spring quarter. More than 2,500 graduate student-workers signed union authorization cards on day one, according to SGWU organizers.

“I would not be able to tell you the last time the UE has signed up so many workers to join the union in a single day,” said Matthew Soliz, a UE field organizer.

The SGWU collected over 3,600 cards total in the first three weeks of the campaign, according to SGWU organizers, and requested voluntary recognition from the University on April 21. After the University declined the request in late April, the SGWU petitioned the NLRB for an election, for which voting began on May 31 and concluded on June 30.

Graduate students at Stanford have been considering unionization ever since the NLRB ruled in a 2016 Columbia University case that graduate students at private universities have the right to unionize, according to Justine Modica Ph.D. ’22, who studied history at Stanford. Modica was involved with the Stanford Solidarity Network (SSN), a graduate advocacy group that preceded the SGWU.

The “especially high” cost of living in the Bay Area contributed to the unique affordability challenges faced by graduate students at Stanford, Modica said. A recent report listed the region comprising San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara as the U.S. metro with the highest median rent of the 50 covered by the report.

Modica said the high cost of services like childcare presented additional challenges. 

“There were a lot of folks who were actually unable to afford the cost of securing childcare that would’ve made it possible to do things like go to conferences, write articles and do all the different things that you need to do in order to become an academic and to get an academic job, which many of us are aiming for,” Modica said.

Over the 2022-23 academic year, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) advocated for affordability improvements in various areas, like food and transportation access. 

In February, amid concerns that University administration had not properly used data from the fall 2022 student expenses survey to determine graduate student stipends for the upcoming year, the GSC unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in the University. The 2023-24 stipend increase marked the third consecutive year that graduate student wages failed to keep pace with inflation.

William Gould, law professor and former NLRB chairman, called the margin of victory in the election “a tribute to the union’s efforts” and said that the results “show what workers will do when they freely express their position.” Gould added that the “major issue now will be the ability of the union to expeditiously negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.”

Hannah Johnston, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in history and SGWU organizer, said that she thinks this election “sends a message that it is very, very possible to unionize and to fight for more dignified working conditions for yourself and your fellow grad workers.”

“We’re riding a wave of graduate worker unionization,” Johnston said. “We hope to be the next part of the wave that pushes more grad workers to do this for themselves.”

Anne Li '24 M.S. '25 was a vol. 264 Equity Project editor. Contact her at anneli ‘at’

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