From the community | Stanford must respect fellows’ right to unionize

Nov. 7, 2023, 12:20 a.m.

On April 26, in a letter to the community, former President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and former provost Persis Drell wrote to graduate workers in explanation of why the administration refused to voluntarily recognize the Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU) after a supermajority of us signed authorization cards signaling interest in forming a union:

“We believe that a secret-ballot election is a fundamental principle of democratic decision-making and is the most inclusive, fair and secure method by which to determine whether a majority of eligible graduate students wish to be represented by a union. We feel strongly that every graduate student should have the ability, free from undue influence, to make this decision on their own.”

Every graduate student except roughly 33% of us who are funded by fellowships, based on estimates from voter data provided to organizers by the University. In negotiations with the SGWU in preparation for the subsequent election, the Stanford administration refused to agree to allow fellows to participate in spite of the union’s push to include them. Of the 5000 graduate student-workers at Stanford, only 3400 were allowed to vote. After ignoring the evident interest of a supermajority of graduate workers in the name of “democracy,” the administration proceeded to disenfranchise a third of the electorate.

The Stanford administration is not interested in inclusive or fair democratic decision-making for graduate workers. They have made this clear before the unionization campaign, as they consistently ignored and disrespected our elected representatives on the Graduate Student Council. They have reiterated this antagonism to our interests as they moved to split our membership. They tell us that they are trying to promote our democratic will, but the exclusion of fellows from our bargaining unit is a clear effort to limit the power of our union (see union busting). Fewer workers in our membership means less power to bargain collectively for the interests of all graduate workers.

Stanford’s move to exclude fellows from union representation follows on the example of a number of private universities. The general logic behind the exclusion is that because of fellows’ distinct funding arrangement, they do not fall into the traditional labor relationship where compensation is provided to an employee in exchange for services rendered. A similar logic is evident in Stanford’s Graduate Academic Policies and Procedures, which states that fellowships are “awarded on a merit or need basis,” and “no service is expected in return for a fellowship.” 

These arguments and policies, however, misrepresent the reality of fellows’ day-to-day work. Just like workers funded by assistantships (whose status as employees is not disputed), fellows are expected to perform research and teaching responsibilities at the direction of their advisors and in accordance with their program requirements. The performance of these services translates into a direct monetary benefit for the University. Fellows author highly cited research papers that give our institution its prestigious name. Fellows teach University undergraduates, performing the educational service that Stanford is charging tuition for. And, fellows apply for and bring in grants, from which the University takes a huge cut in the form of “indirect costs” to fund broader operations. The labor of fellows is a direct source of revenue for the University.

Moreover, just like graduate workers funded by assistantships, fellows are subject to the working conditions set by Stanford. If a worker’s fellowship does not reach University minimums, Stanford tops up their compensation to ensure that these workers receive the minimum pay. Thus fellows have a vested interest in University pay rates. Additionally, workers funded by fellowships pursue the same grievance procedures when responding to harassment and discrimination, and share the common interest of graduate workers in securing fair, neutral arbitration of disputes. Fellows receive the same benefits as students funded by assistantships and struggle with the same issues of affordability that come with living in one of the most expensive regions in the country. Denying fellows their right to participate in negotiations for the betterment of their conditions is a callous choice coming from an administration that claims to be promoting our well-being.

Repeatedly throughout their tenure, our former president and provost spoke to us about their commitment to listening to graduate workers and supporting our needs. They repeated this refrain in their April 26 message:

As “Stanford leaders we greatly value the many contributions our graduate students make to Stanford’s mission of teaching and research. We will continue working to understand, appreciate and be responsive to the needs of our graduate students, so that we may foster their well-being throughout their time at Stanford.”

Graduate workers have spoken unequivocally on what our needs are. The membership of the SGWU recently ratified contract proposals calling for fellows’ inclusion in our bargaining unit. We have issued a petition alongside to collect signatures in support of this demand. We invite everyone in our broader community, graduate worker or otherwise, to sign and join us in solidarity in this call.

President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez: We invite you to break with the legacy of your predecessors. Demonstrate your intention to bargain with us in good faith by withdrawing the administration’s position that fellows should not be included in our bargaining unit. Voluntarily recognize all graduate workers, regardless of funding source, as members of our democratic union.

Ari Beller is a graduate worker in psychology and a member of the SGWU.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’

Login or create an account