An inside look at graduate student unionization

Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU) organizers continue to advocate for better wages, safety and accountability for graduate student workers, following the union’s creation this summer.

It joins a growing list of unions formed by graduate student workers at American universities and also continues efforts initiated by the Graduate Student Council last year.

The SCWU follows a state-wide trend: 36,000 University of California graduate workers went on strike last year for nearly six weeks — the largest work stoppage at a higher education institution in the United States. Student workers in the California State University system also launched a unionization effort in April.

Unions work to maintain the rights of their members and provide an outlet to advocate for demands from a supervising power. They are a common way to obtain contracts and protection for workers who experience discrimination in the workplace. Outside of higher education, unions also “connect to a larger renewal of the organized labor movement,” said Colin Vanderburg, the unit representative of New York University’s workers union.

The Stanford Graduate Workers Union represents students who earn money from the University — primarily master’s and Ph.D. students. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Cieslikowski)

According to Kristen Jackson, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in education, a union is vital to ensuring all student workers feel like they have a voice.

“It often feels daunting when you’re an individual student having an issue,” she said. “Having a collective union that specifically navigates pushing for an increase in compensation and other various benefits… you’re strong when it’s not just you.” 

For years, graduate student workers have argued they are unable to earn an adequate living wage. They’ve also expressed concern that the University’s role as an academic institution, an employer and a landlord gives administrators control over nearly every aspect of student lives, which stifles individual advocacy efforts.

“Being in a union [means that] you get to dream up what a safe, fair and equitable Stanford looks and feels like. We get to design that,” Jackson said.

With the recent union formation, graduate students hope to build themselves up without breaking down connections with the University, said Tom Liu, a third-year physics Ph.D. student and head of the GSC Financial Committee.

“When we’re unionizing, we’re not trying to unionize against the ‘faculty’ per se because the faculty are our professors, our advisors, the people that we work with every day, and they could use this union just as much as we do,” Liu said. “We hope that this will better strengthen our relationship with our faculty members or advisors and not hurt [them].”

Although SGWU didn’t publicly launch their unionization campaign until April, union organizers and graduate students had been discussing their concerns over affordability issues “for months and years at this point,” Liu said. 

“We already knew that the vast majority of graduate students wanted this union,” he said. 

Elections were scheduled to begin for graduate students in May on whether they were in favor of representation by United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) or against unionizing. The UE is a democratic labor union for workers in various sectors across the U.S., both private and public. 

The union organizers reached out to the graduate students and ensured that everybody knew the election dates and how to vote, according to Liu.

The turnout met organizers’ expectations, with approximately 51 percent of graduate students voting, though they initially struggled to get momentum for their movement.

“The primary challenge is being able to reach as many people as possible,” Liu said. “In the beginning, there were only a few people who were part of the main coordinating process. Getting that initial kick and getting it started is always going to be difficult.”

Moving forward, the SGWU has to form a bargaining committee to figure out their bargaining priorities, which can include “better pay, protection from harassment [and] grievance procedure,” Liu said. 

Following the vote to unionize, former president Marc Tessier-Lavigne said in an official announcement that the University “will provide information to our community about the next steps in the bargaining process as it becomes available.”

“We expect to finish [building up the SGWU] by the start of the school year and… hope that the University will engage with us as soon as that,” Liu said.

Though only first starting to plant its roots, the SGWU has discussed diversity at length in committee meetings, according to Liu. SGWU is “looking to have as diverse a bargaining committee as possible, where we have people from every department contribute and… people from every school tell us exactly what issues they’re passionate about,” he said. 

SGWU goals

Graduate student worker demands are vast and vary by different workplaces, Jackson said. Lab workers might feel more insecure regarding their environment’s safety while research assistants might be more concerned about inequitable wages.

“We are hoping for higher wages, better compensation for the graduate workers who can’t afford to live here… better conditions for international students, protection from harassment from people from positions of power, better health insurance and — most importantly — a say in the way that the university is run,” Liu said.

Workplace safety expands further than physical health because extensive working hours can also affect a student’s mental health, Jackson said. He added that “expectations for workers” might be set “much higher than what is required of them on paper.”

“So the students who are putting in 10 hours — maybe it’s 20 hours a week — really they’re putting in closer to 50 or 60,” she said.

The combination of unfair working hours and underpayment can leave students on a tightrope when it comes to the cost of living in Silicon Valley, which is known as one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Many graduate workers feel like the cost of food and rent does not compare to their wages.

“Stanford is our employer, but it’s also our landlord, [especially since] most graduate students live on campus,” Jackson said. “Residential and dining enterprises continue to raise the cost of rent, and it… feels like [that’s] pacing with inflation, but our compensation is not.”

University response

Graduate student unionization efforts are often rejected or neglected by universities, even with the necessary support from students, staff and outside resources.

The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition (IGWC), for instance, was denied recognition by Indiana University in April 2022 and went on strike in September 2022 to pressure the administration. As updated on their website, the IGWC states that, “IU administration still hasn’t recognized us. The fight for union recognition continues.”

“When university administrations resist unionization campaigns from their workers, it is because their mission differs from ours,” said Casey Patterson Ph.D. ‘23, a former SGWU lead organizer and union representative for the English department. “It shows that their goals are not related to educators’ ability to support student growth. Their goals are related to the growth of the University instead.”

According to organizers, if graduate workers are not given recognition or even the ability to unionize, this can have detrimental effects on student life and increase the impact of issues they already face.

“Without [organization] from workers and students, universities will continue to grow while the quality of student education declines, the high rates of student debt increase and the lives of university workers become less and less sustainable,” Patterson said.

Stanford originally denied SGWU’s request for voluntary recognition in an official email from former president Tessier-Lavigne and former provost Persis Drell in April. However, following the vote, the University showed support for SGWU and said they’re committed to having connections and communication with the SGWU going forward. 

“We 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. These commitments will continue to guide us,” Tessier-Lavigne and Drell said in a July message regarding union election results.

Luisa Rapport, director of communications and media relations, wrote that the University understands and appreciates the work that graduate students do to keep Stanford running, in a statement to The Daily.

“Stanford deeply values its union-represented populations and is dedicated to fostering positive relationships with all three labor unions at Stanford,” Rapport wrote. “Stanford’s graduate students make valuable contributions to the University’s teaching and research mission.”