- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
Joining a wave of graduate student unionization efforts in higher education, grad workers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, are seeking to form a union. The union drive comes in the wake of successful union votes among grad students at a number of other prestigious private universities this year, including Yale, Northwestern, and Johns Hopkins. That unionization wave has taken place amid a broader climate of militancy in higher ed: nine thousand faculty members at Rutgers University are now striking, months after a successful faculty walkout at the New School in New York City and a historic 48,000-strong academic worker strike in the University of California (UC) system. Last week, Jacobin’s Sara Wexler sat down with two worker-organizers with the Stanford Solidarity Network to discuss their organizing effort and what they hope to achieve with a union.
Can you tell me why you’re trying to organize a union?
We have five platform points that address five of the most critical issues that we’re facing as grad workers at Stanford. The first is increasing precarity and a lack of affordable living conditions for grad workers and their families at Stanford, and an increasing lack of accessibility to Stanford graduate work for folks who have families, folks who have student loans, who have debt, people who come from low-income backgrounds, people of color. The cost of living in our area is so high, and Stanford does so little to meaningfully address that. Our living conditions over the last decade have become more and more precarious.
The second platform point is related to the lack of comprehensive benefits that we have as Stanford grad workers. Like many other grad workers across the country who are also unionizing, we don’t have comprehensive dental or vision care. Most of us need eyeglasses. We make a lot of jokes about how we spend a lot of time on computers and a lot of time reading books, and we don’t get a pair of prescription eyeglasses through our Stanford health insurance. We also can’t get basic dental work done. We can’t get wisdom teeth removed. I got a dental cleaning a couple of years ago, and I had $150 or $200 in co-pays because Stanford’s network is so limited.
We also have been fighting, even before the unionization campaign went public, for dependent health care. A lot of Stanford graduate workers have families, and Stanford doesn’t do anything meaningful to support those grad workers. The family grant that Stanford offers is just completely inadequate. A lot of Stanford graduate workers experience applying to receive funds from the family grant and getting denied arbitrarily, for no apparent reason. And even the maximum amount that Stanford grad workers are allowed to solicit from that fund is not reflective of the cost of actually having a family in this area.
The third platform point is related to the fact that abuse of power is absolutely rampant at Stanford University. I don’t know a single graduate worker who hasn’t experienced some form of power abuse. It comes in all kinds of forms. Some of us experience sexual harassment in our department by faculty supervisors. Others experience sexual harassment by colleagues. Others have experienced bullying and retaliation for speaking out in our departments.
Stanford’s procedures for dealing with this are completely inadequate. I’ve experienced multiple situations of power abuse. But in one of the situations that I experienced, I had nobody to turn to. And in the time that I spent trying to figure out how to handle the situation, the supervisor that was causing this whole situation to begin with was going behind my back and trying to contact the head of the department to do a number of things to coerce me into doing what that person wanted.
There’s just no resources available for grad workers who are dealing with situations of power abuse. Aside from that, there’s a whole set of data from a survey that was conducted at Stanford a couple of years ago showing that people of color, trans folks, women, and people who hold one or more marginalized identities experience all kinds of discrimination and harassment at Stanford. We need a grievance procedure that allows us to resolve these issues in an efficient and effective way. We need a union advocate present in situations where we’re being put through disciplinary proceedings. We need a third-party arbitration process in cases where the grad worker and the university are not able to come to an agreement.
Another thing that’s really important is protections for international workers, because 35 percent of graduate students here at Stanford are international, but many of them are particularly vulnerable to some of the problems Tanya just identified, like a lack of affordability and overwork by advisors. We’re pushing for reimbursement for visa fees, a future for graduate workers who have been unfairly terminated. We think it’s important that among benefits to workers are legal resources for immigration hearings, and that there’s enough flexibility so that people who need to travel to visit loved ones in another country can take time off to see the people they care about.
Another point is more democratic decision-making and transparency at the university. As workers, we represent a wide array of perspectives, of skills, of departments, and it’s important that we have a voice in our workplace. We believe that union representation is a way of getting that voice.
When did the organizing begin? Were there any specific catalysts for it?
We’ve been having conversations with fellow workers for a long time, but I think seeing the conditions at Stanford has accelerated the excitement that our fellow workers have to make this union happen. Something like one in three grad students here defers medical care; one in three has more than one job.
Many of us who are advocating for grad students — before the union effort — worked to establish a food pantry on campus. We’ve seen that something like one in ten grad students uses that. It pops up once a month, and there’s a line for hundreds of meters — at one of the world’s wealthiest institutions, period, at one of the universities that has the most resources. It’s really embarrassing that so many of the workers who do the research, who develop the ideas, who teach the classes, who help as teaching assistants, who hold so many different roles at the university, don’t have access to the resources that our work is establishing.
How have you gone about organizing? What has the organizing looked like?
At the end of the day, it’s talking to other people. I think the whole campaign is built on workers talking to other workers, across friend groups, across departments, across every space at the university. It’s just us talking to each other, and it’s been exciting to see all of the energy that comes out of that.
What step are you at now?
We are in the middle of the first week of our card drive. We went public on Monday [April 3] and dropped cards on Monday. We now have more than 3,200 cards collected, which we accomplished in the first few days of the campaign. We’ll continue collecting cards, and that’s what we are doing right now.
We’ve already seen a huge amount of support from fellow grad workers for the idea of forming the union. So we will eventually file [for a National Labor Relations Board union election].
What challenges have you faced so far in organizing?
Stanford is a massive campus just in terms of the physical size and the size of our bargaining unit. We have had to build a massive base of organizers across schools, across departments, across programs. And Stanford is notoriously siloed. Grad workers at all institutions experience isolation; we’ve heard that from grad workers across the country and around the world. At Stanford that is no different. There is enormous isolation emotionally, but also in terms of the nature of the programs and the structure of the university. So we’ve had to build our organizing structure against the grain of the university’s organization.
Have you been in touch with other unions?
Now’s a very exciting time to be organizing in your workplace, whatever workplace that is, and especially at universities. So many of us have friends across all kinds of different campuses, and their stories of unionization have inspired the campaign here. Hopefully the swelling of support that we’re seeing from our fellow workers here will in turn inspire other campaigns in the labor movement.
I would say in the fall we had a presence of workers in solidarity with striking UC workers, and we attended some of the protests and were out on the picket line as well. That was wonderful to have that opportunity to support the UC strike, which was obviously historic.
How has the Stanford administration reacted so far to your organizing efforts?
We haven’t heard that much yet. Administration was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying that it believes that its primary relationship with us is an educational one, and we do not agree. It did not in any way recognize, unsurprisingly, the massive amount of labor that we provide for the university: the teaching we do, the research we do that brings in grant money, and yeah, the revenue — Stanford’s revenue is completely contingent on Stanford grad-worker labor. The university would not function without the research and teaching that we do.
I think the immense support that we’ve received for the unionization campaign, the fact that we broke 2,500 cards signed on day one, [shows that people] are fed up. This is a notoriously conservative institution. Stanford is home to the Hoover Institution [a highly influential right-wing think tank] among many other things. The fact that Stanford grad workers have shown so much excitement and readiness to unionize, I think, is a reflection of how bad our working conditions are — and the fact that so many of us know that these issues are solvable.
This isn’t rocket science. We can fix these aspects of our working conditions that are intolerable, and that should not be tolerated, by bargaining with the university. This is not something that has been solved by the work of the Graduate Student Council, which has done the best it can within the means that it has. But ultimately the Graduate Student Council’s resolutions are not binding for the administration in any way. And the administration has not actually respected the input, the opinions, the expertise of the Graduate Student Council.
We see this as an organizing campaign that has the potential to transform the university and make it a more equitable and just place, a more democratic place. The solutions that we’re proposing will be refined over many months through a process of disseminating a bargaining survey and building consensus on grad-worker priorities. But we see the proposed solutions as ways of working toward racial justice, working toward disability justice, working toward gender justice, working toward economic justice at Stanford. The university says that it’s committed to those things and hasn’t done anything to make that a reality for grad workers. We’re ready to take matters into our own hands and help make that happen for Stanford.
As workers feel empowered in this workplace and see what we can do with a collective voice, as grad workers move on to other workplaces, we hope that they’ll take that same message of collective empowerment and use it to advocate for better living and working conditions across the world.
I think that we also see our campaign as playing an important role in the broader labor movement in higher education. We see unionizing Stanford grad workers as an important way of being in solidarity with other workers at Stanford who are facing a number of related issues. We also see our unionization campaign as a way of building solidarity with grad workers at other universities, and resisting the gutting of higher education in the United States more broadly.