Thousands of Stanford Graduate Workers Join UE in Lighting-Fast Campaign

September 1, 2023

Thousands of Stanford graduate workers wrapped up the 2022-2023 academic year with a record-breaking vote to unionize under the UE banner. The newly formed Stanford Graduate Workers Union broke UE's record for the most cards signed on the first day of a campaign (2,571) and is the first graduate union to complete a card drive and NLRB election in the same quarter. Hundreds of student organizers volunteered their time and energy for this campaign - turning out friends and colleagues to vote, phonebanking, texting, and tabling on campus. Their efforts were rewarded when, only nine weeks after kicking off their campaign, SGWU-UE's union authorization vote passed with 94 percent approval.

After winning official recognition, SGWU-UE has focused on running a bargaining survey to understand workers' concerns, recruiting a diverse bargaining committee (BC), and building infrastructure for department-level organizing. In August, Stanford workers elected 25 of their peers to the BC who will begin drafting proposals for a union contract this fall. With student researchers from statistics and anthropology to law and medicine to computer science and geophysics, the BC represents 16 distinct areas of Stanford graduate studies containing more than 50 degree programs. As the summer comes to a close, the BC is beginning training from the UE National Union on how to negotiate the best contract for their community. 

Meanwhile, the SGWU contract action team (CAT) is hard at work preparing for a very important Fall quarter. Nearly 3,000 new graduate students will arrive between August and September, an exciting opportunity for the union’s growth. Despite the Stanford administration planning to bar union representatives from all departments’ new student orientations, the CAT remains undeterred, with plans to make the union known to all incoming students via alternative orientation events and grassroots efforts from the union members in each department. In addition to adding new members to the union, the CAT continues to collect worker opinions and needs via SGWU’s first bargaining survey. With close to 1,000 responses since it launched this summer, the survey provides union members with an avenue to express their concerns and priorities so their representatives on the BC can bring them to the bargaining table. 

Top concerns for Stanford graduate workers as reported on the bargaining survey include affordability, healthcare, the dual role of Stanford as employer and landlord, and creating a process for union-supported resolution of worker grievances. Another major goal of SGWU is to increase university support and protections for international workers, who currently are required to pay their own visa fees. In addition to current workers at Stanford, many alumni are in strong support of the union and its goals — some of whom were themselves involved in the initial stages of organization three years ago.  

With SGWU’s strong and fast initial wins during the card campaign and union election, all that remains to be seen is whether the Stanford administration is receptive to the voiced concerns of its graduate workers. SGWU expects to begin contract negotiations in the fall, even amid several administrative changes at Stanford. The former Stanford President, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, stepped down in July after being implicated in improperly conducted research. In May, Stanford Provost Persis Drell also stepped down from her role as the top academic and budgetary administrator at the university. Beginning September 1, Professor Richard Saller will enter office as Stanford’s interim president until a full job search is completed. Ahead of taking the reins, Saller has appointed a new provost, former Stanford Law School Dean Jenny S. Martinez. Many SGWU members see this appointment as a reward for Martinez capitulating to the university administration during protests against conservative judge Kyle Duncan being allowed to speak at the university in March this year. SGWU hopes to expand graduate student input on the appointment of top university officials so that the Stanford administration and trustees are not the sole influence on campus culture. At present it remains unclear if the committee to find a new university President will include a graduate student representative, despite student advocacy for their inclusion. It is also unknown if a new President would additionally appoint a new Provost.

Despite the uncertainty of who will be sitting across the bargaining table, SGWU is on the road to what we hope will be a highly successful and speedy first contract. Joining SGWU as lead spokesperson, UE President Carl Rosen will be working closely with the Stanford BC in the coming months. Rosen brings with him a UE hot streak among graduate workers nationwide, and the SGWU hopes to keep the momentum rolling. The SGWU members of the BC include many promising early-career professionals and scholars who have strong backing from the workers in their schools and departments. All of the BC candidates ran their own campaigns for election, working to make themselves known and establish lines of communication between themselves and their representative areas. The SGWU BC is composed of highly passionate and capable individuals with diverse backgrounds, who are committed to making workers’ voices heard. Each of the 16 areas represented on the BC have regular meetings organized by the community for direct worker input on the bargaining process, ensuring that SGWU will be able to come up with solutions to the issues faced by its members and counter any disinformation that spreads.

After a surge in union membership and interest during the initial card campaign, momentum for collective action is strong in the Stanford community. SGWU hopes to win a contract that gives its members increased representation at the university and fairer compensation for their hard and often unrecognized labor as teachers and researchers. Once a contract has been negotiated by the BC and Stanford administration, final approval will fall to a democratic vote of all SGWU members. As recently seen at MIT, failure of the administration to meet workers’ requests will likely be met with a ‘No’ vote and continued negotiations. SGWU members stand in strong solidarity on issues that affect all workers as well as those that affect smaller groups of students such as childcare for workers with families. Ultimately, all SGWU workers share a common view expressed on the back of their cardinal red t-shirts: “Stanford Works Because We Do”.


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