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Stanford Graduate Workers Vote to Unionize to Improve Working Conditions

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A woman with long, brown hair stares off into the distance. She stands in an outdoor hallway of a building with chunky pillars. She wears a black T-shirt that reads, "Stanford Graduate Workers Union."
Chloé Brault, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, stands near Wallenberg Hall on the Stanford campus on May 30, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Update, 4 p.m. Thursday: Stanford University graduate students have voted to unionize after an election conducted through the National Labor Relations Board came back with over 90% support Thursday.

Katherine Whatley, a Ph.D. student at Stanford, said the labor of grad students often goes unnoticed.

“Whether it be working in the lab or in the classroom or doing research, giving presentations — all of that is labor,” Whatley told KQED. “So, we use the [term] Stanford Graduate Workers because we want to highlight the fact that we are workers, not only students, and that the work that we do, the labor that we do, is vital to Stanford as an institution.”

With the election results finalized, the union can now bargain with the university for a contract. In a statement, Stanford said it looks forward to working in good faith with the union.

Original story, June 1: Graduate workers at Stanford University voted this week on whether to form a union.

If the campaign succeeds, thousands of graduate students who provide teaching and research duties could represent one of the nation’s largest bargaining units among graduate workers at a private university.

The vote comes months after academic workers at the University of California walked off the job in the largest higher education strike in U.S. history, and is part of a wave of union drives among graduate workers nationwide. Graduate workers at Yale University, the University of Southern California and the University of Chicago all voted to unionize this year.

The outcome of the election at Stanford is expected this summer.

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Amid soaring housing costs and a tumultuous academic job market, graduate workers at Stanford and elsewhere are pushing to increase wages and improve benefits. They say academic hierarchies and low pay can leave graduate workers vulnerable to harassment, bullying and discrimination.

Graduate workers see collective bargaining as a way to change that, and to create more fair, effective grievance processes when graduate employees do file complaints.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that graduate students working as teaching or research assistants at private universities are employees. But graduate workers say the process for filing harassment complaints through the Title IX office — officially known as the SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Education) Title IX Office — is not equipped to support graduate student employees.

A complaint process designed for students, not graduate workers

Chloé Brault, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Stanford, said graduate workers need a process that treats reports of abuse or predatory behavior like workplace safety issues.

A shot of the back of a woman's black T-shirt that reads, "Stanford works because we do."
Chloé Brault, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate, shows the back of her T-shirt, which says, ‘Stanford Works Because We Do,’ near Wallenberg Hall on the Stanford campus on May 30, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“The idea of power abuse — if you define harassment as power abuse — is very familiar to any graduate worker at Stanford,” Brault said. “This might look like bullying, it might look like retaining pay, it may look like undermining in a meeting in a professional setting, it might look like stalking. Frankly, I’ve heard it all.”

Brault said over the past six years, she’s been involved in three cases filed with the Title IX office as a witness, and she’s seen how traumatizing the process can be.

Regulations adopted during the Trump administration narrowed the definition of sexual harassment to conduct that is “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” it denies a person’s access to their education.

The Title IX process can take several months or longer, and focus on determining whether allegations meet that federal definition of sexual harassment rather than providing support.

“We get told, ‘This meets the threshold, this does not, the grievance process will proceed whether you like it or not, we’ll give you options to opt in or opt out, but otherwise the investigation is happening with or without you,’” Brault said.

Brault added that international student workers face additional barriers to reporting, and for them taking a leave of absence can mean losing campus housing, income and visas.

A push for a fairer, more transparent, more effective complaint process

Through unionizing, Stanford graduate workers could bargain for an official grievance process that takes those concerns into account, and be provided with union representation in disciplinary proceedings. They’re also advocating for contingency plans for graduate workers when supervisors are accused of abuse.

A shot of a college campus from inside an arched tunnel.
The Stanford campus, on May 30, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Gabriela Basel, a third-year Ph.D. student studying chemical engineering, said she knows too many people at Stanford who have gone through the Title IX process only to see no changes.

“And it’s just gut-wrenching to hear these stories of power abuse and sexual abuse from supervisors and knowing that there’s nothing that graduate employees can do, there’s nowhere we can go,” Basel said.

But with a union, she said, Stanford will have no choice but to listen and sit down with workers at the bargaining table.

Stett Holbrook, senior director of media relations and issues management at Stanford, said in a statement that the university values the many contributions graduate students make to Stanford’s mission of teaching and research.

Holbrook also noted that the university is encouraging every eligible graduate student to educate themselves about what it means to become a member of a union and then to exercise their right to vote in the election.

Holbrook said the university is committed to providing a campus that is free of sex-based discrimination, sexual harassment and all forms of sexual misconduct. He said the school’s Title IX office has been working with the Graduate Life Office to increase its visibility within the graduate student community.

Stanford graduate workers are not alone in organizing to improve protections for those who experience abuse on the job. Student workers at Harvard and Columbia both have pushed for the option of third-party arbitration for discrimination and harassment complaints.

Labor movement meets the fight against gender-based violence

Labor movements must think about sexual harassment and discrimination as a labor issue, said Erin O’Callaghan, an incoming assistant professor at Colorado State University who participated in two strikes while she was a graduate student worker at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

O’Callaghan co-authored a paper, ‘‘Sexual Harassment in the Academy: Harnessing the Growing Labor Movement in Higher Education to Address Sexual Harassment Against Graduate Workers,” that calls for structural changes in academia to address gender-based violence.

According to a study cited in that paper, nearly 60% of female graduate students reported experiencing sexual harassment from other students, and 38% of female graduate students reported sexual harassment by faculty or staff.

On a college campus hundreds of students are gathered in a quad-like area surrounded by chunky buildings and green trees. It's a sea of students.
Students gather for a union rally at Stanford on April 3, 2023. (Courtesy Fletcher Chapin)

“The bottom line is that because [graduate workers] are such a cheap form of labor, and there’s another one to take your place, there’s no incentive to protect people that are in that type of working environment,” O’Callaghan said. “You could have four graduate students working under you as a faculty member and their collective salary would not come close to what you are paid.”

Union organizers are aiming to address some of that power imbalance by campaigning for a living wage, affordable housing and better benefits like full dental and vision coverage and subsidized child care.

Working conditions can be particularly precarious for international students, who make up about 35% of all graduate students at Stanford.

Miikka Jaarte, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate from Finland who is studying philosophy, said an estimated 45% of his annual take-home pay goes toward rent.

“Every year I was in Stanford housing, I would get a little pay bump and I would get a larger rent bump,” Jaarte said. “We would just like our wages to keep up with the cost of housing and with inflation.”

Union organizers are also pushing for better protections for international student workers, like improving legal resources and creating a grievance procedure for graduate workers who have been unjustly terminated and fear deportation.

Workers organizing amid a bleak academic job market

For Allen Nie, a fourth-year computer science Ph.D. student, unionizing is a way to acknowledge the value graduate student workers bring to the university, and their identities as workers.

College students in hoodies with backpacks chat on campus on a sunny day. Many students are on a quad area with trees and big tan buildings.
Allen Nie, a fourth-year Stanford Ph.D. student, attends a rally on campus on April 3, 2023. (Courtesy Fletcher Chapin)

“Even though there is some enrichment of our knowledge, we’re not just purely passively receiving that from the university,” he said. “To those of my fellow workers, I would say, ‘Take a hard look at how much you’re getting from the university and take a look at how much you’re contributing to the scientific community.'”

The wave of graduate workers organizing appears poised to continue. According to Bloomberg Law, professors, graduate teaching and research assistants and other academic workers went on strike 15 times in 2022, and the largest union election petitions last year were filed by graduate workers, according to Daily Union Elections.

Workers in higher education are responding to structural changes in academia over the last few decades, said Sarah Mason, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and a graduate student researcher at the UC Santa Cruz Center for Labor and Community.

Departments and divisions have been financially gutted, workloads have exploded and tenured faculty positions have been replaced by a precarious workforce, Mason said. She added that students are crushed by private debt and described the prospects for future employment as incredibly bleak.

“I think there’s an increasing sense that these problems are not going to be solved by the people who created them,” Mason said. “We need to be fighting now for what we need. And more than that, those fights can be the basis for truly transforming the university on our terms.”

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