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Stanford grad students demand better pay, take steps to unionize

Graduate students gather at a rally at White Plaza on Stanford's campus on April 3, 2023. | Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

Graduate students and workers at Stanford University announced plans to launch a unionizing movement early Monday morning. 

Organizers want to bargain for better pay and benefits, lower living costs, support for international students and better protections for grad students facing harassment or discrimination. 

Affordability, in particular, has grown increasingly important to Stanford graduate students as inflation soars and housing prices rise in Palo Alto, one of the most expensive ZIP codes in the nation. 

“The things that we've really been struggling with [such as] living in the Bay Area have become prohibitively expensive,” said Hannah Johnston, a third-year medieval history Ph.D student. “While we are immensely privileged in many ways here at Stanford, our stipends are not commensurate with the cost of living here.” 

A graduate student walks past a union rally on Stanford's campus on April 3, 2023. | Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

Of the roughly 9,500 graduate students at Stanford, approximately 6,500 are graduate employees who work for the university. Those students are eligible to unionize, and are predominantly Ph.D and master’s degree students. They would join the Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU) if enough would-be members sign up.

These Stanford students join a growing wave of graduate-student unions that have formed in the last few years, after the National Labor Relations Board codified grad students’ right to organize in 2016. 

Stanford’s graduate students will unionize with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, which has aided other grad unions from peer institutions like the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University. Nurses at Stanford Hospital are already unionized, and strikes across California’s 10 public universities resulted in labor agreements that boosted pay and benefits. 

READ MORE: University of California and Graduate Student Workers Reach Breakthrough Deal to End Strike

Union organizers held a rally on White Plaza at Stanford on Monday morning, where organizers passed out union cards and grad students gathered in support of the collectivization movement. 

“Labor organizing is actually one of the most important strategies for achieving social justice on a societal level,” said organizer Tania Flores, a Ph.D student in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.

At a minimum, graduate student organizers will need to collect union cards from 30% of the graduate population, in order to reach the legal threshold for unionization. Union organizers told The Stanford Daily they intend to reach 65% graduate student support, in order to boost union visibility. 

Stanford University was contacted for comment but did not immediately respond.