Stanford joins surge in graduate student unions across the country


When fifth-year PhD student Jason Anderson volunteered for a pop-up food pantry on Stanford University’s campus, he would see hundreds of grad students standing in long lines in the middle of their work day, sometimes with a wagon in one hand and a child in the other.

“The admin would come to the (graduate student government) meetings once a month and say, ‘We really need extra volunteers. People aren’t showing up,’” said Anderson, a former student government member. “And then all I’m thinking of in the back of my head here is, ‘You know, you’re asking for volunteers from the same population that the food pantry is supposed to serve.’”

That affordability crisis is one of many reasons why Anderson, along with other Stanford grad student workers, overwhelmingly voted to unionize in July.

They are part of a growing movement at university campuses across the country, following in the footsteps of institutions like the University of Southern California, Johns Hopkins University, MIT and the University of Chicago. But part of the challenge of the long-perceived starving graduate students in their campaign for labor rights is convincing the public that they are more than just students.

“Student organizing across the country is about students actually identifying as workers,” said Brenda Muñoz, deputy chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

For half a century, American universities have increasingly relied on the work of contingent faculty or graduate students to conduct research and teach classes, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining and Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. But the graduate students who perform this type of work have “long been squeezed on a variety of matters,” including wages, housing, healthcare and childcare, said Stanford law professor William B. Gould IV, a former chair of the National Labor Relations Board.

That’s led to the recent rise in unionization efforts. From January 2022 to June 2023, 30 new student bargaining units were certified or recognized in higher education, with more than half of those bargaining units coming from grad students, according to Herbert.

Universities are also seeing more strike activity from grad students. Last fall, 36,000 UC graduate students and 12,000 other academic workers participated in the largest strike in the history of U.S. higher education. Other institutions, including Rutgers University and University of Michigan, followed with their own strikes months later. The activity among grad students also coincides with a renewed labor movement in the U.S., where strikes have hit Hollywood, city workers in San Jose, teachers in Oakland and Starbucks locations across the country.

The debate around whether to classify grad students as employees or students is one that goes back to the 1960s, with some of the earliest labor movements beginning at UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Collective bargaining rights for public university employees are determined on a state-by-state basis. In California, those rights are explicitly given to academic student employees. But the rights of private university students is up to the discretion of the NLRB. Historically, the board has flip-flopped on whether grad students are students or employees, but a 2016 decision by the NLRB  granting Columbia University grad students the right to unionize appeared to signal a shift in thinking. Now, under the pro-labor Biden Administration, “the board is really open for business” in allowing grad students at private universities to officially unionize, Gould said.

Wearing his union pins and cap, Cal PhD student and union leader for his campus Tanzil Chowdhury, 25, is photographed at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Tanzil Chowdhury, a third-year PhD student in materials science at UC Berkeley, has felt the impact of the union in his own life. When the Arizona native first started his program, he was making around $35,000 a year, and 50% of his income was going to rent, classifying him as severely rent burdened by federal standards. Thanks to a new contract reached after the UC strike last fall, his annual income will increase to around $47,000 by September.

“That means I don’t have to spend so much of my time worrying about whether I’m going to be able to spend this much on groceries this month, or whether I’m going to be able to go out and have a meal with my friends or with folks in my field so that I can advance my career,” said Chowdhury, who is one of the campus’s union leaders. “Having a little more security financially is a really big deal.”

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