Why do we need a union?

Stanford graduate workers conduct research and teaching integral to the University’s operation, reputation, and mission — and yet, almost all of us are forced to navigate unjust working conditions in some form during our academic careers at Stanford. We’re subject to an acute affordability crisis; one third of us forego medical, dental, or vision care because we cannot afford it, not to mention the fact that we lack benefits afforded to (unionized) graduate workers at other universities; many of us suffer various forms of power abuse without any real recourse; those of us who are international and undocumented student workers lack support, protection, and resources; and we exercise little power in University decision-making processes. These conditions make graduate work at Stanford less accessible for people of color, gender-marginalized people, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, non-U.S. citizens, people from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students.

SGWU is fighting for a union because the problems we face as graduate workers are solvable. We believe that the ability to engage in collective bargaining with the university administration—in other words, participation in the decision-making that affects us—will help us build a Stanford where all graduate workers can thrive.

Stanford’s graduate workers will democratically decide what to fight for through a bargaining survey disseminated before contract negotiations. Ultimately, by participating in this process, graduate workers gain democratic decision-making power in two ways: We build a union that is by us and for us, in which each graduate worker has a voice, and we secure the ability to demand greater fairness, transparency, and democracy in the university operations that impact nearly every aspect of our lives.

For more information, see our full proposed platform.

Are graduate workers legally considered employees?

Yes. In a precedent-setting 2016 decision about graduate workers at Columbia University, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) stated, “The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.”

This means that those of us who are compensated for labor at Stanford are not just graduate students, but also graduate workers.

Are international and immigrant workers allowed to unionize?

Yes! It is illegal for the University or the US government to retaliate against individuals for their union activity, and current/future visa status cannot be affected. International and immigrant workers absolutely have workers’ rights and will be protected by the union against retaliation. You can read more specifically about your rights to organize as non-U.S. citizens in the Wilberforce Pamphlet (PDF), an official US government document which expands upon all of the following bullet points in more detail. The Brown University Graduate Student Union also put together an FAQ based on the Wilberforce Pamphlet.

What are the steps to forming a union?

The typical pathway to unionization consists of an initial organizing phase, a public launch, a card campaign, an election, and contract negotiations. Once the contract has been ratified by the membership, the contract enforcement phase begins, with contract renewal negotiations occurring every two to three years.

What is a bargaining unit, and who will be in it? How do I know if I’m eligible?

The first thing we will officially do as a union (even before we vote to form a union) is negotiate with Stanford who will be in our bargaining unit. The bargaining unit is everyone officially represented by the union — even if they do not vote to unionize or if they do not join the union. If we cannot come to an agreement with Stanford about who is in the bargaining unit, then we’ll have the NLRB decide. Whether or not an individual is in the unit or not is based on how they are paid and what they are paid to do. Because this changes regularly, an individual’s inclusion in the bargaining unit can change as well! For example, if a student switches from being an unpaid Master’s student to a Teaching Assistant in the middle of a quarter, they will join the bargaining unit as soon as they secure their job as a TA. SGWU will fight for the most expansive definition of the bargaining unit possible.

Precedent set by past NLRB decisions suggests the bargaining unit will be made up of:

  • Any graduate worker paid a stipend or salary by Stanford to be a Research Assistant or Teaching Assistant.
  • Any graduate student paid by a fellowship outside Stanford or through Stanford to perform duties similar to or the same as a Research Assistant or Teaching Assistant. Fellows, however, are sometimes not allowed to vote in the formation of a union (this was the case at MIT). The bargaining unit will likely not include the following (unless they also hold one of the above positions):
    • Graduate housing Community Associates
    • Graduate students paid stipends/hourly wages to perform duties outside those typical of a Research Assistant or Teaching Assistant, such as student employees at R&DE, Stanford Athletics, etc.
    • Graduate students not on any stipends or fellowships (such as Master’s students or JD or MD students not on stipend)
    • Students paid by fellowships or stipends to complete coursework or dissertations

Will the union force me to go on strike?

No. You will never be forced to go on strike.

In fact, as long as the Stanford administration chooses to negotiate with us in good faith, we won’t need to even discuss the possibility of any kind of work stoppage. Striking is a tactic that our union will employ if two conditions are true: 1) The administration is refusing to engage in constructive conversation and bargaining with our union and 2) We have already done everything in our power to move the administration.

Should a case like this ever arise, we would only strike if a supermajority of the union’s membership voted in favor of this tactic. Even though Stanford is not allowed to fire us if we go on strike, it is within the university’s rights to revoke our pay, and so the decision would be made with great care and deliberation. We would discuss how to protect the most vulnerable among us, and we could vote as a union to use dues to maintain a strike fund to pay workers on strike.

At the end of the day, withholding our labor is a powerful tactic and sends a strong message to the university’s administration. Our union will never force any worker to participate in a strike, but should the day ever come that we decide to strike, we will be most effective if we are united.

What about union dues?

Minimum dues are set in accordance with UE’s national constitutions. Members of all UE local unions (including Stanford, once we’re unionized!) send delegates each year to UE’s annual national convention to vote on the constitution. At present, minimum dues are set at 1.44% of wages. Membership dues cover the costs of day-to-day union operation and representation. This includes campaign materials, food for events, and organizing staff at the local level, as well as help from the national union with negotiating and enforcing our contract and access to legal advice/representation, a research department, and a vast network of other unions and labor organizations. Two-thirds of the 1.44% go to “the national” (UE, in our case) to pay for staff and resources for the entire union. One third of the dues stay in our local (Stanford), and we vote democratically on how they are spent. If we vote to raise dues, all of the extra dues would stay at Stanford. We will not begin paying UE membership dues until a contract has been ratified by our union membership.

Is there a chance unionization might lower my stipend?

No. Any future contract will set salary floors, not ceilings, and many departments will pay grad workers above the minimum assistantship stipend, as they already do. Furthermore, research shows that unionized graduate workers are paid better than their non-unionized colleagues.

Some union contracts include a clause called “Maintenance of Benefits,” which stipulates that workers can’t earn less in wages or benefits under the new contract than they did before.

Where will the money come from to meet our demands?

Stanford has a number of options at its disposal to meet our demands. The University could reduce or eliminate the cost of graduate workers tuition and TGR tuition, thereby getting more mileage out of the external grants that graduate workers bring in. Likewise, Stanford could dedicate a small portion of its endowment of $37.8 billion—one of the largest university endowments in the U.S.—to better supporting its graduate workers.

Ultimately, it is not our responsibility to figure this out on behalf of the administration. Graduate workers at Stanford should rest assured that if Brown, USC, Yale, MIT, Harvard, University of Chicago, and Northwestern can find the money, Stanford can, too.

What is affiliation, what is the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), and why did we affiliate with UE?

Most unionized groups of workers will create a partnership with a larger collection of unionized workplaces in a process called “affiliation.” Affiliation with a national union structure allows for workers to pool their resources, which in turn provides them with financial support for workplace actions and campaigns, legal expertise in grievance procedures, and training for rank-and-file union reps, among many other benefits. In other words, the role of “the national” is to provide support and resources for “the local.” Conversely, however, the local has the opportunity to attend the national’s annual convention and vote on nationwide structure, policies, and strategy.

In Spring 2021, a supermajority of then-organized Stanford graduate workers voted to affiliate with United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). The decision followed several months of research and interviews with a number of international and national unions, including United Steel Workers (USW), United Auto Workers (UAW), and United Electric (UE). Our affiliation committee investigated the track records and organizational structures of these unions, met with regional and national representatives, and spoke with other graduate workers in various stages of unionization.

UE, which was founded in 1936, is known as one of the most democratic and progressive unions in the United States. Unlike many other unions, UE operates based on a member-driven, rank-and-file philosophy, meaning that power and autonomy lie at the local rather than the national level.

Our union voted to affiliate with UE because of its highly democratic and grassroots orientation, its responsiveness and willingness to support us right away, its strike philosophy (we control our strike fund and decide if and when we strike), and its refusal to support police unions, which have historically protected law enforcement from accountability for violence and brutality. In addition, UE has extensive experience supporting graduate worker organizing at the University of Iowa, the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, College of William & Mary, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, John Hopkins University, and Northwestern University.

As a reminder: UE is not “the union” — we, the graduate workers of Stanford, are the union. We will democratically determine what issues we want to fight for, how we fight for them, and what we are and are not willing to compromise on.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed by Congress in 1935, provides employees at private-sector workplaces with the fundamental right to seek better working conditions and designation of representation without fear of retaliation. This is true even if you are a non-U.S. citizen. It is illegal for your supervisor, department, or administration to:

  • Ask whether you signed a card or voted for the union
  • Ask about your position on unionization
  • Retaliate against you for supporting the union
  • Interfere with your vote in a union election


Our union seeks to create a workplace where labor standards and human rights are upheld and in which all graduate student workers are free to explore their purpose in academia and beyond. We fight for affordable housing, healthcare, and childcare for all, an end to racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist discrimination and harassment, and rights for undocumented students and international students. We plan to negotiate for a say in decisions that affect us as students, workers, tenants, and people, such as how public health and safety are conceived and implemented in our workplace. We welcome you to get involved!