Facing fiscal and housing challenges in one of the most expensive regions in the nation, these students are fighting for a healthy workplace and better living conditions.

The Stanford Graduate Workers Union succeeded in unionizing on July 6 with 94% approval. Embarcadero Media file photo.

Stanford grad student and Los Angeles County native Emi Soroka hopes the next step in her career takes her to NASA Ames Research Center after she graduates with a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, a program she started in 2021 following her master’s at Stanford in the same subject. 

Though she’s grateful for Stanford’s beautiful campus, its research areas and rich array of resources, Soroka said she faces burnout caused by not having the power to fix problems. Seeking solutions, Soroka is one of thousands of students who have joined the Stanford Graduate Workers Union, which succeeded in unionizing on July 6 with 94% approval. The union represents one of the nation’s largest bargaining units among graduate workers at a private university at a time when labor activity is widespread in the country.

“I have great hopes that our union will force the administration to listen and make Stanford even better,”  Soroka said.

The Stanford Graduate Workers Union is focused on key issues that include affordable living, comprehensive benefits, safe and healthy workplaces free of abuse and discrimination, improved support for international and immigrant graduate workers (35% of Stanford graduate workers are international students) and democratic decision-making power and transparency, according to its website. Between putting upwards of 30% of their income toward rent, dealing with 8% inflation and getting paid a minimum assistantship stipend of $50,616, well below the “very low income limit” of $59,000 for a one-person household in Santa Clara County in fiscal year 2022, graduate students are financially pressed, which led to the realization that a union was the way to address the issue, said Steven Ortega, a Stanford law student from Colorado Springs.

“People felt that the time had come,” Ortega said. “All of the people who had these really horrific problems (saw) that not only did other students feel the same way, but that they were willing to work collectively so we can all have a better life. It’s cool to see the upsurge in union activity around the country, but to see it in my own workplace made me quite emotional.” 

Wesley Guo has been at Stanford since 2017 and recently became involved in the unionizing efforts. Courtesy Wesley Guo.

North Carolina native Wesley Guo has been at Stanford since 2017, when he started his master’s in mechanical engineering with a robotics focus. After transitioning his master’s to a Ph.D. in 2019, Guo has been able to explore research and teaching, both of which he said he is interested in pursuing further. 

“While I had an overall positive experience at Stanford, I know that there are a lot of other students out there who have not and I want to make sure that they are given all of the support that they possibly can,” Guo said. “I had some friends who were involved in the UC unionizing effort and I was seeing physically how important that was. I wanted to do my part.”

In an April 7 statement, following the public launch of the unionization campaign on April 3, former university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Dell said, “We recognize and greatly value the many contributions our graduate students make to Stanford’s mission of teaching and research. We believe that our relationship with graduate students is first and foremost an educational one, and we work hard to understand, appreciate and be responsive to the needs of students so that we may foster their well-being during their time at Stanford.”

The union is currently forming its bargaining committee with elections coming up in the next few weeks, and will be surveying graduate students on their priorities before entering negotiations with the university. 

Orisa Coombs is pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and is one of the nominees for the union’s bargaining committee. Courtesy Orisa Coombs.

Orisa Coombs is one of the nominees for the bargaining committee. Coombs is from Aurora, Colorado, and coming to Stanford in 2021 for her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering felt like somewhat of a “homecoming,” she said, as the West Coast culture in California felt close to what she was used to in Colorado. Currently, Coombs works about 50 hours a week in a chemistry engineering lab for wastewater treatment.

“I’m happy with the research that I do and I’m invested in it,” Coombs said. “A lot of the work is towards helping other communities of color in the U.S. as well as abroad. I find that really motivating because it’s important to me to study something that has an impact on people and their everyday livelihood.”

Coming to Stanford, Coombs, who is Black, was struck by the fact that not a lot of people looked like her, both at the university and in the Bay Area, she said. To find larger communities of color, Coombs ventures to Oakland and San Francisco in her car. She would like to move further north to be closer to San Francisco and to Caltrain stations, she said.

Before he had a car, Guo relied on the ability to take Caltrain for free with Stanford-funded passes, but Stanford has stopped offering free Caltrain passes.

“It seems that the Caltrain pass was quite popular, and then they decided to get rid of it,”  Guo said. “I’m hoping that with this new union, we can move faster on these steps.” 

As for health care, the Cardinal Care insurance that Coombs receives from the university is fully subsidized, but the vision care doesn’t cover costs stemming from Coombs’ contacts, she said. Additionally, mental health coverage means that students get five appointments a year with professionals, “which isn’t enough for anyone,” she said. 

Coombs added that her secondary adviser is extremely busy due to time commitments as a veteran professor and dean of the School of Sustainability. On the weekends, lab members are required to come in person for meetings with the adviser. 

“I have the stereotypical grad school adviser issues and feel a lot of pressure to be working all the time and work outside of traditional working hours,” Coombs said. “It’s important for workers to find solidarity, especially when we’re in such a complicated position of being a student and being workers and Stanford has power over us in all these different ways. The university depends on us just as much as we depend on the university. We deserve to have leverage on that.”

Because Coombs is a recipient of the Knight-Hennessey Fellowship and National Science Foundation Fellowship, the university doesn’t pay her directly, so she wasn’t considered eligible to vote for the union. Still, she helped with card signing to announce intent for unionization and taught students about the logistics of the union process.

Soroka is also an involved member of the union as part of the contract action team, the pool of labor organizers that forms committees to achieve labor goals. Months before she was recruited by the union campaign in the summer of 2022, Soroka said she wasn’t able to make progress talking to administrators, adding that each office would refer her to a different one to address issues.

“You just run around to every single office and you waste all of your time,”  Soroka said. “Nothing ever happens because you don’t have any power.”

Stanford aerospace engineering grad student and Los Angeles County native Emi Soroka is an active member of the union. Courtesy Emi Soroka.

The main problems that Soroka encountered were pandemic-related. In spring 2022, students dealing with COVID didn’t have the widespread ability to make up final exams in a timely manner, with some instead given options to fail the class, mark it as incomplete or attend exams while COVID-positive, Soroka said. She was also concerned when she learned isolation dorms were located in the building she lived in, as residents reportedly received no communication from Stanford about where the COVID-positive students were staying. 

Soroka added that her apartment building has issues receiving mail and packages, and the housing office was not initially receptive to concerns. 

Rather than fighting battles individually, Soroka said the union will lead to solidarity within the graduate student community, something she already sees happening. 

“We know that somebody is looking out for us, which is something that I never had before,” Soroka said. “It’s reassuring. If you’re in a bad situation with an adviser, funding or housing, you’re not alone and there’s probably a union representative in your department that can help.”

Ortega said he experienced wage theft last summer. He was working for a month on a research assistantship meant to be funded directly by the law school, but he wasn’t paid until months later, and there were attempts to revise the final amount he would be paid, he said. Despite trying to rectify the paperwork issues by sending emails, his messages were left without a response. 

Steven Ortega, a Stanford law student from Colorado Springs, is a union organizer. Courtesy Stanford Graduate Workers Union.

“The actual payment for the work we do can sometimes be an afterthought,” Ortega said. “This is an issue we’ve heard from multiple students, and this is certainly an issue that the union is looking forward to bargain(ing) in good faith with the university.” 

Ortega previously volunteered as a tenant organizer at an apartment he lived in, an experience that inspired him to learn more about legal systems, specifically housing law. Stanford appealed to him due to its connections and clinics in the area, he said. He added that it’s natural that graduate students often don’t live in Palo Alto due to the housing prices (Ortega lives in subsidized housing in Redwood City.)

“When you live in a city, so often there’s this class of tenants who are shuffled around to substandard housing accommodations,” Ortega said. “They’re taken advantage of by the property system we have, especially in a place like the Bay Area where rents just rise in perpetuity. Often for lower-income folks, the services they get in response are not adequate. To me, the law is one way to help address that. And the other, of course, is organizing.” 

Because of his previous experience in organizing, a friend reached out to ask Ortega to help with union organizing at the law school in 2021.

“My experience really speaks to having more say over our workplace,” Ortega said. “If someone’s not getting paid, we have a say in directing university priorities to make sure that no one’s getting left behind and that Stanford’s the top-tier institution to work for grad students that it really could be.” 

You May Also Like

A decades-old shopping hub can be found in a Peninsula college parking lot every month

The Grand tour: Exploring South San Francisco’s downtown corridor, where history is etched in the sidewalks

Longtime journalist’s book takes a deep dive into an infamous Peninsula murder

A new exhibit at Palo Alto’s Pacific Art League showcases a groundbreaking technique from a Los Altos artist