Short Review by Jack Truher, 15 October 2010, of:

The History of Labor at Stanford, 1969-2006
Christopher R. Vaughan 12 May 2006

Is Stanford's Staff Invisible?

I was pleased to meet Chris Vaughan when he was a junior classman at Stanford, as he began to consider his senior thesis. Chris was referred to me by the SEIU union office on campus, for my reputation as a volunteer historian and occasional commentator on employee relations at Stanford over my more than 3 decades as an employee, plus my years as a student and then parent of students of Stanford.

I can heartily recommend Chris' 2006 work as I proudly keep on a web site of my own. It is best of its kind, without competition. One of his themes is the sense of employees that they are "invisible".

It remains to the current reader of Chris' work to decide whether the modern circumstance continues this defect, or how it may have changed - for better or worse.

On page 7-10 of his Main Text, you find Chris formulation of a widespread and prevailing Stanford staff sentiment, found by his own investigation.

Note: all four links on this page are to Chris' study on The History of Labor at Stanford, 1969-1996.

Chris writes:


The representation of the Stanford worker, as well as the aspect of "invisibility," is both literal and metaphorical, verbal and physical, and it has consequences from the daily to the historical level. It is not enough to say, however, that "invisibility" is more complicated than it appears at first. For it is also a term with serious shortcomings which must be considered as the history of Stanford laborers is told. At least four major shortcomings come immediately to mind:

First, "invisibility" lacks specificity and is therefore open to misinterpretation. A reader who is introduced to "invisible" workers may not know to whom these workers are invisible: to each other, to consumers, to politicians, to researchers, or to readers of history? The histories of Stanford demonstrate that workers may be more or less visible to different people, in different ways, with different effects.

Second, because it is an absolute term, "invisibility" lends itself to generalities that may not be completely accurate. Third, "invisibility" implies that workers are frozen in a state of being unseen, which may prevent an understanding of how they came to be invisible in the first place. To write of "invisible" workers, without demonstrating the roots of their invisibility, runs the risk of supplanting historical understanding with a series of well-worn but vague ideas.

Finally, because it is a static term, "invisibility" prevents an understanding of how workers may come to be visible. The term instead presumes that workers will always be unseen. In the face of a sober and sobering "invisibility," will historians and other academics explore the impulses, relations, and resistance of workers that may amount to a desire to escape from their ostensible subordination?

The shortcomings of "invisibility" bring me to a new premise for this study: not that Stanford workers are invisible, but rather that they are visible in certain and often contradictory ways, and that these ways merit our careful attention. Far from being invisible to each other, workers took collective action to form a union in the early 1970s, conducted lengthy strikes in 1974 and 1982, and undertook unionization campaigns from 1979 to 1981 (clerical workers) and 1989 to 1991 (Webb Ranch workers).

They made common cause against the Vietnam conflict in the 1970s, kept each other company with a vigil and story-telling in the 1980s, and danced to salsa to celebrate their union certification in the 1990s. They were never completely invisible to the public, for the 1982 vigil, the 1991 certification party, and much of the rest of workplace politics at Stanford is known because it was documented in the press.

There were complications to this "visibility"--the voices of rank-and-file workers have often remained subordinate to those of union organizers, and acts of vandalism received much greater attention during the 1982 strike than the political actions of workers--but they were seen. Even if worker visibility in the press has been flawed, however, it seems to have planted certain understandings in the public mind which have had consequences for the outcomes of worker campaigns. Workers are not "invisible"--they are "visible," for better or worse. Indeed, workers have long been visible to students.

When the Black Student Union wrested the microphone from Provost Richard W. Lyman at the April 8, 1968, convocation, "Colloquium and Plan for Action: Stanford's Response to white Racism," at Memorial Auditorium, Point #7 of their "original Ten Demands" read as follows: Because we are an integral part of the East Palo Alto Black Community, we demand with the Mothers for Equal Education: "The Stanford University advise all of its employees, who deal with the public, of its policy regarding treatment of visitors to the Stanford campus, and especially of its policy regarding visitors belonging to minority groups.

The accounts of Webb Ranch were plentiful. There are certainly instances of vagueness and factual dubiousness, but we should set against them the admirable and incisive investigative reporting that occurred. It certainly cannot be said that these reports ignored the political objectives of workers, for the flurry of press coverage began precisely with the movement toward union recognition.

Yet it could be charged that these press reports were too caught up in the political dealings, as in 1982, and put too little attention on the voices of workers themselves. Readers will observe that I have much more input from health officials, union representatives, and ranch owners than from workers themselves. This was a bias of the press coverage that I regretfully have reproduced myself. Despite the shortcomings of press coverage, and my coverage, it is evident that rather than suffering a hopeless case of "invisibility," Stanford workers have engaged in a lengthy struggle for recognition.

Another point of interest in Chris' thesis, illustrates how needs and sensitivities change over time. An organizing campaign of mostly women office workers in 1979-1981 published their objectives or demands, as "Ten Rights" of office workers:

  • 1. The right to respect as women and as office workers.
  • 2. The right to comprehensive, written job descriptions specifying the nature of all duties expected of the employee.
  • 3. The right to detailed descriptions specifying compensation terms, conditions and benefits of employment.
  • 4. The right to compensation for work not included in our job descriptions.
  • 5. The right to choose whether to do the personal work of employers (typing personal letter, serving coffee, running out for lunch).
  • 6. The right to maternity benefits and to having pregnancy and other gynelogical conditions treated as temporary medical disabilities.
  • 7. The right to equal access to promotion opportunities and on-the-job training programs.
  • 8. The freedom to choose ones [sic] lifesytle [sic] and to participate in on-the-job
  • organizing or outside activities which do not detract from the execution of assigned tasks.
  • 9. The right to written and systematic grievance procedures.