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Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English, University of Pittsburgh. You can find her on Twitter @SritamaBarna.

I will start this post the way I usually start my posts -- with my transition from India to the U.S.A. as an international graduate student. While committing to the University of Pittsburgh for its Ph.D. program, which is known for its strengths in postcolonial studies and critical race theory, there were a lot of factors that I took into consideration. One of the main factors was whether it would be sustainable for me to stay in Pittsburgh with the stipend that I would receive. However, one thing that I completely forgot to look into was whether Pitt had a graduate students’ union or not. It didn’t occur to me to look this up because in India graduate unions (although they function differently than in the U.S.) are very common. So I assumed that universities in the U.S. would have unions, too. Looking back, I realize how naïve I was to make that assumption. It was a shock to me when I discovered after coming to Pitt that we don’t have a union. However, it was also a moment of hope, because I learned through my comrades at Pitt that the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) has been organizing for some years to form a union, only to receive severe pushback from the administration. This pushback is indicative of the potential of unions: Why would university authorities all over the U.S. invest so much effort to prevent students from unionizing if it wasn't effective? Graduate students’ unions matter. Because of this the university engaged in intimidation practices to prevent students from organizing and from forming a union.

Before outlining why a graduate students’ union would make a huge difference for international graduate employees, it is important to state that international graduate employees in the U.S. are legally allowed to unionize and have voting rights when a union is being formed. The university cannot threaten or engage in intimidation practices to prevent international students from voting to form a union.

Here’s why a graduate students’ union matters so much to international graduate student employees.

Navigating bureaucracy and hostile political climate. Arriving in a new country and getting familiar with how university bureaucracies work can be very difficult for international students. As a result, international students do not always feel welcome, resulting in a sense of alienation from the community at school. Schools often hold international breakfasts and lunches for international students but do not actually create structures and systems that makes the process of navigating grad school easier. Personally, I face a lot of difficulty in navigating the often complex maze of bureaucracy related to grad school. Whom do I turn to for help? Last year, although I was told that my medical health insurance covers all my expenses, I came back to the U.S. only to receive a huge bill for health services. I was completely thrown off. It took me multiple emails and phone calls to understand why I was charged for something that was apparently covered by my insurance. The international students’ orientation, which we were mandated to attend, had a lot of presentations about how diversity matters to the university, but did not talk about more specific situations that I might have to navigate on my own.

In spring 2018, I filed taxes. I knew that I had to do my tax filing and that taxation works differently for international students, but there was little to no help offered by my university, except for a few emails reminding us that we need to file our taxes by such and such dates. There was no tangible help provided. No workshops were held. I found myself turning to my roommate, Silpa Mukherjee, a fellow international graduate student and a union supporter, for help.

I recently spoke to Yueran Zhang, an international graduate student at University of California, Berkeley, who also voiced similar concerns. “International student workers have very few channels to voice our concerns and defend our rights … and face severe discrimination when trying to navigate university bureaucracies. Having a union is the most important way for international student workers to get heard and work to improve our working and learning conditions. This is especially important as the national political climate is turning against many of us, as shown in the overall tightening of student visa policy.”

Yueran’s words are relevant considering that international students have been impacted by Trump’s travel ban. Graduate student unions can be very effective in defending the rights of international graduate student employees through collective bargaining. Yueran cites the example of the Harvard Graduate Students’ Union, among many other graduate student unions, “who have won contract language guaranteeing job security for student workers who are temporarily unable to return to the United States due to immigration and visa-related issues.”

Elimination of discrimination. One of the reasons that I got involved in union organizing is because I felt that international students were being discriminated against. For instance, there are many fellowships (for example, Nationality Room Summer Graduate Fellowships at Pitt) that are not open to international students, making it an extremely uneven field. This is not just true for my university. Such discriminatory policies exist in many other universities in the U.S. For instance, many universities such as the University of Illinois at Chicago impose unfair fees on international students. In the last contract that the graduate students’ union at the University of Illinois at Chicago won, the extra fees for international students have been halved.

Yueran also cites another example where there have been tangible gains for international students: “Through collective petition and grievance procedure, the Irvine unit of the UC student worker union has pushed the university administration to repeal a policy requiring international student workers to pay for an English speaking test in order to get TA jobs. Most importantly, it is often international student workers themselves who led the charge in these union actions and campaigns.”

A couple of months ago, a professor at Duke University had sent out an email to Chinese students in the department asking them to speak in English during informal conversations with friends and colleagues instead of Mandarin Chinese. Although the professor eventually apologized, such modes of discrimination are very common and often not visible. A number of universities do not even have a grievance-redressal mechanism to handle such incidents. Even when such procedures exist, they can be limited in their reach of what might be covered. In situations such as above, inserting an antidiscrimination policy in the contract or a robust grievance-redressal mechanism would be of immense benefit to international students.

Funding. As international graduate students, our visa restrictions do not let us work for more than 20 hours a week or work outside school, except in special circumstances. Therefore, it is especially important for international students that stipends continue to increase every year and that it is guaranteed by a contract negotiated by the union rather than depending on the generosity or benevolence of our employers. This can only be achieved through an act of collective bargaining by the union.

Sense of Community. As Danny Doucette, an international graduate student at Pitt, puts it, “It’s about being part of a team pushing to make our workplace friendlier and healthier. It’s about enshrining language that protects international students, for all our difference, from discrimination. It’s about being part of a community when I’m a world away from home.”

Danny’s words resonated with me. I have met some of my most amazing colleagues at Pitt through my engagement with organizing for the Graduate Students’ Union. They continue to humble me, and their work has been an inspiration to me in this journey of being a precarious international graduate student in the U.S. I know that in difficult times, we have got each other’s support and that has been a strength moving forward. Thank you all!

Solidarity to all graduate student workers, in this struggle. The fight shall continue!

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Yueran Zhang, Ege Yumusak, Danny Doucette, Sharanya Sridhar and Joe Cronin for their input!

What are some of the ways in which you have benefited from a graduate students’ union at your university? We would love to know. Please let us know in your comments below.

(Image courtesy Jeff Cech)