All-American Union

U. of Wisconsin says collective bargaining could endanger international students' visas -- a stance that organizers see as a scare tactic.
January 25, 2010

The University of Wisconsin at Madison says that it is trying to protect its international students by keeping them out of a new union for graduate research assistants. The argument -- which union activists and some independent experts call unprecedented -- has angered graduate students and advocates for international students.

They charge that the university's stance -- that joining the union could endanger the international students' visa status or force strict limits on their work hours -- is a scare tactic that is unfair and inaccurate. They note that at other universities where graduate students are organized, international students are included as members, and this is not known to have created a single visa problem over the years. But because the university won legislative backing for its interpretation, the union at Madison may have difficulty including international members.

Lawmakers in Wisconsin last year approved a bill that expanded the ability of unions to organize educators at the University of Wisconsin System. At the flagship campus in Madison, teaching assistants have been organized for years -- and the unit includes foreign students. But during the negotiations over the legislation to authorize more unions, a provision was added at the request of the university that would bar foreign students from any new union of research assistants. Officials told the Associated Press that they worried that foreign students could be endangered because their visas generally limit their work to 20 hours a week, and joining a union might suggest that they are full-time employees.

Madison officials did not respond for requests for clarification of their views on the visa situation, especially in light of the experience of other universities with foreign students in unions. But Stephen Lund of the human resources department at Madison told the AP that international students in a union would be forced to limit their work to 20 hours a week, making it more difficult for them to finish degrees. "It's in their best interests to not be covered," he told the wire service.

At the time that the law passed, relatively little attention was paid to the provision, but now that unions are getting ready for organizing drives, they are angry about the measure.

Peter Rickman is president of the Teaching Assistants' Association at Madison, the American Federation of Teachers unit that represents T.A.'s and wants to organize research assistants as well. He said that a simple principle explains why he wants international students included in any expansion: "Graduate student workers are graduate student workers," he said.

Rickman said that he finds it hard to take seriously the argument university officials have argued, given that other unions have foreign students without any problems, and that the teaching assistants in his union have never had this problem. "This is part of an opposition campaign of management being management."

If the separation of international from other students succeeds, he said, the consequences could be serious. About 700 of the 2,500 research assistants who could be unionized are international students, he said. "If they are not included in the bargaining unit, they will not be covered by the contract. There is no good reason to exclude people from these basic rights," he said. "This introduces a degree of irrationality and unevenness that shouldn't be there."

Officials with graduate student unions at the Universities of Oregon and California confirmed that they have hundreds of international student members -- many of them research assistants -- and have never heard the concern raised by Madison.

Craig Smith, a spokesman for the AFT, called the issues raised at Madison "red herrings." He added: "We know from our experience at institutions such as the University of Oregon that international research assistants who are members of a union are able to complete and succeed in their programs."

Tareq Tawaiha, chair of the International Student Concerns Committee of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, said he was angered by the Wisconsin law. "We believe in equal treatment for all graduate students and this is very discriminatory," he said. Tawaiha is a doctoral student from Jordan at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

While graduate students aren't unionized at Nebraska, Tawaiha said that international students "want to belong to your community and to feel a part of decisions" and that it would be divisive for them to be cut off from a union where one forms. Further, he said that for some international students, unions may be particularly helpful -- given that they have less flexibility than an American student who encounters a difficult supervisor.

"You have to remember that because of the way immigration law is set up, if you lose your assistantship or have a problem, it's not easy to just pack up your stuff and go to a different university" without risking visa status and having to apply all over again, he said. Unions "could be one way to help international students stand up for themselves."

Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, said it was "astonishing" that any university would argue that international students would face difficulties by joining a union. (The center Boris leads is supported both by labor and management groups in higher education.)

Boris said that "there is a substantial non-American cohort" in most graduate student unions and that he has "never heard" of anyone making the argument Wisconsin made. "It's absolute malarkey," he said.


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