Have a question about international academic workers that's not listed on this page? Ask here.

Through union representation with the UAW, international graduate and postgraduate academic workers have made significant gains in pay, benefits, rights, and protections. The UAW supports several comprehensive immigration reform measures, including reforms of temporary worker visa programs, no limits on employment-based green cards for foreign students who graduate from American universities, and changes to the family based immigration system.

Combating discriminatory international student fees

Universities across the country charge international students extra fees simply because they are not U.S. citizens. Based on fee waiver language won in their union contract through UAW Local 4121, international graduate workers at the University of Washington prevented the imposition of such fees on those who work as graduate assistants and have mobilized the union’s broader membership to fight to eliminate such fees for ALL international students on campus. GEO-UAW graduate assistants at the University of Massachusetts Amherst also successfully used their union grievance procedure to stop international student fees, arguing that they violated their contract’s non-discrimination clause. An arbitrator ruled that the fee was discriminatory and ordered the university to refund all students who had paid the fee.

Establishing expedited grievance procedures for unjust termination

Post-doctoral researchers at UMass Amherst in UAW-Local 2322 negotiated an expedited arbitration process so that international postdoctoral scholars who believed they were terminated unjustly could have due process without the threat of deportation. Through GEU-UAW Local 6950, graduate assistants at the University of Connecticut negotiated similar language as well.

Expanding opportunities for undocumented workers

Graduate workers at the University of California, UAW-Local 2865, made historic gains when they negotiated equal opportunity rights for undocumented graduate workers into their latest contract. As a result, the union and university are developing a system where DACA students can have equal opportunities for academic and professional development, including roles such as teaching assistant or graduate student instructor. Graduate worker activists in UAW Local 4121 at the University of Washington and in UAW Local 2865 at UC have also used the power of the union and played key roles in the passage of state-level DREAM Acts.

Creating more funding opportunities

At Columbia University, international graduate workers from GWC-UAW, the graduate union for teaching and research assistants on campus, launched a petition to address the lack of summer research funding opportunities available to non-U.S. citizens. As a result of the petition, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) endowed 15 fellowships of $3,000.

Providing resources for international student issues

Recognizing the lack of resources for international students at Columbia University, the Graduate Workers of Columbia have held a series of workshops and forums: events were held with an immigration lawyer on visa and immigration issues and with certified public accountants for a taxes Q&A. Held on both the Morningside and medical campuses, the events were endorsed by the CUMC Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA),Graduate Association of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (GALAIC), International Students Organization (ISO – medical campus), Latin American History Student Association, Mexican Society of Columbia University (MEXCU), and Taiwanese Americans Students Association.

Advocating for continued access to the OPT STEM extension

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received a court order to stop post-completion 17-month Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) OPT extensions by February 2016, because the agency had not followed the proper procedures when they began the extension.The Graduate Workers of Columbia hosted an informational session, which was co-sponsored by the Taiwanese Graduate Student Association and Indian Graduate Student Association, to immediately address the concerns of international students.

USCIS has introduced new rules to the OPT STEM extension program, and the UAW worked with international student workers to publicly comment on the changes.

International academic workers build political power through the UAW

As part of a powerful national political action program, which international academic workers have helped to shape, the UAW has pursued a number of progressive resolutions on immigration and international worker issues. Below are excerpts from these resolutions. You can read the most recent UAW positions on immigration here.

  • International academic workers, who contribute enormously to the intellectual and cultural environment of educational institutions around the country, are routinely exploited in the workplace. They often receive low pay and few benefits. In addition, since Sept. 11, 2001, they have been the target of misguided, discriminatory policies that impose severe burdens. The recent wave of organizing in higher education, led in part by international academic workers, has led to improvements. But more needs to be done.”
  • The UAW supports comprehensive immigration reform, which would “increase the flexibility and length of work opportunities for international academic workers employed by U.S. universities and for their families. Visa processing should be streamlined, and the transition to permanent residency and citizenship should be expedited. This will enhance the intellectual and cultural environment at our universities, while helping to ensure that international academic workers have equitable compensation and equal workplace rights.”
  • The resolutions included this call to action: “Tell Congress to provide increased protections for the rights of international academic workers, including their civil rights and liberties. Congress should oppose any measures that would discriminate against or impose burdens on them. International academic workers should receive adequate, equal compensation and have the opportunity to become permanent residents and citizens.”
  • No limits on employment-based green cards for foreign students who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in scientific and technical fields, along with other measures to liberalize visas for foreign students. These changes will benefit many UAW members employed as teaching and research assistants at colleges and universities.

When we act collectively, we have power, not only in our workplaces, but also in the national debates and federal actions that affect us.

As an international student, how would a union benefit me?

International graduate students have many reasons to join a union. First, the union can provide a voice and means of advocacy for international graduate students who don’t always know the U.S. university system. Second, the union can help ensure that departmental hiring practices are clear, open, and fair so that international graduate students don’t miss out on work opportunities. Third, since U.S. law prohibits international students from being paid for more than 20 hours of work per week, it is especially critical for international students that the minimum university stipend guarantees a decent living standard. Fourth, higher wages, a voice in our working conditions, better and more affordable benefits, a fair and enforceable grievance procedure, and respect as employees are things all graduate student workers and their families deserve.

Can I join a union in the United States if I am here on a student visa?

Yes!< Every international graduate student, regardless of national origin or type of visa, has the right to join a union. Your right to belong to a union is protected by the right to freedom of association guaranteed in the United States Constitution. In addition, the right to form and join a union for the protection of your interests is a part of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights(see Article 23). The visa requirement that foreign students may only accept employment associated with the university they attend in no way compromises the right to belong to a union. Graduate employees have formed unions and bargained contracts at many schools, and graduate employee unions have existed for almost 40 years. It is against the law for your employer (the University) to discriminate against you on the basis of your union membership or participation in legal union activities. See this pamphlet on your protected rights under federal law .

That discrimination exists against international students, however, is clear. This is another reason why international students should join the union and help fight for more protections. Only with a union, independent of the University administration, can you be assured that if you are subject to discrimination by the administration that there is a group that will stand behind you and will help to defend you.

Are there any restrictions on political activity by foreign students?

All foreign students enjoy the same rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association as U.S. nationals. Federal law protects your right to join a union. The only relevant restriction on political activity by foreign students is that they cannot make financial contributions to political organizations in the United States.

Are there any restrictions on my ability to participate in union activities such as picketing, rallies, and leafleting?

Political activities such as picketing, rallies, leafleting, demonstrations, etc., are forms of expression and free association, which are protected for foreigners in the U.S. (including foreign students with visas) as they are for U.S. nationals. It is against the law for your employer (the University or your supervisor/advisor) to retaliate against you for participating in these protected activities.

Will my union membership or union activity affect visa applications that I might make in the future?

No. It is against the law for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to ask you questions about your union membership or your legal union activities or to take them into account when reviewing your visa application. In the past there was a question on the visa application form asking the applicant about his/her union activities. But this question was removed from the application form several years ago.

Will joining a union negatively affect my status at the university?

No. In nearly 40 years of graduate employee unionization, there is no reported instance of any international student having problems with the law or with their visa status as the result of their union activity. It is against the law for the university to retaliate against you for union activities. See this pamphlet on your protected rights under federal law . It is also highly unlikely that a university would charge you with violating university regulations as a result of your union activities. But if they did so, this would probably be found illegal. There is no known case of any international student being expelled from the university as a result of union activities, nor would such an expulsion be legal. There is one known case at Yale University, which charged two international students with academic misconduct for their participation in strike activities. The charges were subsequently dropped.

Don’t see your question answered here? Let us know!

Fields marked with * are required