News and Updates

An International Student’s Guide to Unionization

Can international graduate students unionize?

Yes! Many graduate employee unions include large numbers of international graduate employees, not only as members, but as leaders who advocate for improved working conditions. Benefits of unionization like stable healthcare and summer funding may be of special importance to international graduate student workers.

Will supporting the union affect my visa status?

Unionization will not affect your visa status. All workers on nonimmigrant visas (including student visas) in the United States are able to unionize and are protected by the same laws as US citizens when it comes to speaking up about your rights. This means that you cannot be fired from your position due to your support of the union, and retaliation for any union activity is against the law.  

What have graduate unions done for international students?

A number of graduate student unions have formed committees to address issues specific to international student employees and have won enforceable improvements in their contracts. Below are some of the successes that graduate employee unions have won for international graduate employees.

  • A smoother tax procedure: At Columbia University, graduate employees mobilized to make the  complicated process of filing taxes more manageable for international graduate employees. There, international students experienced a massive delay in receiving tax returns and the University was slow to act. The international student working group of the Graduate Workers of Columbia University mobilized their membership and collected over 1,000 signatures on a petition demanding action and successfully pressured the university to take action.

  • Elimination of visa fees: At the University of Washington, the graduate employees have won language in their union contract that prevents the university from imposing visa fees on international graduate students, including those who are not currently working as graduate assistants. This encompasses any fees associated with visas, including SEVIS fees. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, graduate workers utilized the union grievance procedure (see below) to argue that forcing international students to pay fees that US citizens do not pay was discriminatory. The decision was upheld by a third-party arbitrator and the university was ordered to refund all students who had paid the fee.

  • Expedited grievance procedures for unjust terminations: For international students whose visas are tied to their academic program status, being forced out of a program may be especially devastating and often means leaving the country. The union grievance procedure is a formal process that allows workers who have been unjustly terminated to fight back in a timely way before having to leave the US. Graduate employees also may request union representation during the grievance process, which means that they do not have to navigate the process alone. Graduate students at the University of Connecticut have negotiated such protections, and postdoctoral scholars have won expedited grievance procedures in their contract at UMass Amherst.  

  • Access for undocumented graduate students: Graduate Students at the University of California have also won protections and equal opportunity guarantees for undocumented graduate student workers in their union contracts, such as equal access to teaching assistant and graduate student instructor positions and equal opportunity in career development support.

  • Influenced US immigration policy beyond the university: Through our collective power, graduate worker unions have had a powerful voice in shaping US immigration policies that directly affect international graduate students. The graduate student union at Columbia helped protect the the 17 month Optional Professional Training (OPT) program for STEM graduates (which exists in addition to the 12 month OPT program) by submitting comments to the Department of Homeland Security. This is the primary way that international graduate students secure work authorization in the US after graduation and before moving to another visa category, such as an H1-B. Graduate worker unions also helped block the recent discriminatory muslim ban by filing documents with the courts in Washington State, which led to a district court decision that was key in overturning the ban at the federal level. Graduate student unions at the University of California and at the University of Washington have also played an active role in mobilizing for DREAM Act legislation at the state level.

What can a graduate employee union do for international graduate students here at Penn State?

Many international students here on campus were recently affected by an abrupt and confusing change in travel policies after the initial executive order. In response, President Barron vaguely advised all international members of the campus community not to travel. At the University of Washington, the graduate worker union demanded that any such changes be subject to bargaining, meaning that all graduate workers would have a voice in determining policies and their impact. A graduate employee union at Penn State could protect international graduate students’ legal rights and be a platform from which they can advocate for a more welcoming Penn State.


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