A point that keeps recurring in the debates about graduate assistant unionization is the position of international graduate students. Anti-union pundits argue that many international graduate assistants have been intimidated by other graduate assistants organizing for the union. Notably, this issue almost never gets raised by international students who say they themselves have been harassed but by American students “defending” international students supposedly unable to speak up. As international students, we find this rhetoric troubling.
International students are diverse in many respects, and it is therefore impossible to make generalizations about what they think or feel. Some are pro-union and some are anti-union. What we think can be generally assumed is that international students are smart. Moreover, as these are people who have left family ties and home cultures in order to come study at the University of Minnesota, it is safe to assume that they are capable of making their own decisions.
As such, the anti-union specter of masses of international students who have been too polite or intimidated to fend off scary Graduate Student Workers United organizers is somewhat bizarre. International students are capable of speaking for themselves and of defending their ideas to colleagues. Reinforcing stereotypes that they are silent and passive is, frankly, condescending. The ways that unionization will impact international graduate assistants are the same ways it will impact other graduate assistants. The specific administrative issues that we have to deal with that American students do not — like visas and Student and Exchange Visitor Information System fees — are not impacted by this process.
As international graduate assistants in favor of unionization, we do not have any illusions that a union contract will miraculously triple our pay or eliminate any and all conflicts between graduate assistants and their advisers or principal investigators. What we do believe is that it will create a higher baseline of respect for graduate student work than currently exists. Too often graduate assistant labor is treated by departments, whether intentionally or not, as an infinitely extendable and expendable resource.
Assistantships that radically exceed the number of appointment hours, or for which working hours are not even kept track of, can have major consequences for students’ degree progress. They also have consequences for graduate assistants’ abilities to engage in activities such as publishing and presenting at conferences that are essential to success on the job market. Regardless of what gets negotiated in the contract, unionization will at the very least make departments aware that graduate assistant labor is something that needs to be negotiated and not just dictated.