International grad students support union

We are international graduate assistants, and we will vote for the graduate assistant union. We will vote yes for some reasons common to all graduate assistants and some that apply specifically to international graduate assistants. The main reason we will vote for the union is that unions at other universities have helped graduate assistants, both international students and U.S. citizens, make gains that have allowed them to focus on their studies and their research.
While no graduate assistants expect to get rich, international graduate assistants face distinct economic concerns. First, federal guidelines prevent us from working more than 50 percent in our appointments. Second, we are not permitted to work for any employer other than the University during the academic year. Third, spouses of international students are not permitted, in most cases, to work at all in the United States. Fourth, we are taxed at a higher rate than U.S. citizens.
Taken together, these factors mean that international graduate assistants have a hard time making ends meet. For those who come to the United States with a spouse and child, the situation is particularly difficult. Supporting a family on one 50 percent appointment borders on the impossible. The distance from family and old friends compounds the challenge, as there is no one nearby to help if we run into difficulties. In many cases, of course, economic help from family is out of the question anyway, since the weakness of so many currencies compared with the U.S. dollar means that money sent from home would be nearly worthless.
Health insurance is an area that is particularly crucial for international graduate assistants. When faced with several hundred or at times thousand dollar dental bills, we no longer have any way to juggle our resources. The lack of affordable dependent care for graduate assistants is also difficult for us. Buying good health insurance for one’s family can cost nearly $250 per month, which is more than one can afford on take-home wages that average less than $1000 per month.
In addition to these material concerns, international graduate assistants, like other graduate assistants, want to be able to perform our jobs well. Some of us come here needing English-language courses in order to perform effectively in our jobs. Currently, international graduate assistants must pay for these courses out-of-pocket. No employee should have to pay for necessary training. Our tuition waiver should cover English-language courses. We deserve that, and so do the undergraduates we teach.
We believe a union is an effective way to deal with these and other concerns because graduate assistant unions have proven effective in helping both international and U.S. graduate assistants achieve better wages, benefits and working conditions.
At the University of Wisconsin, the administration sought to impose a “coffin tax” on international graduate assistants, which would have required international graduate assistants to buy insurance to cover the costs of shipping their bodies home were they to die while in the United States. The university claimed this was required by federal law. The university’s graduate assistant union researched the question and found that the vast majority of students were not required by law to pay the tax. The union rallied support for eliminating the fee. The university eventually relented, applying the tax only to those students whose visa status genuinely required it.
At the University of Michigan, international teaching assistants are required to attend a three-week workshop before they can begin teaching. Until now, however, attendance at the workshop, while required, has been uncompensated. In addition to helping make the workshop better, the university’s graduate assistant union has worked to achieve compensation for teaching assistants who are required to attend. In their most recent round of negotiations, the union was successful. Workshop attendees will now receive free housing or a $200 stipend, health insurance and a $25 daily food allowance.
International graduate assistants need a union, and our right to participate in any union for which the majority of graduate assistant vote is guaranteed under the law. There are no cases of unions jeopardizing the visa status of an international graduate assistant.
We will all be strongest when we stand together. As international graduate assistants, we share interests, just as we share many interests with U.S. graduate assistants. Whether we are research assistants or teaching assistants, we all need a living wage and adequate health insurance. We all want to be able to do our jobs well and focus on our research, the reason we came to the United States and to Minnesota in the first place. Winning union representation will help us achieve our goals and help make this University stronger.

International graduate students Gonzaga da Gama from Recreation, Park and Leisure Studies, Charlotte Pedersen from Biochemistry and Bogac Erozan and Guang Lei from Political Science, both of whom are members of GradSOC, signed this column.