Foreign students

Kelly Hildebrandt

In China, workers’ unions are more like social networks than collective bargaining units. Therefore, some students from China might not know what to expect if they vote for a graduate assistant union at the University.
“In different countries, a union means different things,” said Emily LaBabera-Twarog, president of the graduate assistant union at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The complex question of whether to vote for union representation is even more difficult for international students, who have many different conceptions of what union representation means.
Also, international students are faced with strict rules on how many hours they can work. Generally, international students have 50 percent appointments, which means they work about 20 hours per week.
Under international student visas, students are prohibited from working more than the appointed 20 hours, said Craig Peterson, an adviser in International Student and Scholar Services. During breaks they are permitted to work 40 hours.
Additionally, international students can’t seek employment outside the University unless they are given permission, Peterson said. If they do work off campus, it must be related to their field of study.
Mail-in ballots will be sent out today to the 4,000 graduate assistants eligible to vote in the union election. Of those eligible to vote, a significant number are international students.
Graduate assistants will have until May 11 to send in their ballots. During that time, campaigning will still be allowed. For a union to be appointed, more than 50 percent of the graduate assistants who vote must be in favor of a union.
“It really shouldn’t affect the day-to-day life of an international student,” Peterson said.
Graduate Students Organizing Congress members say a union will benefit international students, but members of Graduate Students Against Unionization say it will be detrimental.
Also, because international students are paying big bucks to come such a far distance, they are often more focused on education.
“I’m not interested in politics,” said Narayanan Chidambaran, an international student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who said his primary focus is to finish graduate school as soon as possible.
“Most of the people are not bothered with working extra hours for faster education,” Chidambaran said. Chidambaran said he would have reconsidered attending the University if he had known about the graduate assistant union campaign when he made his decision.
Uygar Ozesmi, an international student from Turkey, said he is concerned the University’s image is changing, and that is why he favors a union.
The general trend is that job security for graduate students and professors has eroded over the years and they are treated more like employees and less like scholars.
“They’re not here for the money,” Ozesmi said, explaining that most graduate assistants want a good education.
If this erosion continues, fewer international students will come to the University to study, Ozesmi said.
“If that academic environment erodes, then why would I come to this place?” Ozesmi asked.
In addition, many universities overseas are molded after American universities, Ozesmi said. If universities continue to become more corporate-minded, he said, universities like those in Turkey will follow suit.
But for some students, a union could improve their stay at the University. Because international students are limited to the number of hours they can work, it often comes down to wages.
“I think international students probably need more protection,” said Glenda Morgan, an international student in political science.
Morgan, a graduate student at the University for six years, said she is still making the same wage as when she started. Since she can’t seek employment elsewhere, her budget has grown tight.
“We really have to make due,” Morgan said. When she was doing her course work, Morgan said her budget was so tight she couldn’t afford the textbooks.
A union will create a forceful bargaining unit, Morgan said, adding that the Council of Graduate Students can’t offer that.
But Sameer Pardhy, an international student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said a union can’t offer him anything new. He gets a raise each year, and since he isn’t married, he doesn’t need dependent coverage.
“The union actually does benefit international students,” said Amherst graduate assistant union president LaBabera-Twarog. She said the benefits are the same for all students regarding wages, work conditions and hours.
Additionally, a union helps educate international students on the regulations of the University and of their visas.
“However, there is the issue that some international students come from countries where unions are different,” LaBabera-Twarog said, adding it’s the union’s job to educate them.
Chidambaran had a negative experience in India with unions while he was an undergraduate.
He said while he was attending college in India, a union was formed, which resulted in a four-month strike. Because of the strike, Chidambaran said he wasn’t able to apply for graduate school and is now a year behind.
Furthermore, Pardhy doesn’t believe he needs representation.
“This is like a family institution,” he said; if he has a problem, he said he talks to his adviser.