On August 31, in response to a mounting graduate-student unionization campaign, Washington University in St. Louis Provost Holden Thorp e-mailed students notifying them of a document that provided answers to frequently asked questions about unionization. The document paints unions as risky, irrational ventures that may not result in material gains for students. In its later pages, when the office takes up the question of international students’ involvement in a potential union, the FAQ’s tone turns sinister.
In answer to the question, “Could a strike potentially have an impact on my F-1 visa status?” the office becomes unequivocal: First, the office points out, if international students on an F-1 visa lose their student status, they would no longer be allowed to remain in the country and would have to leave immediately. “Furthermore,” the memo says, “universities are legally required to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement…if a student fails to maintain status.” Washington University, the memo effectively implies, would be legally bound to call ICE if international students went on strike.
While the university appeared to present a neutral account of the law, the response to the question is misleading. It’s true that F-1 visa holders who cease to be students are no longer permitted to be in the country, but it’s the university, not ICE, who decides when an international student is no longer a student. And for the university to revoke student status because of a strike or other action relating to unionization would be a clear violation of federal labor law.
“It’s one thing to inform students about unionization,” said Oguz Alyanak, an anthropology graduate student from Turkey who is involved with the union campaign. “It’s another to threaten them with deportation, to try to directly influence how they behave and how they act as students.” Alyanak, who has an F-1 visa, said that he saw the memo “spread fear over other international students,” and that until recently many of them had been too afraid to sign the petition for a union election.
WashU did not respond to The Nation‘s requests for comment. The administration has since updated the FAQ to clarify that “The University would not report a student’s change in status to the government unless it determined that…it must do so in order to be legally compliant.” But for Alyanak and others on the campaign, it’s hard to interpret the original memo as anything but an intimidation tactic. Nearly half of Washington University graduate students are international. It makes strategic sense, they say, for the university to drum up paranoia that a union would jeopardize student visas, thereby dividing the student body and tipping the election.
In fact, it’s a tactic that universities have frequently used to combat student unionization efforts across the country since the Columbia decision, in which the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities are employees and can unionize. For example, an article in Northwestern University’s student newspaper earlier this year quoted a university administrator who warned of potential consequences for international students who lost their visa “Under this current (Trump) administration.” This doesn’t change the fact that only the university administration can revoke students’ enrollment status in the event of a union strike, which is illegal under federal labor law. In response to a similar question posed in an FAQ released this April, Princeton University’s dean’s office made the vague claim that “No union has the ability to prevent the US Government from denying visas or work permits or deporting international students.” They paired this with a reminder of the university’s commitment to students threatened by immigration policies, linking to a letter Princeton and many other universities signed urging Trump to rescind his June travel ban. Organizers for Cornell’s 2002 grad student union campaign reported similar threats. And it’s a tactic not exclusive to private universities: In 2010, the University of Wisconsin at Madison instituted a policy that prevented international students from joining the school’s graduate-research-assistant union, which the administration claimed protected students from risking their visa statuses.
At Columbia last December, shortly before the union election, the university’s provost and associate provost published an article in the school newspaper attempting to dissuade international students from voting for a union. The article singled out the fact that the national United Auto Workers union, which the students planned to join, has opposed the expansion of the H1-B visa program to protect American workers. The provosts painted this nationalistic policy as evidence that a grad student union at Columbia would not advance the interests of international student workers.
Anti-union campaigns led by student groups have also made dubious references to restrictions on the labor rights of international students. At a town hall on unionization at Princeton last year, a student representative from an anti-union group falsely argued that F-1 visa holders are only allowed to study in the United States, not to work, and therefore would be excluded from a union. During a previous union campaign at Cornell in 2002, an FAQ released by the anti-union student group “At What Cost”—a group that has reappeared in the wake of NLRB’s 2016 decision—criticized the national UAW on the same grounds that Columbia’s provosts did. When unionization resurfaced at Cornell last fall, international students interviewed by The Cornell Daily Sun cited concerns about whether a union would represent their interests appropriately.
Students at Washington University also brought up immigration status in discussions about unionization: One grad student supervisor sent a blast e-mail to all Arts & Sciences students earlier this year with a suggestion about deportation similar to Provost Thorp’s. “I have been told that if a graduate student union is formed, and this union goes on strike…all foreign students will lose their visas and have to leave the country,” it reads. “In my opinion, this would be terrible for our students and our program.”
The misinformation continued at the University of Oregon, University of California Santa Cruz, and UCLA, where administration spokespeople alleged that international students would forfeit their visas if they joined impending strikes, releasing statements with language similar to Washington University’s FAQ. The statements provoked strong reactions from union leadership; the strike at University of Oregon, which began as a dispute over sick leave, ended in a victory for the workers. While retaliation on the basis of visa status is definitively illegal according to the NLRB, these past intimidation tactics may offer a taste of future resistance from private university administrations in the event of a strike.
But even as student groups and administrators have attempted to paint unionization as a selfish act that throws visa holders under the bus, many union campaigns have worked to center the unfair treatment of international students in their unionization efforts. Organizers at Purdue University argued last year that international students needed a union—under current conditions, they were afraid that if they spoke up individually they would lose their visa status. Meanwhile, the Columbia campaign created a working group specifically for international students and argued for the rights of a grad student from China who was fired and forced to leave the country without due process. An older union at the University of Massachusetts Amherst successfully campaigned against a $65-per-semester “fee” the school’s administration imposed on all international students solely to make money for its program office.
Misinformation campaigns like Washington University’s are among the subtler ways for school administrators to defeat unions: A botched election gives the appearance that there is no demand on campus for an improvement in working conditions. But organizers for the Washington University campaign say they’re confident they will be able to counter the university’s messaging to international students, and that domestic and international students alike will come together to vote for a union this fall. On September 14 they held a rally in front of the university’s central administrative building to celebrate their formal filing with the NLRB the following Friday. The rally was attended by more than 150 graduate students, faculty, campus workers, and community members.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we had a majority,” said Lucky Santino, a graduate student on the campaign’s organizing committee. “And that includes international students.”
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at firstname.lastname@example.org.