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International graduate students and union members weigh in on what a union could offer to international students.

February 23, 2017

International Students Uncertain of What a Graduate Student Union Can Provide

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After calling for unity among all graduate students at a panel discussion earlier this month, Cornell Graduate Students United continues to face concerns from international students, who comprise almost half of the graduate student population.

Panel organizer and CGSU member Nomfundo Makhubo grad told The Sun that CGSU needs to make sure that it is “representative and is sensitive and hears the concerns of grad students that domestic students may not necessarily have.”

Makhubo also noted that with issues that international students face there often comes “an extra layer of complication.” She said that this complication can derive from a range of different concerns including VISA status, currency rates and childcare policies.

However, in terms of outlining plans or policies to address these concerns, Aravind Natarajan grad feels CGSU has been unclear.

“I have not come across any policies or broad ideas that the union has in favor of international students that [are] specific to international students,” he said.

One issue that lacked clarification was the effect of workers’ compensation on international students. Natarajan said that there was no response to his question — something he found “alarming.”

In responding to the particular concerns of international students, “there’s a lot of widespread misinformation about and unawareness about unionizing and I appreciate CGSU’s effort to reach out,” Natarajan said.

Like Natarajan, Nitish Srivastava grad was unsure about how a union could respond to specific concerns and questioned the need at all for a union.

“The University is pretty good to us international students,” said Srivastava. “It cares that you are a student here. What else do you want? I don’t think that there’s a need for a union.”

At New York University, where a graduate student union was established in 2002, international student concerns regarding specific policies are actually treated no differently in the contract. Rather, the union is “dedicated to sustaining a certain organizing force on campus that can be directed at issues as they come up that may lie outside of the contract,” according to NYU graduate student and union member Chris Nickell.

Nickell told The Sun that while several of the unique concerns of international graduate students lie outside the contract, the union has the ability to be a “potent organizing force on campus.”

As an example of this organizing force, Nickell described one of the most prominent ways that Graduate Student Organizing Committee played a role for international students: taxes for international students.

NYU, along with several other universities, had contracted out the dealings of taxes for international students to a third party, Glacier, to negotiate tax treaties. This third party was “ripping off international students to the tune of several thousand dollars,” according to Nickell.

“The union didn’t take official action because it’s not a grievable offense because it’s not something in our contract,” Nickell added. “But it served as a site for exchanging information and organizing against what to us felt like unfair treatment of international students through negligence, but yielding the same results as unfair treatment.”

This organizing ability that also comes from its democratic structure also played a role following President Donald Trump’s Executive Order on immigration at NYU.

“The union is not anything but us — that is to say, we are the union,” Nickell said. “If we are organizing our people, we know better than anyone else who are our international students, who’s at risk, who’s doing research in one of these seven countries, who has passports from one of these seven countries.”

Similar to the organizing quality employed at the representative union at NYU, CGSU could “change the culture in same sense,” said Ibrahim Issa grad, a CGSU organizer.

“There’s a lot of this attitude of ‘I’m just going to keep my head down and do whatever it takes and graduate and finish my Ph.D.,’” Issa added. “The presence of a union can help in terms of clarifying in our contract what can be safeguards against problems that deal with administration or with advisors.”

The strength that comes from union organizing was key in the unionization effort at Columbia University, according to Columbia graduate student and union member Tania Bhattacharyya.

Emerging from a town hall meeting early in the union campaign at Columbia was a working group specifically for international students, according to Bhattacharyya.

Citing past concerns such as summer funding for international students, problems in receiving optional practical training and past tax debacles, Bhattacharyya described that the working group, similar to efforts at NYU, found its strength not at the bargaining table, but rather in its organizing abilities.

“We can help our fellow international students with concrete things — through campaigning for and securing new summer language training grants, for example, and most recently a rally in protest against the anti-Muslim Executive Order, demanding that Columbia afford clear protection and support to affected students,”Bhattacharyya said.

Likewise, Columbia’s graduate student union can equally work in informal ways for international students, “as a solidarity group, an advice-sharing resource center,” Bhattacharyya said.

Acting in this more informal role, Bhattacharyya said, the working group acts by “bringing all our resources together and pulling them in for the benefit of international students, who are often the most vulnerable.”

Despite union successes at other universities, not all Cornellians — particularly international students — are convinced of the need for the union.

“I’ve been working as a representative of international students at the graduate school, at the GPSA, and on the campus welfare committee during the last four years now,” Natarajan said. “And while there are isolated incidents of concern, there have never been any major concerns that are exclusive to international students.”