Can I join a union in the United States if I am here on a foreign student visa?
Yes. Every international graduate student, regardless of national origin or type of visa, has the right to join a union. Your right to belong to a union is protected by the right to freedom of association guaranteed in the United States Constitution. The visa requirement that foreign students may only accept employment associated with the university they attend in no way compromises the right to belong to a union. Graduate employees have formed unions and bargained contracts at many schools, and graduate employee unions have existed for almost 40 years. None of the campuses with unions have reported any complications arising from the dual status of being both a foreign student and a unionized employee. It is against the law for your employer (the University) to discriminate against you on the basis of your union membership or participation in legal union activities.
That discrimination exists against international students, however, is clear. This is another reason why international students should join a union and help fight for more protections. Only with a union, independent of the University administration, can you be assured that if you are subject to discrimination by the administration that there is a group that will stand behind you and will help to defend you.
Are there any restrictions on political activity by foreign students?
All foreign students enjoy the same rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association as U.S. nationals. Federal law protects your right to join a union. The only relevant restriction on political activity by foreign students is that they cannot make financial contributions to political organizations in the United States.
Are there any restrictions on my ability to participate in union activities such as picketing, rallies, and leafleting?
Political activities such as picketing, rallies, leafleting, demonstrations, etc., are forms of expression and free association, which are protected for foreigners in the U.S. (including foreign students with visas) as they are for U.S. nationals. It is against the law for your employer (the University) to retaliate against you for participating in these protected activities.
Will my union membership or union activity effect visa applications that I might make in the future?
No. It is against the law for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to ask you questions about your union membership or your legal union activities or to take them into account when reviewing your visa application. In the past there was a question on the visa application form asking the applicant about his/her union activities. But this question was removed from the application form several years ago.
Are there any other issues I should be aware of?
In nearly 40 years of graduate employee unionization, there is no reported instance of any international student having problems with the law or with their visa status as the result of their union activity. It is against the law for the university to retaliate against you for union activities. It is also highly unlikely that a university would charge you with violating university regulations as a result of your union activities. But if they did so, this would probably be found illegal. There is no known case of any international student being expelled from the university as a result of union activities, nor would such an expulsion be legal. There is one known case at Yale University, which charged two international students with academic misconduct for their participation in strike activities. The charges were subsequently dropped.
As an international student, how would a union benefit me?
International graduate students have many reasons to join a union. First, the union can provide a voice and advocacy for international graduate students who don’t always know the U.S. university system. Second, the union can help ensure that departmental hiring practices are clear, open, and fair so that international graduate students don’t miss out on work opportunities. Third, since U.S. law prohibits international students from being paid for more than 20 hours per week, making sure that the minimum stipend guarantees a decent living standard is even more critical. Fourth, better and more affordable benefits, a fair and enforceable grievance procedure, higher wages, a voice in our working conditions, and respect as employees are things all grads and their families deserve.
For more information see: Rights of International Students to Join GEO.