Support for International Students 

What difference does unionization make for international graduate students?

International graduate students are an integral part of the community of student workers at Penn. In addition to the overall upheaval that accompanies relocation, we have to contend with unique challenges at the workplace: visa and immigration precarity, complicated tax laws, zero support finding housing and settling into the Philadelphia community, and insufficient support from poorly-informed department administrators. This is where forming a union can help graduate student workers generally and international graduate student workers specifically! By unionizing, we can collectively bargain for a more supportive and equitable workplace that is sensitive to our status as non-citizens.

What legal rights do international graduate student workers have to join and participate in a union in the U.S.?

Our right to unionize is protected under US Federal law, regardless of national origin and type of visa. The National Labor Relations Act does not differentiate between citizens and non-citizens. Its statutory protections extend to all workers, regardless of their status as immigrants to this country. International workers have the same legal rights to talk to our coworkers about the union, distribute union literature, wear union buttons and t-shirts, sign authorization cards, ask other workers to sign authorization cards, run for union leadership, and participate in contract negotiations. Tens of thousands of international graduate students are already members of academic unions like the Union of Academic Student Employees at the University of California (UAW 2865), the Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at University of Washington (UAW 4121), and the Harvard Graduate Students Union (UAW 5118).

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Can I sign a GETUP-UAW union authorization card if I’m on a F-1/J-1 visa?

As an international graduate student worker, your right to unionize is protected under U.S. Federal law, regardless of national origin and type of visa. Further, your right to belong to a union is protected by the right to freedom of association guaranteed in the United States Constitution. Graduate worker unions have existed for nearly 40 years and there have been no known cases of problems with either the law or with visa status because of union activity.

Will my relationship with my advisor or supervisor be affected?

It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against any student employee for exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). It would be a violation of the NLRA for your advisor or supervisor to retaliate against or penalize you for talking about or participating in union activities, including signing union cards, wearing union paraphernalia, or soliciting others (on non-work time and in non-work areas) to join.

Will signing a union authorization card impact current or future visa or permanent residency prospects in the U.S.?

As international graduate students, we are often worried about our legal status in the U.S. These concerns are heightened for those of us from countries without strong labor rights and protections. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cannot ask you questions about your union membership or participation in lawful union activity. Nor can they use such information in determining the outcome of your immigration/visa application. Further, the National Labor Relations Act does not differentiate between citizens and non-citizens. Its statutory protections extend to all workers, regardless of their status as immigrants to this country. Out of tens of thousands of international graduate students, postdocs, and researchers that are part of UAW, there has never been any reported instances of participation in a union negatively impacting visa or permanent residency applications.

Are there any restrictions on political activity by international students?

All international graduate 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. However, students on visas are prohibited from making financial donations to political candidates and political parties under federal law. That said, many international graduate students contribute by volunteering time. For example, international graduate students have joined for canvassing, phonebanking, and meetings with elected officials.

What rights and protections have international student workers won through unionization at other institutions?

UAW represents Over 100,000 academic workers. Through unionizing, academic employees at other institutions have fought for and won protections for international graduate students in particular. Other international student workers have:

  • Formed support networks to build community to help one another adapt to living in the US. This includes providing accurate information about changing US immigration policy (like hosting information sessions with immigration attorneys).
  • Used collective bargaining to address issues in the workplace that especially impact international scholars, like winning guaranteed vacation days, waiving extra fees that international students and non-resident students are forced to pay, protecting the right to work from abroad during COVID-19, and protecting visa-holders from unjust termination.
  • Worked for better US immigration policy, like increasing access to Optional Practical Training (OPT), opposing the “Fixed Duration of Status” rule, and working with members of congress Judy Chu (San Gabriel Valley) and Pramila Jayapal (Seattle) to oppose the 1-year period of validity for Chinese entry visas. The Western States International Working group, made up of international UAW members from across the west coast, has created this list of priorities for ongoing lobbying efforts.

We are not alone! International student workers across the U.S. are involved in organizing unions at their own institutions. Check out their resources and info on what improvements they’re organizing for:

From my perspective as an international student, I strongly believe that unions can play a crucial role in addressing the unique challenges that we face. By banding together and advocating for our collective interests, we can work towards creating a more supportive and inclusive environment for ourselves and for those who will come after us. I believe this can offer a platform for our voices to be heard and our concerns to be addressed.”



“As an international student-worker at Penn, my situation is very precarious and I am fully economically dependent on the stipend I receive from the University every month. My visa situation restricts the possibility to obtain income from other sources (which, with a decent wage, we shouldn’t be in need for). I firmly believe that a union contract would provide a more solid ground to negotiate decent wages for everyone that reflect the current economic situation.”