Opinion guest column

International student workers deserve fair treatment

How unionization can ensure greater support, stability, and access to opportunity

In June 2019, President Rafael Reif wrote to the MIT community that immigration and international exchange are the “oxygen” of innovation and prosperity, appearing to express a commitment from MIT to support international student workers. However, the following year, MIT threw hundreds of international students into crisis by suddenly ending remote appointments that had enabled them to work from their home countries during the pandemic. This was not an isolated event, but rather an intensification of a pattern of precarity and disempowerment that international student workers frequently experience. During this crisis and in the months since, we’ve spoken to many fellow international student workers who believe that MIT’s policies often do not reflect or respond to our needs and that forming a graduate student worker union at MIT is the best way we can compel the Institute to respect our rights and well-being. Here are some of the stories we have heard.

Remote appointments during COVID-19

When Harvard and MIT sued against the July 6 ICE Student Ban, which gave students seven weeks to pack their bags and leave the U.S., they described the ban as ‘arbitrary and capricious.’ MIT is now giving overseas students seven weeks to uproot their lives and return to the U.S. I fail to see how this is any different.

“When I got stuck in my home country during COVID facing uncertainty about my visa processing timeline, MIT demanded an immediate return to campus in the fall, or else I would be responsible for losing my funding.”

“Consulates in my country have all been closed due to COVID. Since MIT demanded us to return, we had to travel to Europe or South America to renew our visas.”

Even when students obtained approval from their advisors to work remotely, their requests for accommodation were dismissed. The MIT administration either claimed that these difficulties were not “absolute barriers,” or told students to personally bear the risk of losing funding or legal status.

Career development 

“Neither federal regulation nor other top schools such as Stanford, Berkeley, or CMU limit international students to only two CPTs (curricular-related work authorization). MIT effectively forbids me to do more than two internships during my PhD. This is discrimination based on immigration status.”

MIT admin told the student that changing the rule would be unfair to previous international students, who were only allowed two internships. Some departments offer no CPTs for internships.

Legal support

“While my American peers in an abusive advisor-advisee relationship can afford to drop out and find a job at worst, my worst outcome would be losing my legal status and leaving the country. I asked all legal resources in Boston about my options to stay and work in the US, and everyone who responded declined to advise on issues other than Green Card applications.”

The student contacted the International Student Office (ISO) with multiple phone calls but received redundant responses without any concrete help. Many other students we interviewed also felt that the ISO is understaffed and often slow to respond or unable to provide material help, even in urgent situations.

Financial stability

“Especially in the Boston area, the student stipend is difficult to get to work as a couple. I would not have made it through grad school without depleting my savings. Every month my bank account was typically just enough for rent and food. Better support systems are great, but really nothing beats a vastly increased salary.”

Visa restrictions on work hours and off-campus employment mean that international students with a partner often have to provide for two (or more, if they have children) on a single student stipend, without the option of supplemental income from part-time work. Because it is difficult to rent off-campus without a U.S. credit history, we are also more likely than domestic students to live in MIT housing — which suffers from problems with affordability and livability.

How a union would help

MIT’s policies are characterized by a lack of consideration for international student workers’ needs and well-being, an unnecessarily restrictive interpretation of immigration and work authorization laws, and a lack of feedback mechanisms for responding to problems we face. MIT is the guarantor of our immigration status, our employer, and also (often) our landlord, resulting in an extreme imbalance of power that we can equalize only by standing together and exercising our collective power as graduate workers.

From even before its public launch in September, the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) has functioned as a rallying point and support system for international student workers across departments. GSU organizers created the International Support Network and successfully advocated for ISO and MIT administrators to hold information sessions on travel and immigration rules and establish a 24/7 emergency immigration hotline. While these efforts illustrate how collective action can win concrete improvements, each win requires immense time and energy, and many problems remain unresolved.

What we need now is to formally unionize in order to create sustainable, democratic structures that represent our needs and cement necessary protections. Moreover, we understand that many international student workers fear being retaliated against for speaking out about issues we face. Unlike other forms of student advocacy, union activity is subject to strong legal protections that immigration authorities respect. By coming together to form a union, international student workers and our domestic grad worker allies will have the bargaining power to win and enforce policy improvements that we decide on democratically.

Graduate union contracts provide strong, legally binding protections for international student workers’ rights. For example, a contract can require the university to:

In addition, a union contract can secure financial benefits that would be especially impactful for international students, such as:

With a union, we would have the power to bargain for similar policies at MIT, as well as equal access to professional development opportunities and additional resources for the ISO — which currently has just 13 full-time employees to support nearly 3,000 international graduate students.

The first step toward winning a contract is for MIT graduate workers to express support by signing union cards (kept confidential from advisors and administrators), which are required to be filed for a union election. A successful union election will require MIT to negotiate with democratically selected grad worker representatives to create a contract that all graduate workers will ratify by majority vote. We look forward to working with the MIT administration as equals to arrive at a contract that addresses our collective needs.

Please help us protect international student workers’ rights by signing your union card at mitgsu.org/sign. Together, we can win fair, equal, and supportive working conditions for all international student workers.

Junyi Chu is a fifth-year graduate student-worker in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and an organizer for the MIT Graduate Student Union.

Yanwei Wang is a third-year graduate student-worker in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.