We are UAW Local 4121 members concerned with matters affecting international student/scholar members of our union. Our union is comprised of more than 1,000 international students/scholars from virtually every country in the world. We draw from the rich experiences and deep expertise of these international students/scholars and from researchers working on global issues to accomplish the following objectives:
- Understand the challenges faced by international ASEs/Postdocs at the UW, and address them in the context of our collective bargaining agreement.
- Advocate for the equal right of international ASEs/Postdocs to access resources needed to fulfill their academic and professional goals.
- Develop strategies to connect with and support larger global movements social justice movements.
Department: Computer Science and Engineering
From: Kathmandu, Nepal
As a PhD student transferring to UW, I was looking forward to the many improvements in my grad student life here – better health insurance, reduced mandatory fees, increased stipend, and free public transit to name a few. I quickly found out that many of the things that made UW such a great choice for me were direct consequences of union contract negotiations.
In fact, the union is constantly fighting to maintain and expand these hard-fought victories year after year. I joined the union because it had already greatly improved my life at UW, and I wanted to do my part as a member to ensure the same for all fellow ASEs. Having come from an institution without a union, I greatly appreciate the solidarity and community I have as a member of UAW-4121.
This is especially important to me as an international student. Over the years, the union, and particularly the International Student Workgroup, has actively taken up many issues affecting international students at UW and across the US. I appreciate all that the union does for me, and am excited to pay it forward as a member and organizer.
Department: Earth and Space Sciences
From: Winterhur, Switzerland
When I came to UW to work as a postdoc, a big problem for me was finding health insurance. Because I was paid directly by an external funding source I was not eligible for UW benefits, which meant that I had to find (and pay for) health insurance on my own. This was harder than expected. The plans on the Washington State Health Care exchange did not fulfill the requirements of my visa, and the health insurance companies designed for international scholars offered only poor health coverage, were expensive, and discriminated against women.
UW did not provide any guidance and gave me the impression that I was the only postdoc in this situation. When I heard that postdocs were organizing to form a union, I joined them, resolving to protect future paid direct postdocs from getting into the same stressful situation. The most important thing I gained from the union was the knowledge that I am not alone. There are other postdocs who have had similar negative experiences, and there are postdocs who have not had negative experiences, but stand in solidarity with those who have. We are working together not only to improve health coverage, but also to prevent harassment and discrimination, alleviate economic insecurity, and protect international scholars at UW.
Department: Department of Medicine and the Division of Metabolism, Nutrition, and Endocrinology
From: Kathmandu, Nepal
The UW community is comprised of people from varied backgrounds across the United States and the world. In the STEM field, of which I am a part, good science cannot take place in isolation. Diversity of ideas is paramount to better science and to furthering our understanding of the world. As an international postdoctoral scholar, I am fortunate to be a recipient of and contributor to the diverse UW community. However, due to the time-restrictive nature of the visas, life of an international postdoc is precarious. Because our status as a postdoc is directly tied to our visa status, we are less likely to voice our concerns in the workplace due to fear of retaliation, and thus more likely to succumb to adverse working conditions, such as, wage discrepancy, harassment and discrimination, etc. Having a postdoc union here at UW provides us a support network where we can share our experiences, with hopes of improving the working conditions for ourselves and our peers. As a part of the postdoc union, I want to help create a safe and fair working environment for international postdocs.
From: Sejong, South Korea
Finding out during the orientation week that we had a union of academic student employees (ASEs) was pretty cool, but little did I know then the profound and manifold implications this had at our workplace and livelihood. As I would soon learn during bargaining that spring in 2018, there were many issues that surrounded and put pressure on the lives of ASEs. Too many of us were rent burdened, some voiced that they didn’t feel adequately supported regarding workplace harassment, and no one wanted to accept the contract that called for extra fees and 0% wage increase for the next three years. I started to get more involved by attending more open sessions of bargaining and bringing back the information to my department. It has been an incredibly empowering experience for me while learning of structural issues that exist in academia, to put forward actionable plans with peers to make and demand the changes we need.
From: South Korea
I am an international student from South Korea. I came to the U.S. to pursue undergraduate education at Dartmouth College where I discovered my love for Human Geography. I have decided to continue this passion at the UW Department of Geography, from which I just earned an MA degree and am continuing my PhD in.
Being an international student always entails some level of uncertainty and precarity given our visa status. With that in mind, my decision to come to UW had much to do with my trust in the UW Geography Department to advocate for me as an ally in these moments. The recent threats to immigrants come at a crucial political moment – in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement continuing the long legacy of Black freedom fighters, the resurfacing of anti-Asian sentiments with COVID-19, and the public’s reckoning with a tenuous system unveiled in light of this outbreak. Always, but especially now, I am acutely aware of the structural vulnerabilities attached with my status to speak up on issues that demand urgency. I, as well as my fellow international students, have been struggling to confront our tangential agency while seeing friends and communities dear to us suffer from latest events. As members of the International Solidarity Working Group, we are coming together and making our voices stronger.
I’m from Burma and recently defended my dissertation for my PhD in English language and rhetoric. I’m in the process of applying and interviewing for jobs, and the recent Executive Order targeting international workers has caused me unnecessary stress, on top of the pandemic and issues of racial injustices. I was already stressed out to hear earlier in the year that my home country, Burma, was added to the list of countries for travel/immigration ban as a supposed “sanction.”
Actions to suspend and restrict visas not only make the lives of international workers like me unsafe and vulnerable but also hurt the U.S. economy. H1B visas are used to fill niche positions that are often not found in the existing American workforce. Especially in academic fields, international scholars and workers are much needed to help shape the university environments that supposedly cultivate intercultural learning, understanding and communication, and “world-class” education. We have many important contributions to make, and I look forward to making a stronger, safer UW for international scholars through the International Working Group.
I am an international student from Canada and I came to the United States to pursue my PhD at the University of Washington in the Department of Geography. As a feminist urban geographer, my research focuses on the intersections between care work and housing in cities. I chose UW for my doctoral studies because I trust the Department of Geography to support me as an international scholar and advocate for members of their departmental community.
There is significant precarity for international students, particularly around on-campus employment, mobility, and the increasing restrictions announced on non-immigrant visa programs. My positioning as a white woman necessitates leveraging this privilege in solidarity with my fellow international students, as well as my colleagues across campus leading organizing in support of racial justice, decolonization, migrant justice, queer justice, and gender equity. I am proud to be a member of the International Solidarity Working Group as our collective voices and labor make us all stronger in our fight for an equitable UW that is safe, fair, and just for everyone.
Ezgi Irmak Yücel
I am a Turkish PhD student in the Department of Psychology at UW. I finished my undergraduate degree in Turkey and directly applied to PhD programs abroad in 2017. I decided to make the move across the pond as a first-generation doctoral student because I trusted that I would be advocated for at UW. I faced very unique problems foreign to U.S. citizens due to my visa status: such as worrying that I would not be able to reenter the country if I visit my family back home or not being able to pursue side jobs while being rent-burdened in Seattle. I came to the U.S. partially because of the possible job and research opportunities after my graduation. Now that there is uncertainty around these prospects I am afraid that I won’t be eligible for the training or postdoctoral positions in the labs that I want to work in within the United States.
One of the reasons I joined the department of Psychology at UW was that our rights were protected by the ASE union. I had not encountered a student union in my previous studies in Turkey or Europe and 2018 bargaining process has shown me the importance of collective action. As part of the International Student Workgroup, I can come together with other international colleagues who, like myself, already start a few steps back from our American colleagues as we are not eligible for many funding sources, fellowships, or internships. We can work together on the issues and stresses we face and support each other.
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Department: Information School
From: South Korea
My name is Levin, and this is my seventh year as a student/academic researcher in the U.S. I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Information Science at UW on an F-1 visa. Being an international student in the U.S. has been an incredibly valuable journey for me, one where I was able to explore a diverse range of interests while taking a somewhat meandering path. When I came to the U.S. in 2013 as an art major, I never thought that I’d end up pursuing a PhD or an academic career, let alone in the field of information science.
However, the very infrastructures (e.g. visas) that enable my existence and growth as an international student also impose constantly shifting levels of precarity and surveillance. From the visa application process to the mandatory orientations and beyond, international students are endlessly reminded that we are ultimately responsible for navigating these complex systems in a compliant manner, even as they change with little to no warning. This can make for an isolating, anxiety-riddling experience when navigating big institutions, where it seems like no one can ever give you the full answer or the reassurances you seek. More importantly, these infrastructures operate at a larger level, in tandem with other structural forces exerting control over whose mobility, agency, bodies, and lives matter over others. I joined the ISWG to find solidarity in confronting these interconnected injustices in ways that go beyond the limits of my individual voice, and to find strength-in-community within and outside the international students at UW.
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Past and current activities of the International Solidarity workgroup:
- Fighting ICE announcement about M1 and F1 visas during remote instruction: More information on this page!
- We have reached out to Governor Jay Inslee in support of the creation of a Washington Workers Fund for non-citizen populations who are facing financial hardship and are prevented from receiving state or federal assistance due to their visa or immigration status. We have also reached out to Seattle City Council urging them to pass a tax on big business to support working people, including direct aid to non-citizens whose immigration status prevents them from being eligible for federal or state support
- Resist Trump’s potential limitations on non-immigrant visas: Actions being contemplated by the Trump Admin have the potential to jeopardize the careers of of Academic Student Employees working on F1 visas, and Postdocs working on F1-OPT extensions or H1B visas. As a Local Union, we sent a letter strongly opposing these measures to the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Labor, as well as to our Washington State Congressional delegation. Our Working Group has additionally urged UW President Ana Mari Cauce to join these critical efforts by sending similar letters as a University administration. All ASEs and Postdocs are encouraged to send a message to Washington state Senators using this short form.
- Resist Trump’s Travel Ban Executive Orders: Upon issuance of the Executive Orders banning travel for immigrants from 7 (now 6) named countries, UAW members and the International Solidarity Work Group have taken swift action and acted as part of a broad coalition who was successful at halting Trump’s administration. Go to our Taking Action for Immigration and Undocumented Rights page for a listing of actions taken.
- Sanctuary Campus: In coalition with other campus unions, UAW Local 4121 helped lead the push for the University of Washington to become a “sanctuary” campus. This means not only that the University would refuse to provide information about undocumented and immigrant students and workers, but also that it would take active steps to provide support, resources, advocacy and accommodations to anyone potentially affected by threats from the Trump administration. See our letter here and press coverage here.
- Immigration forum: In December 2016, we held our Immigration Information & Strategy Forums. Theresa Aliwarga, member of the UAW 4121 executive board and international solidarity working group, spoke about possible changes under a Trump administration that could affect international students and scholars. She was joined by speakers from OneAmerica, UW Leadership Without Borders and an immigration attorney who provided Know Your Rights information.
- International Student Fee: The UW imposes a $45 per quarter fee on all international students. Members of the International Solidarity workgroup have worked with the Bargaining Committee to ensure that the international student fee is waived for ASEs. We continue to work with various international student organizations on campus for the elimination of this discriminatory fee for all international students. – VICTORY WON THROUGH TRAVEL BAN BARGAINING IN APRIL 2017!!!
- STEM OPT extension: In August 2015, the OPT extension available to F-1 students in STEM fields was vacated by a court ruling, forcing the USCIS to re-introduce the proposed OPT extension rules. The International Solidarity Workgroup organized a workshop to discuss the implications of the court ruling, and develop an action to stop the reversal of the STEM extension. We mobilized hundreds of international students and successfully petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to adopt the proposed STEM OPT extension.
- Opposition to H.R. 158: In December 2015, Congress considered the H.R. 158 bill that placed undue travel restrictions on dual nationals of targeted countries, including Iran, Iraq and Syria. We launched a campaign in opposition to the bill, and urged Washington senators to vote it down.
- International ASE survey: We are currently developing a survey and gathering stories of work-related issues that international ASEs/Postdocs face. Please get in touch if you have story to share or would like to help develop the survey.
Can international students/scholars sign up for membership in the union and participate in union-related activities?
Yes! Academic worker unions have been formed by and are led by international students/scholars, who have been actively involved in union leadership, committees, work groups and other decision-making bodies. Our Local Union (UAW 4121) workforce is comprised of approximately 30-40% international students/scholars, and as such, the issues we facing comprise many of our core demands: equity, anti-discrimination, job stability, adequate health care, and more.
International students/scholars have regularly taken the lead in union advocacy, including contract bargaining, policy advocacy, and also direct action on issues that affect us (see for example our successful campaigns to counter the effects of the Trump Travel Ban, to strengthen protections against discrimination and harassment, to extend STEM OPT funding, and more). This is in addition to work we have done through our union to fight for rights of all immigrants and undocumented folks (see other examples on this page).
Can international students/scholars contribute to our Union’s political action fund (VCAP)?
Only individuals who are eligible to register to vote in the U.S. are eligible to contribute financially to this program. However international students/scholars may (and often do) get involved in other aspects of the political process.
Are there any known instances of international students/scholars having problems with their visa status as a result of union membership or activity?
No. We are not aware of a single international student/scholar ever having problems with visa status as a result of union membership or activity. International students/scholars have the same rights as US citizens to join and participate in the union. If you have specific concerns, please contact us.
Will my union involvement affect future immigration applications (green card, citizenship)?
Since international students/scholars have the same legal rights as U.S. citizens, your signing of a membership form should not jeopardize or delay your application for legal permanent residence. Union authorization cards that get submitted to PERC (the state Public Employment Relations Commission, who verifies and counts the cards) are confidential, and not released by PERC to the University of Washington or other government agencies. Moreover, thousands of Postdocs have signed union authorization cards in large unionization drives at the University of California and elsewhere since 2008, without any reported instance of delay or rejection of applications as a result of signing a card or otherwise participating in the unionization effort. If you have any questions about your particular situation, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for additional resources.
How does the union benefit me, as an international student/scholar? What kinds of international student/scholar issues can the union help me with?
As a union comprised of so many international students/scholars, UAW is arguably one of the most important voices for our issues of any organization in the country. For years UAW has fought hard to ensure that the contributions of international and immigrant employees are elevated and that the terms and conditions of their employment are improved. Recently UAW helped lead the fight to ensure that the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program was expanded after a lawsuit that threatened to reduce it. And recently the UAW helped lead the fight against the Executive Orders issued by President Trump which targeted international students and scholars.
The International Solidarity Group of UAW Local 4121 contributed to the successful lawsuit by filing declarations (February and March, 2017) with the Washington State Attorney General, which resulted in a Temporary Restraining Order, and recently the union facilitated the return of a member who had been unable to return to UW from overseas. The UAW and other unions recently filed Amicus Brief with the U.S. Supreme Court fighting the Trump Administration’s discriminatory Muslim ban. The UAW’s commitment to international students and scholars stems from the leadership of international students and scholars themselves.
What other resources for international students/scholars does the union provide?
The union represents all bargaining unit members under the collective bargaining agreement, and can also help navigate many aspects of issues surrounding wages, benefits, and working conditions at the University. We do not provide legal advice about individual visa questions, but can help you get in touch with an immigration attorney who is familiar with our working conditions and the context of higher education. At any point, don’t hesitate to contact us with questions and we can discuss options with you for getting support.
Please send an email to email@example.com if you have any questions that weren’t covered above!
If you are an international ASE/Postdoc at the UW and have any questions or concerns, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A list of resources for immigrant and undocumented folks can be found here.
If you would like to get more involved in the workgroup or just want to get regular updates, please send an email to email@example.com. During Summer 2020, workgroup meetings are held weekly on Mondays at 11am via Zoom. Upcoming meeting dates will posted on the UAW 4121 calendar. New members are most welcome — please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!