MADISON, Wis. — International students won’t be allowed to join a union for research assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under a new policy that labor activists believe is the first of its kind in the U.S.
University officials insist the policy was meant to protect international students. They say the students’ visas, which limit them to 20 hours of work per week, might be jeopardized, although union leaders say such problems haven’t arisen at other universities.
The policy is part of a law signed by Gov. Jim Doyle last year granting UW-Madison research assistants the right to form a union starting in July.
Such a distinction between U.S. and international students is believed to be a first nationwide, according to representatives of labor unions and the university. The policy will exclude roughly 700 out of the 2,500 research assistants from unionizing at UW-Madison, long a national research powerhouse.
Research assistants are graduate students who work under faculty mentors, often for 40 hours or more per week. They currently aren’t considered employees at UW-Madison, so the 20-hour limit hasn’t been a problem.
But those who are U.S. citizens will become employees when the law giving them collective bargaining rights goes into effect, said university human resources official Stephen Lund.
Relatively few universities have unions representing graduate student researchers. Those that do, such as the University of Washington, the University of Oregon and the University of Iowa, include foreign students in the units.
“This is the only bargaining unit I know of anywhere in the country that discriminates against people based on what country they’re from,” said state Rep. Cory Mason, a Racine Democrat and former union organizer with AFT-Wisconsin.
David Parsons, president of a union representing 4,500 graduate students at University of Washington, said international students there have had no problems with visas. He noted they routinely help negotiate and approve union contracts.
“Had there been any possibility the agreements would have caused legal complications for our international student members, we would have been aware of that,” he said. “We haven’t had any problems at all.”
The Wisconsin exclusion was approved under a deal brokered between the university, legislative leaders and the governor.
The agreement allowed the union to form as long as a majority of research assistants sign a card in support, a process known as a card check.
The Teaching Assistants’ Association at UW-Madison, which represents nearly 3,000 teaching and project assistants, is expected to begin organizing research assistants after the law goes into effect.
Peter Rickman, co-president of the association, said limits on work hours for international students could be negotiated without jeopardizing visas. He noted that research assistants typically work under what are called halftime appointments, meaning they are considered part time for pay purposes.
But Lund said that, regardless, the university would have to limit their hours to 20 per week, which would be unfair to those trying to complete their degrees and research projects quickly.
“It’s in their best interests to not be covered,” he said.
Rickman said UW-Madison international students are just learning about the policy.
“People are saying, ‘I don’t get it.’ None of us get it. We don’t understand why anyone should be excluded. There’s a frustration at a really basic visceral level,” he said.