At Penn State University today, 3,800 graduate student workers will begin voting on whether or not they want to unionize. They have faced the sort of anti-union rhetoric that seems more suited to the Trump administration than a major university.
Grad student unions at top-tier universities have been around for many years, but recent years have seen the unionization movement increase in urgency—and with it, the urgency of major universities to stop those unions by any means possible. Nowhere is the hypocrisy of the omnipresent progressive rhetoric of higher education laid bare more clearly than in anti-union campaigns run by schools against their own academic employees. There is no elite school so prestigious or respected that it will not bombard its grad students with wildly dishonest anti-union propaganda designed to scare them out of acting in their own best interests. Today, as thousands begin to vote in Pennsylvania, it is worth highlighting one tactic that Penn State and others have used that is truly despicable.
Penn State, like many of its peers facing union campaigns, has created a website called “Grad Facts” that attempts to lay a strenuously neutral tone on top of bald anti-labor messaging. One set of Q&As posted on the school’s site includes this:
As mentioned in the question no. 4 above, international students who meet the unit definition set forth by the [Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board] are in the unit. International student status does not affect whether a graduate student assistant would be in the bargaining unit. They would be covered by any collective bargaining agreement regardless of their visa status.
If a union called a strike of graduate student assistants, it is possible that international student visas could be affected. Sec. 214.2(f)(14) of Federal Immigration regulations states in relevant part that “Any employment authorization, whether or not part of an academic program, is automatically suspended upon certification by the Secretary of Labor… that a strike or other labor dispute involving a work stoppage of workers is in progress in the occupation at the place of employment.” [...]
In addition, in response to an inquiry from another university on this question, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has stated the following: “If the student has stopped taking courses or stopped performing research and that is what is required for their program, the student’s record should be terminated immediately and they will have to leave the U.S. as soon as possible.”
Students with questions about this should seek the advice of an immigration attorney.
Take note of exactly what is happening here: Penn State University is attempting to dissuade international grad student workers from voting to unionize by insinuating to them that they might be deported if a strike should occur. The university, in other words, is trading on the fear created by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant crackdown to try to prevent its own employees from exercising their legal right to organized labor. This is despicable. It is also, as this 2017 story in The Nation points out, all too common—this same scare tactic has been used by a number of other universities as well.
This weaselly, transparent bit of scaremongering exasperated the Penn State pro-union forces so much that they took the school’s suggestion and consulted an immigration attorney. The attorney prepare a memo on the question that says, in part, “I see no adverse effect on an international student’s immigration status by the creation of a union. Indeed, the international graduate student could join the union fully consistent with his immigration status... an employer may not use the immigration laws to facilitate union or strike busting.”
Major American universities, which love to present themselves as bastions of progressive values, are taking advantage of the Trump administration’s xenophobia by using misleading scare tactics to intimidate immigrant students into voting against unionizing, while they also wait for their chance to take advantage of the Trump administration’s pro-corporate, anti-labor National Labor Relations Board, which they hope will reverse the ruling that allowed their grad student workers to unionize in the first place.
If I didn’t know any better I would say that the leadership of our elite universities is full of shit.