Many arguments have been aired in favor of and against unionization in the three months since we learned that there would be an election at Columbia to determine whether graduate teaching and research assistants will be represented by the United Auto Workers.
Whether you have been keenly engaged in the campus debate or have only recently considered the prospect of UAW representation, there is an issue that we think has received short shrift to this point: What happens when student members of the UAW bargaining unit hold views that conflict with those of the local or national union leadership?
The eventual surfacing of a conflict between the views of unionized Columbia students and union leaders at UAW or AFL-CIO national headquarters is not only possible, but likely unavoidable.This is a matter of importance for any group deciding to join a union, but perhaps most consequential to a community of scholars considering whether to replace a system of academic governance with one of collective bargaining.
At NYU, such a conflict surfaced around views of the Israeli government's policies. Similar conflicts arose at Berkeley last year. At Columbia, the issue of union policy toward employment visas for international students threatens to produce a similar tension.
Among these programs, the current H-1B visa program makes available a temporary, nonimmigrant visa classification for individuals in specialty occupations (including scientific and technical fields), which has provided an avenue for many international students at Columbia and other universities to launch careers in the United States after their graduation. A related visa classification serving a similar function is called the F-1 OPT (Optional Practical Training)-STEM extension.
In balancing the competing interests of their diverse memberships, some unions in the United States have come down on the side of urging restrictions on or the outright elimination of these programs. For example, in March of 2014, the nation's leading union of high-tech workers, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to challenge the validity of F-1 OPT and STEM-OPT extension. The UAW has also criticized the TN visa classification for nonimmigrant professionals from Canada and Mexico that is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
You should research and reach your own conclusion about the stance of the United Auto Workers (and its parent, the AFL-CIO) on this issue, one of great significance to many of our students; it will reveal that the UAW has refrained from a blanket endorsement of the existing H-1B, TN, and F-1 programs. The UAW is advocating modifications to the programs that appear sensible enough on their face: (i) greater mobility in changing employers without losing one's visa status; and (ii) an eased pathway to permanent resident (green card) status and citizenship. Yet, neither of these proposals have anything to do with the size of the pool of international students who are eligible for H-1B, TN, or F-1 visas, or the number of students who will ultimately receive them. And those are the issues that matter most for an international student aspiring to work in the United States after graduation.
The UAW advocates "a more data-driven process based on documented labor market needs" to determine the number of visas made available in its proposed H-1B reforms. It is unlikely that the effect of collecting these data will be to expand the program, particularly in the radically changed political environment we are entering. These concerns are underscored by the policy position of the AFL-CIO itself, which states:
"The largest recipients of visas for skilled workers are temporary staffing agencies that almost never hire from the local workforce, do not create jobs or contribute to innovation, sponsor virtually none of their guest workers for permanence, overwhelmingly pay the lowest wages allowed by law, and have a business model that seeks to move as much work overseas as possible."
A commitment by the UAW to make it easier for H-1B visa holders to obtain a green card is laudable, but it becomes a hollow promise if the number of international students allowed to embark on that path is also substantially reduced. In contrast, Columbia has been unwavering in its support of every one of these visa programs that benefit our international students.
All of Columbia's eligible voters in the election taking place on Dec. 7 and 8 should consider carefully whether UAW representation will serve the best interests of our students. More generally, they should weigh the impact of a collective bargaining regime on our capacity to chart the most balanced and appropriate course for our entire academic community.
John H. Coatsworth is the University provost. David B. Austell is associate provost and the director of the International Students and Scholars Office at Columbia.
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