International students claim they received “threatening and intimidating behavior” from university administration during a strike. The administration said they did the best they could during the situation.
Image created by Mee Vue
International graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Oregon said they are left hurt by the university administration because of what they describe as “threatening and intimidating behavior” they received during a strike regarding employment rights and benefits.
Out of the 1500 graduate teaching and research assistants at the university approximately 350 are international students. All graduate teaching and research assistants play an important role by teaching about one third of the undergraduate classes at the university.
Previously as part time employees, graduate teaching and research assistants did not receive paid medical or parental leave. In other words, if a graduate assistant had to take a sick day, they did not get paid.
The average salary of a graduate teaching and research assistant was $10,000-$12,000 during a nine-month contract. Receiving such a salary was especially hard for international students because they are only allowed to work on campus for 20 hours per week during regular semesters.
“It was hard for international students who had families to take care of them with a graduate teaching assistant salary,” Eva Hoffmann, an international graduate teaching assistant and PhD candidate in the Department of German and Scandinavian Studies explained.
To ensure the employment rights and benefits of all graduate teaching and research assistants at the university, they are represented by the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF). In 2010, they formed a subgroup within GTFF to protect the right of international graduate teaching and research assistants. Currently, Hoffman is the chair of this subgroup.
Every other year GTFF conducts a collective bargaining with the university administration. This means they meet to agree on certain things, such as wage, compensation, and benefits. Through a third party, neutral mediator between the union and the administration, the GTFF requested a 10 percent wage increase over two years along with paid medical and parental leave.
After 10 months of bargaining and no results, the students decided to strike.
“The decision was not easy, it is a touchy and painful process,” Judith Lechner, an international graduate teaching assistant and PhD candidate also in the Department of German and Scandinavian Studies shared. Lechner served as the president of GTFF in 2012-2013.
According to Lechner and Hoffman, more than 500 graduate teaching and research assistants participated in the strike. They still attended classes where they were enrolled as graduate students, but they refused to work which included research, lab work, grading, and answering emails.
Both Hoffman and Lechner said department chairs and faculty respected the decision to strike, however, a number of adjunct faculty were hired to cover the work.
“Hiring the adjunct faculty made us feel like we were easily replaceable,” Lechner said.
The strike became more complicated when a message posted on the university website caused confusion among the international graduate students. According to a letter written by the GTFF to an attorney, on October 24, 2014 the University posted online FAQs regarding the strike. Among the questions, one question pertaining specifically about international GTFs stated:
“Q11. How does the strike affect international GTFs? International GTFs should be aware that their work visa status may be impacted depending on the duration of the strike. Individuals should become informed about their own situations by consulting the appropriate authority.”
Hoffman and Lechner said in summary, this message stated that international students participating in the strike might have their visa status put at risk.
“A majority of international graduate teaching and research assistants felt threatened by the message,” Lechner said.
Hoffman also added international graduate students felt confused, hurt, and frustrated.
“The wording was not clear and the university took the message down shortly after and posted a corrected version,” Hoffman explained. The corrected message, which can still be found on the university website stated:
“REVISED 11/12/14: International GTFs should be aware that an individual GTF’s student visa status may be affected if the duration of the strike participation results in financial impacts that affect his/her ability to maintain student enrollment. Individuals should become informed about their own situations by consulting the appropriate authority. Staff in the Office of International Affairs is available for consultation by students regarding their student visa status.”
“When it became apparent to us that the (initial) message was confusing and was causing strife for folks, plus we had more information at that point since it was constantly evolving with negotiations with lots of moving parts during mediation, we talked with our colleagues in the international affairs office and revised the message on our website,” Kassy Fisher, Assistant Dean and Director of Finance and Administration for Graduate Studies explained. “We were giving the best information we could and that was our approach all along.”
After nine days of striking, on December 10, 2014 the university administration and GTFF reached an agreement. The university decided to develop a hardship fund for all graduate students (not only for graduate teaching and research assistants) and some of the committee members would be elected among graduate students. In addition, graduate teaching and research assistants would receive paid medical and parental leave and a 10 percent wage increase over the next two years.
As for the confusing message posted online, Hoffman and Lechner said on December 31, 2014 the Graduate School sent an email to international graduate student teaching and research assistants enrolled during fall 2014 to clarify the confusion regarding their visa status.
“The international GTFs (F or J) visa status continuous to be valid if they maintained full-time enrollment in fall 2014,” the email stated.
Both Hoffman and Lechner said that along with their peers, they had hoped for an apology from the administration.
When International Student Voice Magazine asked Fisher about the students hope for an apology, she responded, “It was unfortunate the students felt like the information was unclear or inappropriate, but that was the information we had at the time, we did the best we could. The situation was constantly evolving and this type of situation was new for us as well as for them. Although the whole thing was challenging, the resolution of the contract had some great benefits to the GTFs and something to be proud of. I’m pleased with the outcome.”
The strike, although successful, still has international graduate students hurt and frustrated by the administration.
“A majority of international graduate teaching and research assistants felt threatened by the message,” Hoffman and Lechner said. “The administration never took responsibility for what was perceived as intimidation of international GTFs. The university is your family and your home when you come from a foreign country. It was like your family was threatening you. How would you feel if your family threatened you with a possible departure?”
By: Shakhnoza Yakubova, ISV Magazine Ambassador
Carrie Circosta, Editor in Chief