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Questions remain for USC international graduate workers after contract win

Tempest’s Promise Li interviews an international graduate student worker at the University of Southern California after the graduate students’ first-ever contract was ratified.

Graduate student workers at the University of Southern California (USC) ratified their first-ever union contract on December 7. Although the contract achieved a number of important gains for graduate workers and passed with a significant margin (eighty percent) after a hard-fought campaign by the Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee (GSWOC-UAW), some, especially international graduate workers, had concerns about the bargaining process. Tempest member Promise Li interviews international student worker Rao about the issues they faced during the bargaining period.

Promise Li: What are some of the issues that came up during the bargaining process, and why did international students, in particular, feel dissatisfied? What kinds of pushback did you all face, and how did you organize those who had reservations about the tentative agreement?

Rao: Most of us hoped for higher wage increases, as the wage increases covered by the new contract would still be under Los Angeles’ living wage. Many also hoped for fewer out-of-pocket fees and better coverage (especially for dental insurance), which were not achieved in the contract. We also wanted better support for incoming international students, since for many of them, it is their first time living in a foreign country. But we were told that many of our demands cannot be bargained for, since the incoming students are not in a union yet. We still managed to add some basic demands into the initial proposal, like asking the university to provide more specialized workshops for international students. But the bargaining team later dropped this idea, saying that the union can provide these things.

We also wanted better visa-related document processing. The Office of International Services (OIS) in charge of our immigration documentation has been understaffed, and we thought about asking USC to provide more resources for this office. But we were told that is not bargainable. We then tried to suggest including language ensuring that the administration would cover financial costs for any mistakes in our visa documents. But the bargaining team also later dropped this, saying that this would already be protected and that we could file grievances later, providing an example from the University of California (UC) San Francisco.

But when we tried to clarify whether the university would cover our financial loss if they made a mistake in our documents (leading to issues like missing our paychecks), the bargaining team did not give us a clear answer. We did get the university to commit to putting $10,000 a year into a fund to assist with international students’ visa issues. Personally, I think this is different from our initial goal, which was to get the university to commit to not offloading costs onto international students for its own errors—no matter the cost.

But the larger issue relates to questions of union democracy. We were also unhappy about the decision-making process. Only one international student was at the bargaining table when the bargaining team was dropping original demands. That student was also only on the bargaining team for one week and was not involved in the earlier phase when we collected demands from international students. We believe that any decision regarding demands from international students should be conducted through discussion with the broader international student community. There was low participation in the bargaining process.

Also, the proposal draft wasn’t shared with rank-and-file workers for discussion. It was only available for union members when it was sent to USC. Some of us tried to consistently share bargaining updates with other Chinese international students on WeChat, so many of us know that the bargaining team made concessions to the original wage proposal. When some workers asked for an explanation from the bargaining team, they were told that the proposal was lowered to show USC that we were willing to negotiate. The hope was that by lowering our demands, the university might give us a better proposal. People did not receive any answer about what the bottom line would be.

Some international graduate workers felt that this was a bargaining strategy aimed at conceding to the university. Using a term from the Chinese Revolution period, one described the union’s bargaining approach as “右倾投降主义,” or “rightist capitulationism.” We tried pushing for changes in the bargaining strategy by doing a survey and circulating a petition drafted by a domestic student. Many Chinese international students got involved in this effort. After the attempts failed, some began to complain that this was not democratic decision-making.

I wasn’t able to spend much time organizing the No vote campaign as I would like. There was definitely dissatisfaction among the Chinese international graduate workers, so some others and I tried to encourage them to campaign against the tentative agreement. I wanted us to turn the feeling into action, because if there is no action, their dissatisfaction may push them further away from the union.

I didn’t focus on asking them to organize in a specific way, but encouraged them to campaign in a way that feels empowering for them. I saw this as one step toward breaking away from what I sensed to be a top-down union-organizing approach in USC, where everyone uses the same phone banking/text banking script for the same goal. Of course, I still forwarded them basic models for organizing, but tried to encourage them to share their own organizing strategies. I hope some of them will see this as meaningful and continue to be involved in union organizing.

PL: The unionization campaign at USC emerged in a new wave of upsurge of higher ed labor militancy in the U.S. These struggles, just as we’ve seen in the UC strikes last year, also show internal divisions about tactics and political vision among workers. Some want to fight for an even better contract, or agitate around other broader political issues. What are some relevant lessons have you learned from other higher ed struggles, and especially from other international grad workers and other labor militants beyond USC?

Rao: Reflecting on our own campaign and dialoguing with other Chinese international students at other universities reveal to us deep weaknesses in this upsurge.

Our bargaining team said they learned from the UC strike last year, when the wage proposal wasn’t moved until the strike. So they pursued an even more concessionary strategy: choosing to keep lowering our wage proposal throughout the negotiations period, encouraging people to not have high expectations. Bargaining team members did not say what the bottom line would be, and when people asked, we got vague answers like “as much as we can,” “we win more money by more people showing up and doing things,” “the result will be within the range of USC’s proposal and ours,” and “more power will push the result towards us.” I think this strategy worked, as the ratification result shows.

In some one-on-one conversations with workers, I realized that most did not know what our wage proposal at the bargaining table was or how it was revised downward. Details of our wage proposals were never mentioned in the bargaining updates until the agreement was reached. I think this is the reason why so many people just easily accepted the result.

International students need to form our own independent communications channel. We have a fairly successful WeChat public account for sharing updates. Some of us provided updates on the bargaining process for other international students on WeChat, so more people were able to notice how certain original demands were dropped. We started our international student committee before we filed for our union election. The initial plan was to form language or nationality groups, with each group focusing on organizing student workers from their own country using their native language. But only the Chinese group remains very active in the committee. The international student committee also had its own email list, which was taken over by our bargaining team.

We also could have built more connections with other international student groups and non-international graduate workers. Strengthening rank-and-file networks is crucial for developing workers’ militancy.

We should have also highlighted the principle of union democracy and independent critical thinking more from the start of our campaign. When I first collected union cards before the election, many international workers said that they were concerned about whether a union would be democratic. I tried to be clear about the process with them, and that they can vote no at various points of the campaign. I guess most of them voted no in the contract ratification vote. We shouldn’t be just collecting signatures or “Yes” votes, but should use every chance to educate workers about the unionization process and encourage critical thinking.

I also realized that we need to build up a culture of social justice unionism to support marginalized workers, which encourages workers to see union organizing as a site to resist different nexus of oppressive identities. More conservative organizers often talk about “priority setting” and encourage workers to focus on “winnable” and “majority” demands, with framings like “a better wage can benefit everyone,” and “win as many core demands as possible.” Similar strategies were used in the organizing at the UCs. A former UAW 2865 shop steward, Black trans radical Blu Buchanan, helpfully explains these tactics by the Administrative Caucus in a past UAW teach-in (especially starting around 42:55).

Another organizer, Beezer de Martelly, mentioned that in the 2014 bargaining, people were told that they cannot bargain over gender-neutral bathrooms because of various technical reasons. But they later fought for them and won (at 14:43 of the teach-in). The same goes for the resolution supporting BDS. People in the UC unions have pushed for BDS resolution on their campuses. At one campus, they were told that they could not boycott their own shop. However, student workers successfully pushed several other campuses to adopt the BDS resolution. I feel these are similar to the reasons used to prevent many demands from international students from reaching the bargaining table (including ones that don’t even require changes to the current legal system).

This is a pattern in the UAW. The key question here is how much power we need to break this bureaucracy. We need to find ways to continue mobilizing, and if a demand may not be legally bargainable, we should still organize around it. Let the university go on record refusing our demands!

I want to paraphrase a fellow organizer who asked, “Who defines what are ‘bread and butter issues’?” “Bread and butter issues” can look very different depending on the needs of workers of different marginalized identities. For people who feel unsafe in their workplace and want the police off campus—is this not also a “bread and butter” issue?

PL: Are there plans for future organizing among those who voted no on the contract? What are some challenges and possibilities you see, especially among Chinese international grad workers’ participation in the union?

Rao:I think it will be difficult to organize those who voted no. But it is still important to organize everyone and there are still many opportunities to organize around social justice and build a support network for other workplace issues, especially related to discrimination and bullying in the workplace. As I said before, many Chinese international students complained that the bargaining process felt undemocratic. The Administration Caucus’ tactics exacerbate these issues, which include using representative democracy to their advantage to shut out more militant voices and demands. Union reformers like those at Columbia University pushed instead for more direct democracy, allowing workers to vote on changes in wage proposals and other matters. I think this would appeal to many Chinese international students who often do not feel comfortable being represented. Some may think that many Chinese international students are anti-union, but in my experience, they are specifically against bureaucratic unions, which cannot adequately advocate for their issues.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Rao and Promise Li View All

Rao is a Chinese international student worker and a rank-and-file member of the Graduate Student Worker Organizing Committee at USC (GSWOC-USC). They co-founded the union's International Student Committee and the Reform Caucus at GSWOC-USC.

Promise Li is a member of Tempest Collective and a rank-and-file member of SEIU Local 721 in Los Angeles. He is active in international solidarity work with movements in Hong Kong and China, and anti-gentrification and tenant organizing in LA Chinatown. He was also previously active in Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU)’s unionization campaign as a graduate worker.