UC student worker union files unfair labor practice charge against UC system

UC Berkeley lecture hall
Isabella Ko/File
UC Berkeley graduate students alleged that various campus departments have informed students that they must reside in the country to work as GSIs in the fall.

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United Auto Workers Local 2865 filed an unfair labor practice charge Monday alleging that the UC system violated its labor contract by making a decision to only hire UC Berkeley graduate students residing in the United States for the upcoming fall semester.

The union represents the university’s graduate student instructors, readers and tutors and was not given a meeting to discuss UC Berkeley’s latest alleged decision. The controversy started when the campus physics department sent an email at the end of June stating that, as of the date the email was sent, international students who are not physically in the United States will not be able to serve as GSIs. The email included a location survey for students to fill out.

This absence of appointments for international students living overseas applies to both incoming and returning students, according to UC Berkeley graduate student Gregory Ottino, a steward in UAW Local 2865.

According to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, however, it is not always legal for the UC system to hire people outside of the United States, calling a lack of employment a “consequence” of leaving the country. She added that UC Berkeley must consider and comply with immigration law, domestic employment law, foreign employment law and an individual’s circumstances when rehiring and hiring graduate students.

The pandemic has complicated the issues UC Berkeley must consider as well, Gilmore said.

According to UC Berkeley graduate student and UAW Local 2865 President Kavitha Iyengar, there are rumors circulating that internationally located GSIs are not being rehired in departments aside from the physics department. She alleged that the German department warned students planning to work from abroad that they are going to need to sign work agreements that they will stay in the United States.

Gilmore, however, said UC Berkeley is not requiring staff employees who are working remotely to sign remote work agreements, regardless of whether they are represented by a union.

Ottino emphasized that GSI appointments are extremely important, as they are how many students fund their postgraduate studies. According to Ottino, these positions cover both students’ salaries and their tuition, and anyone who does not have a GSI or graduate student research appointment has to fund their studies out of pocket.

For some students, July 31 marks a deadline to enroll for courses, creating further worries about employment for the upcoming semester.

“When students can’t get these jobs, they can’t access their education,” Iyengar alleged. “This is incredibly unjust.”

An international UC Berkeley graduate student, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said reentering the United States was a costly, stressful and tedious journey in dealing with obtaining proper visas and filling out paperwork, especially during a pandemic.

“University doesn’t treat international students as they claim to,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Yen-Tung Lin, speaking on behalf of the union’s international committee.

Iyengar said the union has been trying to meet with the university for almost a month, as of press time, yet it has not received the opportunity to.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zara_khanDC.