Know Your Rights: International Student Workers

The National Labor Relations Board recently restored the federally protected rights of student employees at private universities to organize and form a labor union. Below are answers to frequently asked questions on how organizing and collective bargaining impacts student employees on nonimmigrant visas.


As an international student, I was very excited when I first heard that graduate student workers here at AU are seeking to unionize. A union is an excellent way to connect with students across campus from different schools and programs and turn it into an opportunity to make our voices heard. Coming together as a graduate student workers’ union with SEIU will allow us to coordinate our wishes and needs and pool our resources. Moreover, it will allow us to have a stronger voice that the administration has to take seriously. Most importantly, it will empower us to actively help shape a university that respects its students, teachers and researchers enough to offer fair working conditions in exchange for the highest quality of learning, research and education that we can possibly give.  

Anne Kantel, American University

Can international student workers join a union?

Yes! All student employees, regardless of their immigration status, have the federally-protected rights to 1) engage in activity with their co-workers concerning their working conditions, 2) form a union, and 3) collectively bargain with their universities. It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against any student employees for exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Do international students have the right to free speech in the U.S.?

Yes! International students on visas and U.S. citizens have the right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Will my union membership affect my student visa? Can it affect future visas?

No. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cannot ask you questions about your union membership or participation in lawful union activity. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognized the importance of enforcing labor laws and signed an agreement with the Department of Labor (DOL) that states it is essential to ensure proper wages and working conditions for all covered workers regardless of immigration status. It is your right to belong to a union and being a union member cannot and should not affect your visa application.

How can a union help me as an international student?

Unionizing will benefit international students in many ways.  A union will give international students a platform to collectively address common concerns such as clarity in departmental hiring processes and job opportunities. Because student visas typically limit the number of hours that students can work, achieving higher stipends that keep pace with the cost of living is of particular importance for international students. Most importantly, a union will allow all student workers to unite for improved pay, benefits, and other terms on conditions of employment and join a nationwide movement of higher education employees fighting back against the corporatization of higher education.