WashU grad student workers rally to support international students and union
Adjunct Action professors at WashU recently signed their first union contract with the university and support the grad student workers’ organizing efforts. Here, Eric Strobel, left, an adjunct professor, and Lucky Santino, right, a Grad Student Organizing Committee leader, on the line together. | Al Neal / PW

ST. LOUIS — “We’re out here today not because we want fancy condos or lots of money… We are organizing because we just want to be able to take care of ourselves without having to go into massive debt,” said Lucky Santino, a graduate student of chemistry and leader in the Washington University Graduate Student Worker Organizing Committee, as he and over 50 other graduate students rallied together here Thursday.

Graduate student workers were gathered at Wash U’s campus to demand a voice on the job, a seat at the bargaining table, and to show support for international graduate students—in light of Trump’s decision to rescind DACA.
For over a year, graduate students have been organizing on campus with Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and are focused on addressing issues of low pay, healthcare benefits, job security, and full recognition as university employees—not just “grad students.”

In response to the organizing efforts, university Provost Holden Throp released a “Frequently Asked Questions” memo that included misleading information about the impact of unionization on graduate workers—a tactic often used by employers to “chill” support for the union.
What alarmed graduate student workers and their union was the document’s claim that “in the event of a strike, international graduate student workers could lose their visa status and be subject to deportation.”

Under the National Labor Relations Act, international graduate student workers holding an F-1 visa are guaranteed the same labor union rights as citizens, including the right to strike.

Several days after the “FAQ” was released, university Chancellor Mark Wrighton sent an email to the WashU community regarding Trump’s DACA announcement and vowed to “zealously protect privacy of confidential student information” and to not “release information about a student’s immigration or citizenship to third parties unless required to do so by law or directive from a court.”

In response to the university’s contradictory messaging, Local 1 released the following statement:

“While we applaud Chancellor Wrighton’s support for DACA, it is unacceptable for WashU to claim to support non-citizen members of their community when it’s politically expedient while at the same time making veiled, ultimately empty threats against grad workers on visas when they try to organize. They can’t both condemn the hateful, xenophobic rhetoric and actions of our president while simultaneously exploiting the atmosphere of fear he’s created for their own gain. If Chancellor Wrighton stands by his statement, ‘It is on each of us to work to ensure that every member of our community feels welcome, included and empowered to succeed,’ then he needs to send a clear message to international graduate workers that they do have rights and that WashU intends to respect them.”

“The union is us, the union is not an outside party, the union is democracy in action!” said Amanda, a master’s student in the Classics department and organizing committee member, back at the rally. “We want WashU to know that we support our fellow international graduate student workers, and that they can’t scare us into voting no for the union.”

Marching and chanting from the center of campus to the chancellor’s office, graduate student workers and supporters delivered a notice informing Wrighton that graduate student workers would be filing for a union election Friday, Sept. 15. Over 600 graduate student workers will be voting for union recognition.

When asked to comment, the university said:
“We recognize and respect the right of our students to peacefully gather on campus to voice their opinions. We strongly encourage all members of our community to become educated on the issue of graduate student unionization. We believe that graduate students are first and foremost students. We have a long history of strong collaboration with our graduate students on issues that are important to them and have made many significant enhancements as a result of their feedback. We are committed to continuing that tradition and engaging in a thoughtful discussion with our community.”


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.