At the first GMM of the Fall 2016 term the GEO Bargaining Committee proposed a hard hours cap proposal to be put to a discussion and a vote. The Bargaining Committee crafted the proposal because “better hours protections” were cited as a top priority by members at a previous GMM and in a member-wide survey conducted in 2015. Also reflecting the extent of the problem, the Grievance Committee had found that hours grievances were among the most common, and that the vague language in the current contract regarding “fluctuations above and below the norm” according to individual GSIs’ “experience, ability and diligence” made grievances hard to win, even when hours were tracked.
The committee had also been made aware of an additional issue for international GSIs regarding work hours, namely that visa regulations did not allow them to work over 20 hours per week. While a hard cap was seen as one way to address this issue, it remained unclear what IGSIs could do in a case where they were nevertheless still overworked, because admitting to working over 20 hours per week could mean admitting to a visa violation. This issue led to a case where, for instance, 5 GSIs grieved for overwork, but while the 4 domestic GSIs got a pay raise and the IGSI had to sign a statement that she did not overwork.
The bargaining committee’s proposal at the first GMM was meant to address both concerns, but the membership felt a committee should be formed to explore all other possible options for better addressing IGSI-specific hours concerns. It was not clear how the hard cap protected IGSIs from being penalized for going over their hours. The membership decided that a group of international students should form a committee to think through the possibilities for improvement and present a new proposal at the subsequent GMM.
After several meetings and a lot of thoughtful dialogue, exploration of options, and consultation with the International Center, the committee decided that a hard cap was indeed the best way GEO could address these issues (at least within the contract) but also added provisions to further protect International Grads. A hard cap, it was argued, best protects GSIs (domestic and international) by:
- Forcing employers to make more reasonable hours calculations, including distributing work so that overwork does not occur in any given week, even exam weeks, and
- Providing legal protection for GSIs to simply stop working when they reach 20 hours.
An additional clause was added to the proposal requiring employers to “show their work” for how they calculate fractions. Ideally this clause will create opportunities to address issues of potential overwork pre-emptively and to design courses with GSI input.
And to provide additional protections for international grad students, the following were also added:
- Protection against discrimination for visa status in hiring
- Equalized grievance awards for .5 fractions in the case where at least one IGSI has grieved.
After outlining these changes and their reasoning, Sheira Cohen, an international student and member of the committee that drafted the proposal, concluded by asking her domestic peers to trust that she and the other committee members had indeed come up with the best possible language to address the issues, at least within the confines of GEO’s purview. She continued:
“I want to add that GEO has built its bargaining platform around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and its overall guiding principle around the idea that a harm to some is a harm to all. If either of those are to mean anything, then this proposal is the only way to deal fairly with international GSIs and their concerns. What may be an inconvenience to domestic students to have to wiggle class structures to evenly distribute work throughout the semester is an issue of the safe continuation of legal status for IGSIs. In this increasingly xenophobic political landscape where IGSIs are already unsure about their future visa status and where departments don’t know if they’ll be able to issue new visas, the union owes it to international GSI’s to stand by them and demand that the university not exploit our fears and desires to stay here. This is the only morally-sound decision for the union to make. This is what solidarity means.”
This final statement set the tone for a thoughtful and respectful dialogue wherein members, both domestic and international, expressed and discussed lingering concerns about flexibility and implementation. The possible amendment of a two week hard cap (rather than weekly) was considered, in order to retain some of the flexible elements of the prior language. Sheira, representing the committee, recounted similar concerns having come up in committee meetings, but countered that biweekly caps, even hard ones, would be disproportionately beneficial to domestic students because international students’ visas do not permit them to work over 20 hours in any given week, even if this were meant to balance out the prior week’s effort.
Concerns were also raised over the possibility of hours tracking and grieving becoming mandatory, but the committee reassured that neither would be under the proposed changes. “This contract language does not require GSIs to take any particular action,” explained President John Ware. “Rather, it is meant to prohibit the employer from doing certain things.” In this case, requiring GSIs to work for more than 20 hours per week.
In an inspiring moment of solidarity the discussion concluded with a unanimous vote to approve the proposal under consideration.