While one group of Hawaii state employees fights to keep its collective bargaining rights intact, another group is fighting to get any bargaining rights at all.

Graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii, although state employees, are also students and therefore banned by state statute from joining a collective bargaining unit.

That’s something state Rep. Chris Lee and a host of grad students hope to change, via House Bill 2859, which would give graduate student workers the right to unionize. The House labor and higher education committees approved the bill and recommended it for passage, but the Finance Committee needs to hold a hearing on it by Friday night in order for it to make the legislative crossover deadline. A hearing has not been scheduled yet.

There are an estimated 1,300 graduate assistants at UH Manoa, according to the bill, who haven’t received a pay raise since 2004 despite increased teaching loads.

Jessica Austin, a graduate assistant at UH Manoa, begged lawmakers in testimony to end what she called “the exploitation of our labor.”

“It is not a myth that graduate students work long hours for little pay, living off of little and paying off debt for high tuition costs,” she wrote. “Graduate students are highly skilled workers who are giving back to the state and giving back to the community. Does our labor not count for as much as other state employees?”

Lee told Civil Beat he has known a number of graduate students who are state employees in various capacities, many of whom have experienced problems at UH that went unresolved because of the students’ inability to organize.

Budget shortfalls have only exacerbated the problem, he said, because class sizes went up, increasing workloads for the graduate assistants by nearly double. At the same time, the budget crunch resulted in elimination of Office of the Ombudsman, which was the only dependable avenue students had to get help with their grievances.

“At a time when budgets are so tight, it seems that you tend to unfairly squeeze this particular target group because they are transient and have a hard time getting their voices heard,” he explained. “It is such a largely transient population, and it’s really hard to maintain proper benefits and pay and so forth when the people who are affected tend to move on very quickly.”

One student, Kathleen Lindsey, testified that she was hired only after agreeing to teach two classes per semester despite a graduate work policy requiring only one, and was overloaded with work as a result. Classmates in similar situations dropped out, she said, because they couldn’t handle the workload.

But UH Provost Linda Johnsrud said it’s not that simple.

“Graduate assistants are unlike any other employees,” she wrote in testimony to the House labor committee. “They are students first, and employees second. Graduate assistants are student learners. They are at the university to learn as much about their fields of study as their time and talents will allow. A graduate assistantship is not a career or profession, but most similar to an on-the-job training or apprenticeship program.”

Furthermore, she testified, graduate assistants already receive hefty benefits for their work in the form of tuition waivers, and have also been protected from the same salary cuts other faculty members experienced in recent years.

“Even in the current fiscal climate, we have not precluded increase wages for graduate assistants,” she wrote, while other employees dealt with salary cuts — albeit with back pay for the years their salaries were reduced.

The cost implications of allowing graduate assistants to unionize could be huge for the state, she said. Under the current proposal, hours, conditions of employment and fringe benefits would all be subject to collective bargaining — in addition to the tuition waiver graduate assistants already receive, which can range from $458 to $725 per credit hour for residents and $1,116 to $1,381 per credit hour for non-residents.

Graduate students aren’t the only ones concerned about their working conditions, though. Lee’s measure also has the support of numerous individual faculty members and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, among others.

History professor Ned Bertz testified that access to benefits like adequate wages and health care would make grad assistants more productive and increase the university’s efficiency, which is “crucial as an economic engine of our state.”

“As a student myself at an institution which had a graduate student union, I testify that this organization increased productivity and collegiality,” he wrote. “The UH works because graduate student workers do. They deserve the same rights as all workers.”

Lee says Hawaii’s long tradition of recognizing and respecting the role collective bargaining can play in improving work conditions should work in this bill’s favor.

“Following in the lines of the constitution, which empowers us to collective bargaining, a lot of people support this idea, and at least having a conversation about it,” he said.

The bill names at least 28 universities that already “enjoy positive working relationships with graduate student unions that can advocate for graduate student workers.”

“This is the first step that needs to be taken, removing the statutory block on collective bargaining for graduate student employees,” said Lee. “It’s a first step and a necessary step. Without that, the administration at UH has the power, rightly or not, to determine the state of working conditions for graduate students.”

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