According to the Hawaii State Constitution, “Persons in public employment shall have the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining as provided by law. (…) Where public employees have been granted the right to share in the decision-making process affecting wages and working conditions, they have become more responsive and better able to exchange ideas and information on operations with their administrators.”

Graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii are public employees and are seeking to exercise their constitutional right to unionize and improve their working conditions.

Realizing this right requires the passing of Senate Bill 2585. It seeks to establish a “collective bargaining unit for graduate student workers employed by the University of Hawaii,” and is currently awaiting hearing by its final committee, the House Finance Committee with Chair Sylvia Luke.

To pass SB 2585 through the Legislature, UH graduate student teaching, research and administrative assistants have already begun to build the necessary organizational capacity for unionization through Academic Labor United.

A recent graduation ceremony at UH Manoa. Graduate students are urging the Legislature to allow then to unionize. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

UH’s over 1,250 graduate assistants are, without a doubt, workers. Our work makes the university run.

We teach classes, run labs, do field research, grade homework and tests, hold office hours, develop websites and databases, conduct groundbreaking experiments, produce media, run key facilities, mentor and counsel our undergraduate students, write letters of recommendation, train interns, manage departmental administrative work and produce and disseminate cutting-edge research. UH would not function without the significant contributions made by graduate workers.

Graduate assistants are a net positive for the university, often teaching over hundreds of students per semester, bringing in outside funds and grants that financially benefit the university, and producing world-class research that uplifts Hawaii as a place of innovation and discovery. Additionally, many graduate assistants are occupying roles previously filled by better-compensated and unionized faculty and administration.

UH would not function without the significant contributions made by graduate workers.

Despite the indispensable role that graduate assistants play in the day-to-day operation of the university, our precarious positions are the first to be threatened by funding cuts.

For example, in 2014 the Biology Department attempted to cut a sizable portion of their teaching assistants, which would have resulted in increased workloads for the remaining graduate students. The worker that lacks a union is the first one to be squeezed.

In testimony submitted by Jon Osorio, professor and interim dean of the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, he noted that as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii in 1987 he made just under $13,000 per year. Adjusted for inflation, that $13,000 is worth $28,800 today compared to our current base pay of $17,500.

No Raise Since 2014

Despite incredibly low salaries, Hawaii’s skyrocketing cost of living, and the increasing cost of education, graduate assistants have not seen a proper raise since 2004. On the other hand, UH executives have routinely given themselves raises most every year.

When a student has to take on a second or third job, as many do to get by, they are hindering their own academic productivity. However, unions are about more than just pay and costs. They are about having the ability to work with dignity. For graduate assistants and UH, unionization would lead to better educational and research outcomes, improved graduation and publication rates, and protections in the workplace.

Many graduate assistants face harassment, a problem that is exacerbated by the inability to access the rights and protections a union can offer. That harassment is oftentimes racial or sexual in nature, with one in ten female graduate students reporting sexual harassment from faculty nationwide, and one in six at the University of Hawaii.

Unionization offers improved grievance and arbitration processes to counter these abuses of unchecked power. Additionally, unions decrease the gender wage gap by an average of 16 cents on the dollar, and win benefits such as paid family leave and sick leave, which enable workers to balance work and personal responsibilities.

Graduate assistant unionization is not new. Graduate assistant unions have existed for 50 years. They are at top-tier public universities such as the University of California system, the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, the University of Wisconsin and many more.

Over 100,000 graduate workers are unionized across the country at public and private institutions, and research and education has flourished at these universities. Unionized graduate employees report higher levels of professional support, while faculty report that unionization does not inhibit their ability to advise, instruct, or mentor.

SB 2585 will not cost the state any extra money. It creates the opportunity for graduate assistants, like all workers, to have a seat at the table to collectively bargain over their working conditions.

We should be proud that so many graduate assistants want to take ownership of their future, participate in decision-making processes and engage with their community. For a better university and Hawaii, supporting graduate assistant unionization is clearly the right move.

The right to collectively bargain was a hard-fought gain of Hawaii’s labor movement, one that required sacrifice and struggle to achieve. Gov. David Ige and the university should respect that constitutionally guaranteed right and the memory of those who struggled for it. We urge the state Legislature and the governor to support our bill, SB 2585, creating a collective bargaining unit for graduate assistants.

Editor’s note: Contributing authors to this Community Voices are Ilima Long (Ph.D. student in political science), Benton Rodden (graduate student in political science and futures studies), Eric Tong (Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in oceanography), Lucie Knor (research assistant and graduate student in chemical oceanography), Tom Iwanicki (research assistant in the Zoology Graduate Program in the Department of Biology), Hannah Liebreich (teaching assistant pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology), Joy Enomoto (master’s student in Library and Information Sciences and Pacific Island Studies and graduate research assistant at Native Hawaiian Student Services), Ryan Dorrill (researcher and teaching assistant working on his Ph.D. in high energy physics) Taylor Lewis (teaching assistant pursuing her M.A. in Second Language Studies) and Nathalie Rita (teaching assistant getting her Ph.D. in sociology).

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