Amanda Rothschild has spent most of her last two years in graduate studies at the University of Hawaii working on an interactive map to connect Hawaii’s underserved youth to programs and services.
That’s part of her job as a graduate assistant in UH Manoa’s Urban and Regional Planning Department. She also needs to pick up odd jobs to get by in Hawaii, like teaching a friend to drive, editing papers and maintaining side hustles at several nonprofits in the state.
That’s all in addition to her graduate coursework to one day get her master’s degree.
Rothschild is one of more than 500 graduate assistants pushing state lawmakers to pass a measure this year that would allow them to form a collective bargaining unit. For Rothschild, collective bargaining means negotiating a wage that’s more comparable to Hawaii’s cost of living.
“I think primarily it could ensure our stipends are enough to just really live on,” she said. “I don’t mean live lavishly on. I mean just live on.”
Graduate student assistants like Rothschild assist faculty with research, work on research projects of their own or teach. And for at least the fifth year in a row, they are attempting to unionize.
On Tuesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee passed Senate Bill 1368 that would create a collective bargaining unit for graduate assistants. That would allow them to organize a union similar to other government employees. The bill will now move on to a vote by the full Senate.
The student’s reasons for unionization are varied: better pay, stable work, an independent arbitration and grievance process.
For many, it’s just about getting a seat at the table.
“This bill is about basic workers rights,” said Tim Zhu, vice chair for a student group pushing the unionization effort called Academic Labor United.
The university meanwhile argues that none of their wishes could simply be solved by forming a union. University officials also worry about any potential fiscal impact collective bargaining by graduate assistants could have on UH’s already fragile budget.
UH argues that they are students first and employees second. Gov. David Ige said the same when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed graduate assistants to unionize in 2015.
Even if the Legislature passes the bill and the governor signs it into law, it could still be years before graduate students would be able to form a union at UH. That would require a simple majority vote by the 1,286 graduate assistants in the UH system.
Zhu is confident the ALU could get the necessary number of votes.
“We’re confident that the (graduate assistants) would vote overwhelmingly in favor of unionization,” he said.
It could help Rothschild if she returns to UH for her doctorate degree. One of her concerns is money and her prospects of getting an assistantship could determine whether or not to return to UH.
Rothschild saves money where she can. She has a car, but rarely drives it, opting to take the free Rainbow Shuttle to UH Manoa. Her previous work experience running a cafe helps with food budgeting, she says.
“I think that’s part of the student experience,” she said. “But I think it’s a little different for grad students.”
“They aren’t young adults. They are adults. They are professionals and people with families and sometimes kids. It’s a little different to be eating ramen every night when you’re 18 and when you’re 30.”
At UH, stipends for graduate assistants can range greatly from college to college and even vary between different programs and departments. The university requires that all graduate assistants are paid at a minimum of $18,204 for a nine month appointment or $21,288 for an 11 month appointment.
Rothschild, who makes the minimum level, takes home about $1,500 each month after taxes. The low pay, long hours and multiple jobs leaves little time for much else.
“I don’t eat out. I don’t go to movies. Not that I have the time to anyway,” she said.
UH has a policy that graduate assistants work no more than 20 hours a week. In written testimony to the Ways and Means Committee, UH said that research assistants are often hired to work 40 hours a week.
Zhu said he’s heard stories of some international students working even more than that.
“It’s always either do the work or leave,” he said.
Graduate students appointed to work at least 20 hours a week also get full tuition waivers. The waivers don’t cover other student fees. This spring semester, graduate fees ranged from $386 in law and medicine to $951 in architecture at UH Manoa.
The university estimates that the total compensation for graduate student assistants who receive tuition waivers could range from a minimum of $30,630 annually to a potential high of $80,964. The larger figure was calculated for a nursing school student with the highest pay level.
UH has plans to increase wages for graduate assistants. They asked the legislature for about $2.2 million in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to increase graduate student stipends.
UH also plans to set entry level pay for graduate assistants at $18,930 for nine-month appointments and $22,140 for 11-month appointments this fall semester. That would be an increase of just over $700 compared to the minimum pay graduate assistants make now.
“It’s more than pay,” Zhu said. “The vast majority of graduate assistant compensation is far below a living wage.”
The university has at least one example of a student group that pushed a department at UH Manoa to give its graduate assistants higher stipends.
Seth Travis recalls a lunch conversation with some friends in the oceanography department one afternoon in 2015. Travis had just been elected president of a student group for oceanography students.
The conversation shifted to Hawaii’s high cost of living, and soon, to how stipend amounts for graduate assistants in the oceanography department stacked up to other universities.
“They said, ‘hey, Seth is president. He should look into it,’” Travis said. “Initially it was curiosity on my part. Were we out of the ordinary?”
He found that UH’s oceanography department lagged behind seven other universities with similar oceanography departments. Of seven other institutes, UH’s oceanography stipends ranked second to last, and when adjusted for cost of living in each school’s city, UH came in dead last, according to a report Travis put together in 2016.
“The faculty were very impacted by seeing that adjustment,” he said.
His department made substantial changes shortly after Travis presented his findings to them. The oceanography department now pays its graduate student assistants at the highest pay grade which amounts to about $35,460 a year.
“I was really amazed with how quickly they said let’s do this,” Travis said.
Travis’ report also prompted the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology to adopt a higher pay schedule. Entry level graduate assistants with a bachelor’s degree now make about $28,000 a year, up from $24,900 in years prior.
Graduate students in SOEST are some of the highest paid in the university system, thanks in part to Travis’ report.
It wasn’t all smooth seas for everyone in the oceanography department.
‘Iwakeli’i Tong has been at UH working on his doctorate since 2011. Since then he’s held a position as a graduate assistant, gone on a fully funded three-year fellowship and spent a couple of semesters teaching a mathematics course to juniors and seniors.
“I had it pretty good,” he said.
Teaching is a requirement for doctoral candidates in Tong’s department, he said. But the class he taught was only offered once every other semester.
“It was a reality check when I came into the teaching position off the fellowship,” Tong said.
On paper, he had a nine-month appointment. But that contract wasn’t guaranteed.
“I feel like unionization is the right thing for the worker. For me, it doesn’t have to be personal to take a stand.” — Doctoral candidate ‘Iwakeli’i Tong
In reality, his job lasted just four months. Teaching assistants need to reapply every semester for their positions in Tong’s department. And they spent each semester not knowing whether or not they would have a job.
“That’s a precarious place to be,” Tong said. “Let’s say you’re entering a lease. That lease doesn’t run on four month cycles.”
Tong left employment at the university to pursue more stable jobs. Now, when he isn’t working on his doctorate, he teaches at a local high school during the day and works at a bar on nights and weekends.
Tong still supports unionization even if he won’t benefit from it. He’s about two semesters out from completing his doctorate.
“I feel like unionization is the right thing for the worker,” he said. “For me, it doesn’t have to be personal to take a stand.”
While ALU has the support of several unions including the Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, it lacks the support of the university.
UH argues that having a union will not suddenly resolve issues of workplace harassment or low wages or unfair treatment.
“Ask yourselves if the fact of having a union in and of itself resolves or eliminates any of those occurrences from happening,” UH Vice President of Finance Kalbert Young told a state House committee Feb. 12. “Every single manager at the university will admit that things occur that have to be resolved or fixed.”
Young said that issues raised by proponents of unionization need to be resolved whether there’s a union or not.
Young told the lawmakers, and UH this echoed in its recent testimony, that many of the social supports and grievance processes that pro-union graduate assistants seek are already handled through the administration’s processes and procedures.
“The sheer fact that this issue keeps coming back every single year is evidence that the university processes aren’t working,” Zhu of the ALU said.
At the House hearing in February, Benton Rodden, chair of ALU’s executive committee, told lawmakers that union representation could go beyond the university processes by enforcing contracts the union bargained.
The union could also provide an independent grievance process.
“I think this is really important where you have someone who knows the process that is there to work for you that doesn’t report to the administration. Someone that you can trust,” Rodden told the lawmakers.
Anamica Bedi Di Silva says that some graduate students, particularly women, may slip through the cracks and not utilize UH’s reporting procedures if they feel uncomfortable.
“It’s not the fault of the graduate students for feeling uncomfortable,” Di Silva said. “They feel like they may not be listened to. They feel like if their name is out there, then everybody’s going to know their business. They don’t want to be, quote-unquote, that girl that causes problems.”
Di Silva was president of a group called Women in SOEST for two years. During that time, she said several harassment cases stood out in her mind of women who told her their stories of being verbally harassed or touched inappropriately.
“The saddest thing about these incidents is each one of these female graduate students did not feel comfortable either coming to campus or did not feel comfortable being alone with a male faculty member,” Di Silva said.
She says that she’s heard of yet more instances second-hand that have not been reported to the university.
About 1 in 10 UH students reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment while enrolled at the university, according to a campus climate survey published last year.
All UH faculty members are required by law to report sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic and dating violence and stalking.
More than half of students had at least some knowledge of where to report incidents of harassment or abuse, the campus climate survey found.
Since the unionization issue has been brought before lawmakers again, UH Manoa’s Graduate Division created two task forces to create training materials for faculty on mentoring graduate students and develop policies on improving the university’s mentoring process.
Graduate student workers in the University of California system first began organizing in the 1930s. It wasn’t until 2000 that they negotiated their first union contract, which promised to cover 100 percent of student fees in 2002.
In 2014, the UC Student-Worker Union negotiated a contract that guaranteed childcare subsidies at $1,350 a semester up to age 12, a 17 percent wage increase over four years, and six weeks of paid leave for birth parents.
The UC graduate workers’ contract also enforces a 20-hour work week and protection for undocumented students.
Josh Brahinsky, a former union leader at UC Santa Cruz, said making ends meet was still tough, but the union made it easier.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” Brahinsky said of unionization. “But it has shifted the experience massively. It gave us a greater capacity to survive.”
The UC system is one of 33 other universities that have graduate workers unions. In California, changes to the state law made it possible for the graduate workers to unionize, Brahinsky said.
Eleven other states have public universities with workers unions. They include Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Iowa, Rhode Island, Washington, Montana and Connecticut.
For Brahinsky, the union has been an important check on the UC administration and its faculty.
“They control your future,” he said of faculty advisors who work with graduate students. “You have to create a future with them. The power that faculty have over graduate students is very very potent and not like the power most employers have over employees.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.