Over 20 percent of female graduate and professional students at the University of Hawaii reported experiencing sexual harassment in a system-wide report released in 2018. The report was mandated in 2016 by the Hawaii Legislature through Act 208, a bill that the UH administration opposed.

Furthermore, a federal investigation of UH Manoa that concluded in 2018 found the administration did not fully comply with federal laws and violated rules in handling sexual harassment cases from 2010 to 2016. The investigation found that the administration had bungled complaints and had not followed grievance procedure requirements.

For graduate students, the risk of sexual violence is amplified. The percentage of graduate and professional students who reported experiencing sexual harassment in the 2018 survey was double that of the rate among undergraduate and community college students.

Unlike higher education at the undergraduate level, graduate work is highly linked to specific fields and career opportunities. Reporting and resolving issues of sexual violence can endanger a graduate student’s education, work, research and livelihood.

UH Manoa Hawaii Hall

Hawaii Hall at the University of Hawaii Manoa campus.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The federal investigation of UH Manoa, for example, found that the UH administration may not have responded properly to retaliation complaints. Women of color, including Native Hawaiians and Filipinas, and LGBTQ+ identifying individuals, who are already minorities within the graduate community, are disproportionately susceptible to gender-based violence and abuse.

Reporting abuse is difficult, painful, and traumatic for survivors. Most are unlikely to report and without trustworthy, confidential institutional protocols, students are even more unlikely to come forward.

No Trust In Administration

Protections like Title IX, the federal civil rights law, often fall short for survivors, especially when the reporting institution is part of the university where the abuse or harassment occurred. Offering safe ways to report abuse is helpful, but victim-centered, restorative justice-oriented reconciliation processes and sexual harassment prevention policies are needed.

Even the necessary though inadequate Title IX protections are being rolled back by Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education. The DOE has proposed rules to change how schools handle sexual violence by narrowing what counts as sexual harassment, limiting when schools are obligated to respond to sexual harassment, and reducing liability for the university.

As graduate assistants at UH, we don’t trust that the administration will take sexual violence seriously if we come forward, especially as federal oversight of sexual violence at universities is weakened. This is why we are calling on the UH administration to support graduate assistant unionization, and the Hawaii Legislature and governor to pass Senate Bill 1368, which would create a pathway for graduate assistants to unionize.

Sexual violence is the result of an abuse of power. Belonging to a union strengthens a worker’s ability to stop harassment.

With a union contract, we can hold the UH administration accountable for pervasive problems like sexual violence, and create protections for graduate assistants. When the federal government is not there to ensure that the administration takes sexual violence seriously, graduate assistants can advocate for their own protection through a union.

By negotiating a union contract, we will include specific language on sexual violence, protections from retaliation, as well as alternative legal avenues completely removed from the influence of the administration, such as third-party arbitration. Third-party arbitration is a far quicker and less expensive legal avenue than a civil court case and is a standard provision in a union contract’s grievance procedures.

Each day we go without union representation is another day we are vulnerable.

Furthermore, unions offer a collective voice, a community support structure, and unwavering representation in workplace issues. In the United States, graduate assistants have joined unions for 50 years now to stand up for their basic rights.

It’s unconscionable that the UH administration opposes these basic rights. While DeVos rolls back protections for survivors of sexual violence, the UH administration similarly opposes basic and necessary protections for students at the university.

Each day we go without union representation is another day we are vulnerable. With a union, we can resolve issues without worrying about whether the administration will be fair or compliant. With a union, a graduate student with a grievance is guaranteed representation every step of the way, which is especially important in the pervasive cases of sexual violence.

When we have a union, we won’t have to walk alone.

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