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University of Hawaii graduate assistants sue for right to unionize

Graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii have gone to court in hopes of gaining recognition as public employees with the right to unionize and bargain over pay and working conditions.

Academic Labor United and three graduate assistants filed suit Saturday in Circuit Court in Honolulu against the Board of Regents, the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and the state of Hawaii.

“It’s important for our community to know that we didn’t go into this process of suing the state unthoughtfully or uncritically,” said Alex Miller, who chairs ALU, which represents graduate assistants. “We did this after a really long struggle to try to work with the state to make this happen.”

The Hawaii Constitution gives public employees the right to organize and bargain collectively. But the Hawaii Labor Relations Board determined in 1972 that graduate assistants are not public employees, and so they cannot join the faculty or staff unions at the university.

Numerous bills have been introduced at the Legislature to overrule the Labor Board’s decision, but none has become law. In 2015, House Bill 533 passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by the governor.

“We formed ALU in 2017 to organize our fellow workers to fight for our own unionization,” Miller said. “We are just asking to uphold our constitutional rights, but legislators have told us that we aren’t ‘real’ workers, that ‘this just isn’t the year,’ and that our bosses can solve our problems ‘in house.’”

The Labor Board declined to comment on the lawsuit. The University of Hawaii also said it could not comment directly on pending litigation.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl, however, said that the university has worked to address issues raised by graduate assistants and will continue to do so.

“In previous years, UH opposed bills introduced at the Legislature that would give graduate assistants collective bargaining rights because the university considers GAs to be students first and employees second, and available information led us to question whether unionization actually resulted in financial benefit to graduate assistants,” Meisenzahl said.

“GA positions are a component of graduate education and include training that is designed to help students prepare for their future careers or to advance in current careers,” he added.

The university considers a graduate assistantship a form of financial assistance for graduate students through part-time work.

The minimum pay is set at $18,930 for a nine-month position and $22,140 for 11 months, but many GAs earn more. Graduate assistants who are full-time students are exempt from paying FICA taxes, which cover Medicare and Social Security.

Graduate assistants also receive tuition waivers worth at least $11,700 annually for Hawaii residents and $27,810 for out-of-state students.

The suit seeks declaratory judgment from the court that graduate assistants are public employees and as such have the right to organize for collective bargaining. The lawsuit also points out that individuals who have been excluded from collective bargaining have no chance to take part or seek relief from the Labor Board’s decision.

Lance D. Collins, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said graduate assistants perform much of the same work as faculty, such as doing research, teaching classes, holding office hours and grading homework and tests. So he believes they should have the same right to unionize.

“It’s an issue of basic fairness and decency,” Collins said.

There are more than 1,200 graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii, and about 350 have signed membership cards with Academic Labor United.

Along with ALU, the other plaintiffs in the suit are graduate assistants Ashley Hi‘ilani Sanchez, Kawena‘ulaokala Kapahua and Cameron Grimm.

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