Hawaii Grad Students Fight for Collective Bargaining Rights

RJ Brown/Civil Beat

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?"

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