UH grad students urge law change to enable union
Upholding the constitutionality of the state’s laws is one of the key obligations of the governor. By possibly withholding the right to collective bargaining from the graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii, Gov. David Ige is in jeopardy of doing just the opposite. As stated by Article XIII, Section 2 of the Hawaii State Constitution: “Persons in public employment shall have the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining as provided by law.”
Graduate students at UHManoa provide critical services to the university and the state of Hawaii, yet the UH administration has consistently displayed a not-so-benign neglect of our welfare. Unfortunately, it appears that the governor may now be joining it. The graduate student body at UH is incredibly diverse and comes from within the state, around the country, and all over the globe. We are ex- pected to teach courses, mentor undergraduates, volunteer in the community, and conduct research that vastly contributes to making UH a great academic institution.
In return, we are paid wages near the poverty level and treated as expendable workers. Because of this historic mistreatment, graduate students at UH-Manoa lobbied for House Bill 553, which would change Hawaii Revised Statute 89-6, the law that currently denies us our constitutionally guaranteed rights to collective bargaining. In a historic move, the state Legislature passed the bill almost unanimously. Surprisingly, despite this overwhelming show of support for graduate assistants from the Legislature, Gov. Ige is threatening to veto the bill.
The governor argues that issues regarding graduate student working conditions should be handled by the UH administration and Board of Regents. History, on the other hand, belies this notion. Graduate students have been seek- ing redress of their grievances internally for decades, but the university has outright refused to address these issues meaningfully. Forming a union would simply allow students the ability to seek the equitable wages, fair working conditions, and predictable employment everyone deserves.
The university has suggested that our roles as students mean that we are not civil servants, and therefore are not constitutionally entitled to bargaining rights. Yet why are the paychecks that we receive issued by the state? Moreover, this assertion ignores the fact that we are a necessary part of UH. The university would not be able to maintain its status as a major research center or matriculate as many students as it does without graduate student labor. Without us, UH would not be able to function as it does.
Allowing graduate assistants to unionize would put the state of Hawaii at the head of a progressive national trend. As well, recognizing graduate student rights is not only important for our welfare but also for the university as a whole and the state of Hawaii. Our working conditions constitute an issue that affects the stability of the university, and thus, the instructional quality at UH as well as the economic, cultural, and social value that the university produces. Moreover, in the future, if graduate students are not valued in Hawaii, they will take their skills elsewhere. This potential brain drain could weaken the state and cause long-term damage to the intellectual and financial well-being of Hawaii.
Additionally, collective bargaining to protect workers from abuse is part of the bedrock of the Democratic Party. If Gov. Ige decides to veto the bill, he will be denying us our constitutional rights and turning his back on both his own party and higher education in the state of Hawaii. We ask, then, that he reconsider his declared intent to veto and sign HB 553 into law.
Jonathan Dial, top, and Nick Chagnon submitted this on behalf of the University of Hawaii-Manoa Graduate Student Organization (GSO) Executive Council; Dial is GSO president and Chagnon is at-large representative.