Graduate Students Should Be Allowed to Unionize in Hawaii, But Legislation Failed

University of Hawaii-Manoa Campus
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University of Hawaii-Manoa Campus

BY UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII-MANOA GRADUATE STUDENT ORGANIZATIONGraduate student workers at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa have not received a pay increase since 2004 because they are legally barred from organizing to advocate for their rights as State employees.

Friday, March 2nd was the deadline for the House Committee on Finance to schedule a hearing for HB 2859 – a bill that would remove an impediment to forming a union by taking graduate students employed by UH off the list of state employees statutorily barred from inclusion in an appropriate bargaining unit.


Currently, graduate students are classified as “student help” and cannot organize. Sadly, the House Committee on Finance did not schedule HB 2859 for a hearing and now graduate student workers at UH are facing another year of advocacy before their pleas may be heard again before the House Committees.

Overworked and underpaid

With costs of living in Hawai‘i skyrocketing, it is becoming increasingly impossible for graduate students to survive on the often-meager income that they receive as graduate or teaching assistants and researchers. In addition to not receiving pay raises, graduate student workers also often face having to pull long hours grading for their professors, working in the lab or teaching courses.

“What is the typical life of a graduate student worker?” asked a Labor and Public Employment committee member to Sue Haglund, a former graduate student research assistant, and current Ph.d. candidate, during the House Committee on Labor and Public Employment February 7th hearing.

Sue Haglund explains, “Not every graduate student employee has the same typical life. We all have different experiences, stories, and struggles. When I was a graduate research assistant, I worked three other jobs to make ends meet. My typical day starts at 4 a.m. in the morning and usually ends well past midnight because I also have to work on my own academic requirements in order to complete my dissertation. Believe me if I had a decent livable wage, I wouldn’t be working three other jobs. I would be able to complete and focus on my work as a research assistant, as well as my own dissertation project in a timely fashion.”

“On average, I work 40-50 hours per week in addition to attending classes and writing my thesis,” says graduate assistant Justine Hamer who works for the Athletics Department at UH. “They just expect it of us. We can’t complain since we don’t want our advisers to think we are lazy.”

Graduate student workers like Ms. Hamer experience long work-hours that affect their ability to perform in their classes and complete their degrees in a timely manner.

Even though graduate student workers are only supposed to work 20 hours per week, which leaves some time for coursework and thesis/dissertation-writing, students like Ms. Hamer are constantly pressured to pull longer hours, which makes “graduate assistants in my department take an average of three years to graduate instead of two,” according to Ms. Hamer.

Hawaii as exception

While Hawai‘i maintains its ban on graduate student worker’s right to unionize, other universities across the United States enjoy positive working relationships with graduate student unions that can advocate for graduate student workers, including those at New York University; Columbia University; the entire University of California system and dozens more on the mainland.

Despite paying taxes on their often-insufficient income, graduate student workers in Hawai‘i are considered “student help” by the current legislation and therefore barred from collective bargaining rights alongside “inmates, patients or wards of a state institution,” as the language in the current bill states. Instead of seeing the graduate student population as a tremendous asset to the State’s economy, the invaluable work that graduate students provide for the functioning of the UH system is not seen as important enough to merit the right to collectively bargain.

Opposition from University of Hawaii Administration

Since the bill was introduced in the end of January, both the House Committee on Labor and Public Employment and the House Committee on Higher Education passed the measure. The bill passed its second hearing and was referred to the Finance Committee where it failed to receive a hearing. After launching a massive signature campaign and garnering campus-wide, as well as national-level support, graduate student employees at UH are now left wondering – what happened?

The bill may have failed due to lack of political incentive on the part of the Finance Committee, but it is also possible that they experienced pressure from the University of Hawai’i Administration that has starkly opposed the bill since its inception. The university’s executive vice president for academic affairs/provost, Linda Johnsrud, opposed the bill at a hearing citing concerns that this may make graduate worker’s salaries negotiable in a time when the whole campus is experiencing cutbacks.

As universities across the country are being run more like corporations than institutions of higher learning, graduate student workers need to protect their rights as workers and taxpayers. The UH System employs over 8,000 people and is the third-largest-earning company and the third-highest employer in the state. Of the roughly 5,800 graduate students at UH, roughly 20 percent are employed by the university; teaching classes, running labs, grading papers and performing a variety of essential tasks that keep the university running.

Not giving up

Graduate student workers comprise an indispensable workforce for the UH-system, which greatly helps the State’s economy. If graduate students workers were paid livable wages and received affordable basic healthcare, we would see improved working relations between students and faculty, faster time to graduation, and in general, a healthier and more productive university workforce.

As it stands now, graduate student workers remain barred from even proposing the idea of a union to advocate on their own behalf.

Though, HB 2859 failed in this round, the Graduate Student Organization at UH- Mānoa remains firm in their vision to continue the campaign and will be actively working to ensure that by next year, graduate students workers in Hawai‘i will have the right to unionize.

Submitted by the UH- Mānoa Graduate Student Organization






  1. Do graduate assistants not receive tuition, room, and board in addition to their “small” stipends? If so, then their actual compensation levels have far exceeded inflation, and they have, in fact, received greater pay raises than most workers in either the public or private sectors. How much more does a UH student pay to attend today than he or she did 5 years ago? That amount represents your pay increase!

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