Graduate assistants are again asking the legislature to allow them to collectively bargain their wages and working conditions.
“Despite our efforts to negotiate in good faith, executive management has refused to pay us even half the cost of living and has shown no indication of willingness to do so in the future. The status quo just isn’t working. It’s time we had a seat at the negotiating table,” Benton Rodden, chairman of the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) employment and compensation committee, said in an email.
Rep. Isaac Choy hopes to change state law that prohibits student help from collectively bargaining by introducing HB 1529.
“Everybody, as far as I’m concerned, everybody has a right to collectively bargain,” he said in a phone interview.
There are approximately 1,300 graduate assistants on campus.
Students first, employees second
Choy’s bill from last year, HB 553, had received support from various groups, such as the University of Hawai‘i Professional Assembly (UHPA), and Executive Director Kristeen Hanselman said it’s not a new issue.
Gov. David Ige vetoed the bill last July, saying graduate assistants are students first and employees second. Benton said that’s a disingenuous statement.
“To deny that we’re employees is really just a way to get around having to treat us with the basic ethical standards that employers must treat employees,” he said.
Ige was also concerned about the bill not providing a bargaining unit the graduate assistants would create or be assigned to.
However, Choy said the law does not require this.
In addition, Ige and the university said collective bargaining would mean an increase in cost to UH and the state.
“Increased costs to the university would depend on the outcome of negotiations as it relates to wages, hours, the amounts of contributions to the Hawai‘i employer-union health benefits trust fund to the extent allowed and other terms and conditions of employment which are subject to collective bargaining,” said James Nishimoto, state Department of Human Resources director, in an email.
According to Dan Meisenzahl, UH spokesman, the university has not done an analysis of what this cost might look like.
“I guess there may be an increase in cost, but there’s also increase in opportunity,” Choy said. “So I don’t see organizing or unionizing a workforce as detriment to any business.”
According to the Office of Graduate Education, assistants work between 10 and 20 hours a week. Though they do not get sick leave, they do have time off, and the duration depends on how long their appointment is.
Tuition waivers are part of graduate assistants’ remuneration, with stipends that adhere to a compensation schedule with 20 step increases.
Dean of Graduate Education Krystyna Aune said former Chancellor Tom Apple instituted the minimum step 6 increase in fall 2013 – $17,502 for a nine-month appointment and $20,472 for a 11-month appointment.
Graduate assistants are also eligible for health plan benefits.
Benton said this is not enough. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2015 Out of Reach report, the annual income needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Hawai‘i is $50,289.
“Although graduate assistants are theoretically able to move up the pay scale/steps, the university does not provide any guidance on how to move from one step to another, and it is highly uncommon for GAs to move up the steps,” he said. “I personally have never heard of anyone reaching the $24,912- $30,312 salary range.”
In addition, workplace grievances are another key reason for seeking collective bargaining rights.
“The cost of living has increased by 74 percent since our last wage increase in 2004,” he said. “During that time, the university has found ways to increase spending on athletics, Cancer Center, and pay raises for executive management, etc., not to mention paying out for golden parachutes and the ‘Wonder Blunder.’”
According to UHPA, the university and Board of Regents could alternatively put together policies regarding graduate assistant employment to serve as a contract.
“Now there’s not the protection of [Hawai‘i Revised Statutes] Chapter 89 under those circumstances, but then there are some clear standards around pay, around access to health benefits, and about access to working conditions and some of the issues that probably concern graduate students like credits for authorship,” Hanselman said in a phone interview.
According to Meisenzahl, UH system leadership has met with GSO members and individually with graduate assistants to address their concerns – such as the ability to call in sick, maternity leave and early notification of class scheduling – and feels it has made progress on most of the issues.
“A draft of the revised policy that addresses length of appointments, considerations for step increases, notification dates for renewal and accomodations and work schedule for sick and emergency situations will be sent to stakeholders, if it hasn’t already,” Meisenzahl said.
However, UH still opposes establishing a collective bargaining unit.
“Graduate students are first and foremost students and employed as an extension of their student experience at the university. The very nature of being a graduate student is not a long-term arrangement,” he said.
Of UH Mānoa’s nine peer institutions, only three allow graduate assistants to collectively bargain.
While the Mānoa Faculty Senate has not taken an official stance on the topic, executive committee member Sarita Rai, who also serves as UHPA secretary and campus Student Study Abroad Program director, is in favor of unionization.
“I support the graduate students unionizing so that they can have equitable, fair treatment and protection from abuse vis a vis their work/learning environment,” she said in an email interview. “This is not just simply about getting pay raises.”