U of Hawai‘i TAs Sue for Right to Collective Bargaining

May 12, 2021

A group of graduate student assistants at the University of Hawai‘i is suing the institution’s Board of Regents, the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and the state for the right to form a union. Public employees in Hawaii have the right to collective bargaining, but the state labor board has for decades maintained that graduate assistants are not public employees. State lawmakers have repeatedly introduced legislation aimed at changing graduate assistants’ public employee status, but no bill has become law.

The University of Hawai‘i has previously argued that graduate students are students, not workers entitled to collective bargaining, but it has not commented directly on the pending litigation. In a statement, the university said it will no longer testify against legislation regarding graduate assistants’ employee status but that it still “considers GAs to be students first and employees second.” The university also said it’s “very appreciative of its GAs, and has worked with the Graduate Student Organization, part of our campus governance, to address many of the issues raised by GAs in recent years and will continue to do so.”

The three graduate assistant plaintiffs are joined in their lawsuit by Academic Labor United, a graduate student organizing group founded on campus in 2017. They allege that the state of Hawaii is obstructing their state constitutional right to collective bargaining. The students say that the state labor board’s reasoning on graduate assistants’ employee status has since been challenged and overruled elsewhere, and that graduate assistants’ role within the university has changed over the years. “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,’” Alex Miller, chair of Academic Labor United, said in a statement.

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