+ What is Academic Labor United?

Academic Labor United (ALU) are graduate students organizing for a union at the University of Hawaiʻi. ALU works to ensure all graduate employees have dignified working conditions and fair and equal pay. ALU also works for social justice and equality at the University of Hawaiʻi.

+ What is a union?

A union is a democratically run, member-driven, non-profit organization that represents employees for the purposes of collective bargaining and contract negotiation. In non-unionized workplaces, working conditions are set solely by the employer. In a unionized workplace, employees and employers negotiate over terms of employment and working conditions. More broadly speaking, a union is a tool for collective action and serves as a vehicle for social change, as determined by its members.

+ Why join a union?

Simply put: power concedes nothing without a demand. Without organizing together, we lack leverage as individual workers to obtain the changes we seek. Additionally, with a legally-recognized union, an employer is obligated to sit down at the bargaining table with workers. A union is capable of demanding and winning most anything related to their workplace that their members demand - not just better wages and benefits, but also changing conditions for hiring requirements, emphasizing cultural literacy in training, ensuring the terms of job offers are met, making changes to our graduate assistant orientation, creating spaces for underrepresented communities to thrive in, addressing sexual harassment, and more.

+ Who is leading the organizing?

We are - your fellow graduate assistants at the University of Hawaiʻi.

Unionization is a right for nearly all public workers, including faculty and other university staff, in the state of Hawaiʻi. However, in our state law there is a clause from 1970 that describes people that are not eligible for collective bargaining, which includes inmates, wards of the state, and "student help." In the past, the administration and government has interpreted this in such a way as to prevent graduate assistants from unionizing. However, as the 2016 Columbia decision by the National Labor Relations Board has made clear, as well as the positive experiences of public and private universities in dozens of states across the country, graduate assistants have the right to collectively bargain and form a union. Additionally, state law on public sector collective bargaining makes clear the positive case for recognizing our rights: "The legislature finds that joint decision-making is the modern way of administering government. Where public employees have been granted the right to share in the decision-making process affecting wages and working conditions, they have become more responsive and better able to exchange ideas and information on operations with their administrators. Accordingly, government is made more effective. The legislature further finds that the enactment of positive legislation establishing guidelines for public employment relations is the best way to harness and direct the energies of public employees eager to have a voice in determining their conditions of work; to provide a rational method for dealing with disputes and work stoppages; and to maintain a favorable political and social environment." (HRS 89-1)

Based on past formations of new public sector unions in Hawaiʻi, an election would be held among graduate assistants to determine an exclusive representative (labor union) as detailed in our state public employment collective bargaining law. (HRS 89)

+ Will I be forced to become a member of ALU?

No. Membership in ALU is voluntary.

+ If I join the union, what are my dues?

Dues are voluntary and set by the membership. At this moment there are no dues.

+ What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process, recognized and protected by state law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer.

With collective bargaining, graduate assistants elect colleagues to negotiate as equals with the State and administration and put the terms of graduate employment into a legally binding contract. Through collective bargaining, graduate assistant unions have successfully negotiated improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment across the world.

Without collective bargaining, the State and administration have unilateral power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements. For example, UH currently decides unilaterally whether or not to make sure we get paid on time or whether our stipends and salaries keep up with the cost of living in Hawaiʻi.

+ What sort of things can the union negotiate in a contract?

Although progress can be incremental, unions secure very tangible benefits for their members. On average, public higher educational employees (including graduate employees and tenure track and non-tenure track faculty) receive higher pay than those without unions. (ILR Review). Nationally, unionized workers make 27% more than their non-unionized peers.

Unions also commonly negotiate toward items like yearly cost of living adjustments, guaranteed parental leave, lower or eliminated supplemental fees, defined instructional workloads, defined leave policies, and clear grievance procedures that protect graduate employees. The most recent contract for the 13,000 workers of the University of California Student-Worker Union UAW 2865 includes a 17% raise over 4 years, $1350/semester childcare subsidies, 6 weeks of paid parental leave, grievable access to lactation stations and gender-neutral bathrooms, a program to ensure access to professional options for undocumented students that are equivalent to those available to all graduate students, and established Campus Committees for a voice in workload intensity. These items are not exhaustive of all things negotiated for in contracts.

+ Who negotiates the contract, and will members be able to vote on it?

A bargaining team would be selected by the union membership, and and would include representatives from a wide variety of academic fields and pay-scales. The bargaining team would formally survey members of the bargaining unit prior to negotiation to determine contract priorities. Members must vote to ratify any negotiated contract; it is not uncommon for negotiations to continue if members have rejected a proposed contract.

+ I’m a research assistant funded by an external grant – am I still covered?


+ I’m afraid my stipend will go down with a union – is that true?

No. We would be committed to contractually ensuring that current wages do not decrease. Further, any negotiated contract must be voted upon and ratified by members.

+ Won’t jobs go away if we get raises?

Because all union decisions will be made by graduate assistants, we will collectively decide what to ask for in bargaining. It is a common misconception that by bargaining for improved working conditions, unions make it too expensive to employ workers and necessarily lead to fewer jobs. In reality, higher ed unions have advocated for increased higher ed and science funding while working for improved working conditions for researchers and teachers. As an example, advocacy by the post-doc union at the University of California has resulted in a 25% average wage increase for post-docs since 2008 when the union was formed. Over the same time the number of post-docs employed by the University of California has increased by 10%.

Furthermore, a graduate assistant union could also bargain for many non-economic improvements to the graduate experience – such as greater protections against sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination – which will cost UH nothing and therefore not cause any economic incentive to reduce jobs.

What’s more, we have more power to protect jobs through collective action and the protections of a legally binding contract. Most collective bargaining agreements prohibit the employer from terminating positions due to arbitrary or discriminatory reasons, or to take action that is inconsistent with job offers that were accepted by the employee.

+ Does everyone in a union have to make the same amount?

No union for academic workers has negotiated a contract that requires all union members to make the same amount. And because we as graduate assistants will make our own decisions about our contract we would likely not negotiate for or vote to approve a contract that requires all graduate assistants to be paid the same. As an example, we could propose a wage structure similar to that of the graduate employee union at the University of Washington, UAW Local 4121, which requires a higher base salary, annual wage increases, and the right to pay above negotiated salaries.

+ Will a union impact my relationship with my advisor?

This is a common talking point used by anti-union university administrators. However, an extensive study by Cornell’s ILR School found that evidence suggests that there is no difference in student-advisor relationships between union and non-union Universities, and that graduate employees at unionized universities report “higher levels of personal and professional support.”

+ Can my advisor retaliate against me for participating in union activity?

No. Retaliation is expressly prohibited by law. Advisors or supervisors of any sort cannot attempt to dissuade you from joining the union, and they are expressly prohibited from asking how you will vote in a union election or whether you are involved in or a member of the union. If you are aware that your supervisor is opposed to unionization, you are legally entitled to withhold your position on the question.

+ I am an international student. Will participating in union activities harm my visa status or university standing?

No. International students have the same constitutional and labor rights as domestic students, and in fact, being part of ALU gives you greater protections in the event that you are discriminated against.

+ Will participating in union activities harm my career?

No. Unions are common in higher education and are organized at over forty top-tier public research Universities, and hiring committees do not ask about union activities. The major unions in Hawaiʻi, including the University of Hawaiʻi Professional Assembly, have endorsed our efforts. See here for a resolution in support of our efforts, submitted and unanimously approved by the state AFL-CIO at their 2017 convention. Many public universities similar to UH, such as the University of Iowa, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Kansas, have graduate employee unions, and no harm has been done to their graduates’ career prospects.

+ Does forming a union mean we will go on strike?

No. Walkouts and strikes, as with any other large-scale action, cannot be undertaken without a vote of the membership. Nothing means more to unions than a democratic process, especially in high-stakes situations like strikes. Additionally, strikes by public sector workers like graduate assistants would be governed by rules in state law that require other arbitration processes to be exhausted first. A strike is a very powerful tool for unionized employees, but a strike would only occur if union members decide a strike is necessary. While a strike is most effective if we all participate, it is an individual decision whether or not to participate. Striking is a last resort as a tactic and is rare. Ninety-eight percent of union contracts are reached without a strike.