The history of Hawaiʻi is rooted in the struggles and victories of working people. The first recorded labor dispute in Hawaiʻi occurred when Native Hawaiian workers walked off their jobs at the Kōloa sugarcane plantation in 1841 to win a wage increase of about 2 cents an hour. The labor struggles of the mid-20th century shaped modern Hawaiʻi. Monumental, multi-racial, all-out strikes organized by the ILWU in the sugar, pineapple, and longshore industries challenged the power of the corporate elite and brought prosperity and democracy to workers across the islands. In 1970, public sector workers won the right to strike by striking illegally, and won the passage of a collective bargaining law that enshrined many rights for workers. In 2001, 10,000 public school teachers represented by HSTA and 3000 University of Hawaiʻi faculty represented by UHPA shut down all public education in the State for weeks in the nation's first such higher and lower education strike. To these workers who fought so hard for their rights, we owe so much.
During this time, graduate employees were also creating the first unions of their kind, at universities such as Rutgers, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Florida. The movement to unionize graduate employees built slowly but surely, as universities increasingly relied on graduate labor for teaching, research, administrative duties, and more. Graduate employees organized unions to represent themselves and use collective power to bargain for better compensation, to fight for fair and just conditions, and to have a voice in their workplace. The turn of the 21st century saw renewed efforts to unionize graduate employees across the country, including in Hawaiʻi. Particularly following the National Labor Relations Board decision in 2016 reversing the decades-long ban on private university graduate unions, and exemplified by high-profile graduate union campaigns at places such as the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Yale, the graduate union movement is stronger than ever. In total, over 100,000 graduate workers in the United States belong to graduate unions at over 80 public and private institutions, in states such as California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Illinois, Montana, Massachusetts, Iowa, and many more.
In the past few years, graduate assistants at the University of Hawaiʻi have been organizing for a legally recognized union as our wages have stagnated and the cost of living continues to skyrocket. In 2015, after several years of similar attempts, a bill that would create a public sector collective bargaining unit for graduate assistants passed through the Hawaiʻi State Legislature successfully, but was vetoed by Governor David Ige, who claimed that graduate assistants were students and not workers, and preferred that graduate assistants plead our case to the Board of Regents. The following years have proven this to be a useless process as our wages continue to fall behind the curve and working conditions deteriorate. It is clear, though, that we have a basic human right to a union (see Article 23 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
Academic Labor United was founded in the summer of 2017 to continue this fight. We are building worker power at the University to provide ourselves the capacity to win demands with or without official recognition. Unions have made universities across the world stronger and better for decades, and have built a more prosperous Hawaiʻi for working class people. We take pride in our work that makes the University of Hawaiʻi a leader in education, outreach, and research, and a graduate union will only deepen that engagement. We will continue to organize, and we will win.
Articles on Academic Labor United:
- Civil Beat -> ‘It’s More Than Pay’: The Plight of UH Grad Assistants (2019)
- Hawaii News Now -> Amid push to unionize, UH grad students say their voices aren’t being heard (2019)
- Civil Beat Op-Ed -> Sexual Harassment: One More Reason Grad Students Need To Unionize (2019)
Helpful links/articles on graduate unionization:
- Economic Policy Institute: The state of graduate student employee unions (2018)
- Nature: The urgent need to recognize and value academic labor (2017)
- Truth-Out: As Universities Are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense (2017)
- Splinter News: Unionized College Faculty Are Winning Themselves a Lot of Money (2017)
- Jacobin: Bringing Unions to the Fight (2017)
- Jacobin: Who's the Boss? (2016)
- Science: The implications of graduate student unionization (2016)
- The Atlantic: Why Graduate Students of America Are Uniting (2015)
- Tom Schenk, Jr.: Links to resources on graduate assistant unionization