The history of Hawaiʻi is steeped 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, which still boasts one of the highest union membership rates in the country at roughly 20%. 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 brothers and sisters who fought so hard for their rights as workers, 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 ownership 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. There are currently dozens of graduate unions across the country at 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 to have our right to a union recognized by the administration and the State of Hawaiʻi as our wages have stagnated and the cost of living continues to skyrocket. An increasing amount of work, previously performed by unionized faculty, is being performed by graduate labor instead, for lower pay and freedom. In 2015, after several years of similar attempts, a bill recognizing the right of graduate assistants to unionize 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 an ineffective 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).
However, graduate assistants at the University of Hawaiʻi continue to organize, as Academic Labor United, and fight for our rights as workers. In 2019, we are working on bringing back a bill to recognize the right of graduate assistants to unionize in Hawaiʻi, while simultaneously building worker power at the University among graduate assistants to provide ourselves the capacity to win demands with or without recognition. With a heightened political climate of resistance, the continued momentum of the graduate union movement, and continued worsening conditions for graduate employees and the 99%, there is more reason than ever to be involved in fighting for a union. Unions have made universities across America 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 believe that unionization will only deepen that engagement. 2019 will see us continuing to organize, listening to and representing the concerns and interests of graduate assistants at the University, and winning.
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