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University of Hawaii graduate assistants sue to unionize

HONOLULU (AP) — University of Hawaii graduate assistants have sued for the right unionize and bargain for better pay and working conditions.

Three graduate students and Academic Labor United, which represents graduate assistants, filed the lawsuit Saturday against the Board of Regents, the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and the state of Hawaii, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Graduate assistants perform research, teach classes, hold office hours and grade student work while earning their own advanced degrees.

The state constitution gives public employees the right to organize and bargain collectively. But the Hawaii Labor Relations Board determined in 1972 that graduate assistants are not public employees, and so they may not join faculty or staff unions.

Numerous bills have been introduced at the Legislature to overrule the board’s decision, but none has become law.

“It’s important for our community to know that we didn’t go into this process of suing the state unthoughtfully or uncritically,” said Alex Miller, who chairs Academic Labor United. “We did this after a really long struggle to try to work with the state to make this happen.”

The Labor Board declined to comment on the lawsuit. The University of Hawaii said it could not comment directly on pending litigation.

University spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said that the university has worked to address issues raised by graduate assistants and will continue to do so.

The university has opposed legislation giving graduate assistants collective bargaining rights because it considers them to be students first and employees second, Meisenzahl said. The school questions whether unionizing would result in a financial benefit to students, he said.

Minimum pay is set at $18,930 for a nine-month position and $22,140 for 11 months, but many graduate assistants earn more. Graduate assistants who are full-time students are exempt from paying Federal Insurance Contribution Act taxes which fund Medicare and Social Security.

They also receive tuition waivers.

There are more than 1,200 graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii. About 350 have signed membership cards with Academic Labor United.

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