Three graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii (UH) have filed a lawsuit to be recognized as public employees, giving them the right to unionize and seek better pay and working conditions.
Ashley Hi‘ilani Sanchez, Kawena‘ulaokala Kapahua, and Cameron Grimm, represented by Academic Labor United (ALU), filed the lawsuit on Saturday against the UH Board of Regents, the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, and the state of Hawaii.
The state constitution allows public employees to legally organize and bargain collectively for salaries and working conditions. However, the Hawaii Labor Relations Board decided in 1972 that graduate assistants are not public employees, meaning they cannot join faculty or staff unions.
Fighting for Rights
There have been numerous efforts to overturn the board’s decision, including the introduction of several bills in the state legislature. However, none of these attempts were unsuccessful.
“It’s important for our community to know that we didn’t go into this process of suing the state unthoughtfully or uncritically. We did this after a really long struggle to try to work with the state to make this happen,” said ALU Chair Alex Miller.
“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,’” he added.
The university has thus far declined to comment on the suit. UH spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl has stated that the administration considers graduate assistants as student first and employees second. However, they have looked into the issues and are working to address them.
The plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment from the court stating that graduate assistants are public employees and that they have the right to organize for collective bargaining.