Amid push to unionize, UH grad students say their voices aren’t being heard

Graduate students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa gather to talk about a push to unionize....
Graduate students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa gather to talk about a push to unionize. (Image: Tim Zhu)
Updated: Apr. 3, 2019 at 2:26 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Graduate assistant Rebecca Maria Goldschmidt says the majority of her life is spent at school.

She spends her days attending art and art history classes as she pursues a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and assisting two professors as a paid GA.

She also has a hand in helping out students with their art pieces, not to mention tackling research and thesis work.

Goldschmidt is among the over 1,300 graduate assistants at UH-Manoa who teach classes or tackle important research projects.

They’re integral to the institution, but some of them say they’re not being appreciated.

That sense of dissatisfaction has led some to get behind a years-long battle for unionization, which seems almost certain to fail again at this year’s session, and call on the university to improve pay and benefits for graduate assistants.

“We are just trying to change the system a little bit and advocate for ourselves because it benefits everybody,” Goldschmidt said.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the university opposes graduate assistant unionization for a simple reason: GAs are students first, employees second.

He also said the graduate assistantships aren’t careers. They’re part-time, and GAs are required to be working toward a degree.

He said adding a layer of collective bargaining would create a financial burden for the state.

And, Meisenzahl added, university administrators have sought to improve the working conditions for graduate assistants, including by boosting the minimum stipends in 2018.

“We may be on opposite ends of the unionization issue,” Meisenzahl said. “But as far as the other issues, like increasing the pay for graduate students, we’re on the same side.”

Tim Zhu, vice president of Academic Labor United and a graduate student at UH-Manoa, said he isn’t buying it.

“Year after year, they push back against our very reasonable ask, which is to have a seat a table with a union,” Zhu said.

He said he feels the voices of graduate students aren’t respected by UH administration.

That’s why he took a leadership role with Academic Labor United, a group of graduate students working to unionize at UH.

The minimum stipend that graduate student assistants receive at UH-Manoa is around $18,000 for a nine-month, part-time appointment and $22,000 for an 11-month appointment.

Graduate assistants also get tuition waivers.

To many graduate students, Zhu said, the stipends aren’t a living wage.

But it’s not just low pay that Zhu is concerned about. He also worries about poor benefits for GAs, and unrealistic expectations, including doing work that’s outside the purview of their jobs.

And he’s not alone.

A 2018 survey conducted for the University of Hawaii found that nearly a third of faculty members don’t think the university provides adequate support to graduate assistants.

Goldschmidt, who is also events coordinator of the Graduate Student Organization at UH-Manoa, said graduate assistants are struggling to make ends meet and focus on all that’s required of them.

“There’s definitely a sense of not having enough time and a lot of pressure,” she said. “There’s a lot of possibility for abuse and power moves that people can experience from their higher ups.”

Jesse Black, a UH-Manoa graduate student in oceanography, said doing everything and doing it well means there isn’t a lot of time for anything else.

He said as a teacher’s assistant, he spends hours every week preparing lectures, grading, and doing lab work.

But his main concern is if he’ll be able to pull in enough money each month to cover his expenses.

“It’s a big time commitment and it’s easy to overwork yourself if you’re trying to meet deadlines and do well in your coursework,” Black said. “Having an outside healthy life is tough.”

Graduate students have tried multiple times to unionize, but their efforts have failed at the state Legislature. At one point, lawmakers did approve a bill, but Gov. David Ige vetoed it.

Meisenzahl contends that the administration has tried to work with graduate student leaders, but they’re not being met halfway.

“We definitely been trying to address their concerns and we have an open door to meet with them,” Meisenzahl said. “But they haven’t really worked with us even though we’ve reached out to work with them.”

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