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Graduate students to Saiki: union-busting unacceptable from a Democrat

The students protested the Speaker's decision to discharge conferees on a bill that would allow them to form a union, directly challenging the Kakaʻako–Ala Moana representative.

News Report
Will Caron

Members of Academic Labor United (ALU), a labor organization founded by University of Hawaiʻi students this year to advocate for a union for student-workers, stormed into Speaker of the House Scott Saiki’s office on the fourth floor of the Capitol building today, demanding that he reverse his decision yesterday to discharge conferees on SB2585 SD2 HD1, which would make it legal for them to form a collective bargaining unit.

[Video: ALU organizers and graduate students protest at the Capitol.]

In a culture where direct challenges to politicians are few and far between, the spectacle of almost 60 students and supporters loudly marching into the speaker’s office while chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union busting,” and then circling the third floor corridors where the rest of the house representatives keep their offices brought legislators, lobbyists and staffers out to the railings to see what the commotion was about.

Once inside the speaker’s office, students filled the entire lobby and poured out into the hallway. A couple of staffers quietly scuttled out of the way, leaving the office devoid of staff. Speaker Saiki was nowhere to be found.

“I have a question. Does anyone in this building even work? Where is everybody in this office?” said ALU organizer Tim Zhu, rhetorically. “I know we all had to take time away from work to be here. None of us get paid to be here.” At which point students began to chant, “Where is Saiki? Where is Saiki?”

The ALU members carried signs showing the speaker’s face with the phrase “Union Buster” written underneath.

“The Speaker of the House is a union buster and you don’t back down from a union buster; you stand up to a union buster,” said ALU Chair Benton Rodden. “It is unacceptable for a Democratic Speaker of the House to steal collective bargaining rights from workers. No member of the House can claim to care about workers, victims of sexual harassment, or those who face countless workplace violations while they are supporting a union buster as their leader. They are all complicit.”

“We want to talk about why this bill is so important in this office, because this is the office that needs to hear it,” said ALU organizer ʻIlima Long. “An external report came out about the university that shows that sexual harassment is a serious problem at UH. It is normal practice now in union contracts to not only have language about protections against sexual harassment, but to have increasingly strong language around sexual harassment.”

She continued, “When you have an issue around sexual harassment and you are unionized, you have the right to have a union rep with you who knows your rights as a worker every step of the way. Without a union, we do not have that advocate to fight for us as workers, and we all know how vulnerable workers are. Students are afraid to lose their jobs if they speak out.”

In an email, Rodden wrote to ALU members, “Speaker Scott Saiki unilaterally blocked our bill from passing. This morning we received word from the governor that he was going to let our bill pass. This was the result of heavy lobbying by Senator Kai Kahele and Senator Jill Tokuda. Then the Speaker decided to take away your right to collectively bargain without even so much as an explanation why. This is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered.”

Student organizers have been trying for years to change the law to allow student workers to form a collective bargaining unit. They are currently the only public laborers who are barred from doing so because they are not categorized as employees. Despite this, it is undeniable that they are laborers, in the literal sense of the word, contributing invaluable research, teaching and administrative work for professors with a collective bargaining unit of their own.

In 2016, the bill reached the governor’s desk where it was vetoed due to lobbying from the University of Hawaiʻi administration. Other than that year, a bill has not gotten as far as it did this year, making the Speaker’s move all the more frustrating for organizers.

While tuition, student fees, housing and cost of living continue to rise in Hawaiʻi, making it increasingly difficult for graduate students to further their education here, the students find themselves with no power to negotiate pay raises or access to benefits. But it’s not just about pay and economics. Much of the powerful student testimony on SB2585 throughout the session has focused on other aspects of unionization that protect workers from unfair work practices and hostile work environments, harassment, retaliation and sexual assault.

Long cited a recent report titled “UH Campus Student Climate Survey” (2017), which says that 52 percent of graduate students that reported being sexually harassed at the University of Hawaiʻi reported that their harasser was a faculty member. The State Commission on the Status of Women wrote, “Systemic problems need systemic solutions. We must ensure that there are equitable investigation processes between vulnerable students, especially grad students who have close and highly dependent relationships with powerful, unionized faculty.”

Article 23 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment;
Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work;
Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection; and
Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

“[I’m] deeply inspired by my union, with or without legal recognition,” wrote Zhu in a Facebook post after the protest ended. “We turned out over 60 grad workers this morning with 12 hours notice in the middle of the busiest time of year for us. We have no money, no paid organizers, just a volunteer crew of grad worker/organizers. I used to think it was a pipedream, but now I firmly believe that with real, more long-term, organizing a majority strike is also possible. Workers are fired up! We’re back at it in larger numbers tonight at 6 pm at the Capitol.”

The students are returning to the Capitol tonight at 6 p.m. to continue the protest during this evening’s night session.