The NCSL Blog


By Maheema Haque 

Hawaii legislators have introduced legislation to allow graduate students to unionize at the University of Hawaii several times since 2012, but every attempt has failed—most recently in 2019. Why? 

Graduate students at Columbia University went on strike in 2018 after the university refused to recognize their union. AP PHOTO/BEBETO MATTHEWSHawaii’s dilemma is a microcosm of the ongoing back-and-forth about graduate student unions on campuses across the country. While support for unionization at the school has been building, strong opposition from both the university administration and the state legislature signals the debate is far from settled.  

Graduate student unions (GSU) are contentious because being a graduate student is a multifaceted experience. Universities expect graduate students to undertake coursework, individual research, and teaching/administrative responsibilities. GSU proponents contend these duties have shifted towards more teaching and administrative obligations in the past few decades.

Consequently, graduate students have gone from “proteges slated to join professors as colleagues” to employees of the university. GSU opponents firmly maintain graduate students are more student than employee. As a result, they argue, GSUs would disrupt student-faculty relationships, damage academic freedom and unduly influence policymaking decisions of the university by forcing them to bargain over “educational" matters. 

Classifying graduate students as students versus employees under state law is particularly high stakes at public universities because it decides whether and what bargaining rights GSUs have. 

GSUs at private universities are governed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In contrast, state government employees are “specifically exempted from protection under the NLRA.” Therefore, if graduate students at public universities are “employees” under state law, their right to unionize and bargain are governed by state labor law.  

States’ approaches to GSUs and their rights span the spectrum. Pro-GSU states like California and New York give public GSUs explicit collective bargaining rights, whereas anti-GSU states like Colorado and North Carolina deny collective bargaining rights to any public university employees.

Still, other states, like Ohio, fall somewhere in the middle: While they allow university employees to collectively bargain, their laws “leave unstated” whether graduate students are employees. The “significant variations” between states means university administrators and would-be organizers “must look to the specific statutory scheme of the state.” 

Even in states with a long history of public university GSUs, both formal and informal interaction with the state legislature can influence the formation and scope of a new GSU. In Kansas, for example, the Senate Ways and Means Committee threatened to cut funding to the University of Kansas if the GSU proceeded with their unionizing efforts. State legislatures shape the viability and success of public university GSUs beyond the state’s legal framework.  

Hawaii’s experience with public GSU’s has been long and controversial, but it is certainly not unique. GSUs are a growing presence at both public and private universities across the country, and the COVID pandemic has accelerated that growth at some universities. It is hard to say which way the tide will turn—but this is certainly not the last wave of public GSU legislation state legislatures will see.  

Maheema Haque is an intern in NCSL's Employment, Labor, & Retirement Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.