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Sunday, April 20, 2014         

ON POLITICS


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State's biggest union adjusting to new realities

By Richard Borreca

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Ever so gently, with just a passing nod to the state's shrinking budget, the state's biggest union is looking at a whole new definition of what public workers want and need.

Although it may still be part of the union rhetoric, gone are the days of "equal pay for equal work" and "an injury to one is an injury to all." In total, working conditions, pay and benefits are all issues, but not to the degree that dramatic improvements are needed.

Today for the Hawaii Government Employees Association, much of the mission is about preservation.

Randy Perreira, HGEA executive director, sees the ongoing state worker furloughs and rising medical costs as the two big issues. So first he needs to get back the pay his members lost because of the days off and second he must do something to get off the medical-cost escalator.

"We are gong to face some difficult decisions that are going to impact our quality of life," Perreira admits.

What worries Perreira and others is "a never-ending upward slant in terms of health premiums."

"It is not sustainable for either the employers or the employees. We are looking to negotiate a different range of benefits, provide more options for the employees and create more competition in the marketplace so we can hold the line on costs," Perreira said in an interview last week.

What Perreira wants is to take medical benefits out of the government committee and put them into negotiations so that the unions can bargain medical costs.

So far Gov. Neil Abercrombie has been unclear on how he will handle the looming public worker talks -- but he appears to be looking kindly at labor. For instance, he named Neil Dietz, the longtime port agent for the Seafarers International Union as Office of Collective Bargaining chief negotiator. He also unilaterally promised state workers $18 million extra in state funds for their medical benefits, although he won't say if he will continue the increased payments into the next fiscal year. The extra money would have to come from an emergency request Abercrombie sent to the Legislature.

Perreira appears ready to work with Abercrombie, even after his union endorsed former Mayor Mufi Hannemann for governor.

"I think the relationship is OK," Perreira says. "Certainly there were differences when it came to decisions in the elections, but there are no personality differences."

If Perreira has a problem it is more with some Democrats in the Legislature, particularly those aligned with House Speaker Calvin Say. Perreira says the arguments voiced during last year's campaign that public employees "have been enjoying too rich a medical plan or a pension that is too good," show a lack of respect.

While not singling out specific incumbents, Perreira calls it "offensive that legislators can cavalierly address the pension of people who work or government as being too rich, when in fact they enjoy the same if not better."

He's right that legislators, judges and the governor and lieutenant governor do enjoy increased pension benefits.

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit from Perreira came at the end of the interview while discussing economic choices facing the state, which he sees as either learning to live with reduced government expenses or finding more money to run the existing state government.

Perreira is not saying "no" to some form of legalized gambling to raise state funds. In the past the union membership was against gambling, he said, but an internal survey done last year showed support for gambling to help fund the state budget; Perreira now says it is time for more discussion.

If gambling is ever going to move in Hawaii, important players such as Perreira and the HGEA will have to support it -- so just the first mention of a change is interesting.

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Richard Borreca writes on politics every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at rborreca@staradvertiser.com






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