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J.N. Musto

The executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly believes in taking the long view when negotiating on behalf of its members

By Vicki Viotti

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 06:26 p.m. HST, Aug 05, 2011


The Hawaiian stone altar in the courtyard of Bachman Hall was built during a protest that had nothing to do with faculty contracts. Still, it was a reminder that sacrifices were made by the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly in 2009 to strike its six-year accord with UH administrators whose offices are right upstairs.

This week, as UHPA Executive Director J.N. Musto sat down outside UH system headquarters to reflect on that agreement, the union members Musto represents were starting to reap the rewards of that sacrifice. 3 percent raises in each of 2013 and 2014.

The Detroit-born Musto, 65, has been at his post since 1979, coming from a similar job for faculty at Central Michigan and Ferris State universities. He never expected to make his life here, but Musto, married with a grown daughter and stepson, did just that.

The mission was the same in both places: improving the integrity of an institution through collective bargaining, which he said is a more honest way to secure budgets and faculty pay than swapping favors.

However, Musto added, union members can't get everything they want through collective bargaining, which is why they campaign hard for political candidates sympathetic to UH interests to make sure the institution maintains a fair share of the state budget.

As for the union and the UH, he said, there doesn't have to be war.

"People see the world as a zero-sum game," he said, "so whatever the faculty gets, it comes at a cost to the university. I don't. I think it's a symbiotic relationship, frankly. They can't exist without each other, so we have to think in those terms, the long-term stability of the institution, and a stability to the faculty."

QUESTION: At the time you got that settlement (in 2009), did it feel like a win-win for you?

ANSWER: It felt to me like it was a critical settlement. I mean, it could have gone the other way. We could have ended up not settling and having a confrontation. But at the time I knew, I was certain as I looked forward that it was in the best interests of this university to have a long-term contract with its faculty. …

They (the administration) had to see beyond this crisis; remember, this was when the crisis was coming to a head, 2008, when things were just awful, 2009. I came back to the conclusion that it was only by stretching this out that we could find any way to provide the stability the institution needed, with a reasonable expectation that the faculty salaries would remain competitive with the institutions that we do compete with, for faculty, for grants and everything else.

I also knew that Gov. (Linda) Lingle’s term was coming to an end and there would be a new governor, and I had no notion who the next governor would be. Again, if you could find an agreement that was acceptable, better to agree than to have a confrontation — I would say, at the fringes — over perhaps the economic issues. … In the long term, it is the institution that will survive, and you want it to survive. The worst thing would be to behave parasitically in any manner, which then causes the host to die. No one wants that.

Q: Any thoughts about current trends in private-sector labor?

A: How could we get the automobile industry to be as bad off as it was, and now suddenly it’s coming back. … It’s because you got rid of your liabilities, and most of those were retirement liabilities, whether they were related to pensions or health. You get rid of those liabilities, then the companies suddenly become profitable. And there are people all around the world that are creating companies in that very way. That’s part of why we are in the position we are today.

Q: “We” being … ?

A: The United States of America. Stratification of the economy is growing. We talk about what we can do for the safety net for the poor, and then we talk about these grandiose notions about taxation policy encouraging job growth for the rich.

What’s being lost is the 1950s grand middle class that was created, in my mind, through a collaboration between big labor and big industry — between the UAW (United Auto Workers) and General Motors, for instance. And it created a huge middle class that carried people of my generation, quite frankly, through to where we are today. And we had a great life. We really did.

Q: So, do you see this as the decline of the middle class, or do you think this is a cycle?

A: Well, I mean, everything’s a cycle. …The question is: How long is the cycle going to be? Certainly in my lifetime, which is not that long, the cycle is not going to come back. So what I’m facing, and what I’ll be viewing is, inexorably, the decline of the middle class, and more stratification.

And part of that is globalization. Boy, that’s a hard moral issue for me: to accept poverty globally as long as I don’t have it locally. It really is a tough issue. But what that does, it ultimately has to do, it brings up the standard of living of some and brings down the standard of living of others. And it doesn’t bring down the standard of living of the rich. There is such a thing as inordinate wealth, and we are getting more of it in our country. We really, really are. And that’s going to continue.

Q: Are you surprised with the new administration and all the conflict with unions?

A: I’m not entirely surprised that it is extraordinarily excruciating and difficult, because you’re in a time of economic recession. Anybody can be friendly when everything’s growing and there’s lots around; when it’s starting to contract, it really becomes hard.

That’s why I think most people are willing to make that bargain, which says, “For what I do now, then I will get”  — to look to the future. … Part of the difficulty in public sector, though, is public sector runs on two- and four-year election cycles. … So the politicians’ future is in those increments, and that becomes one of those hard realities.

Q: So there’s only so far ahead you can negotiate?

A: It makes it a lot more difficult. You can make a better argument in lots of ways in the private-sector setting to do that.

Q: Any thoughts about what’s going on with the Hawaii State Teachers Association?

A: I know absolutely nothing about the bargaining with HSTA other than what I’ve read. I have no personal or even organizational direct contacts with HSTA. They neither seek our advice, ask our opinion or offer us information. Likewise on the governor’s office.

I am, however, extraordinarily worried about the resolution of this bargaining dispute taking place in a judicial setting, or an administrative law setting, the HLRB (Hawaii Labor Relations Board). That worries me a lot. It’s not that UHPA hasn’t used the courts and HLRB and sought redress and all the rest. But the hope of doing that was the whole idea of the (William) Ury book, “Getting to Yes.” And it says, what you need to find out is what’s your BATNA — best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Once you know your BATNA, then you can settle. If it isn’t a better alternative, then you gotta settle.

I am afraid that you can also, in the public sector, win the battle and lose the war. In other words, win in HLRB and the courts, only to have our state Legislature turn around and say, “The only problem is we just need to change this law, so we take away any advantage you might have had, or you gained through this process.”

Q: Are you saying that using courts and the HLRB can’t benefit the members?

A: No. I think you can benefit in the short term, actually, by that tactic. But it’s the short term, not long term. Because what I think will happen is it will become a political issue, and the politicians will solve it in a political way — not unlike what they did in Wisconsin. … Because they’ll change the rules.

You are, as an employee representative, not in control of the resources. They, as the state and the employer, do (control them). … There is a natural imbalance in power that occurs.

What I’m always trying to do, I believe there needs to be balance in the bargaining, from a legal, technical, whatever perspective. This for that. Consequences — for both sides, not just one.

As I said, I don’t want the courts to create something which upsets that balance, and if they do, it isn’t going to be in favor of the employees. Ultimately, it’ll be in favor of the employer. Because they’ll go and change the laws if they have to.

Q: Worst-case scenario, what could they do?

A: They could change all of the conditions about implementing an employer’s last, best offer. This is my greatest fear: An employer never has to bargain in good faith, ever, and they get to implement their last, best offer. And, oh, by the way, you’re precluded, from some external things, from going out on strike. Oh, great. So now how am I supposed to represent anybody? This is just the ultimate lose.

Q: How much of a blow was it when public-worker unions no longer could bargain for pensions and health care?

A: In any other setting, those things happening would have been profoundly perceived as anti-labor. It’s only the context of Hawaii where we manifest this public acceptance: It’s fine to have unionized employees, except where it comes to the substance. Why don’t we bargain health insurance. We cannot be openly hostile to labor, but don’t confuse that with being supportive of the “labor agenda.”

Q: Do you think the pro-labor image of Hawaii government is overstated?

A: Very overstated. One of the tradeoffs we have historically had in Chapter 89 (of state labor law) is a high amount of union security … Once you gain representation rights, it’s virtually impossible for somebody to get rid of you. High organizational protection and low scope of bargaining.

Q: You said you were hesitant at first to take this job. Why did you?

A: Ultimately I made the decision to come because all those things I’ve said I believe: Collective bargaining is a way to really maintain the integrity of the institution. And there is here only one system of higher education that represents everything from employment training to the law school and the medical school. (I thought,) where else in the United States are you going to find that, J.N.? Nowhere, nowhere. It’s all here. So if what you think can be made to work, you gotta see what you can do. I thought I’d last no more than five years.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from members on the contract?

A: One of the biggest arguments I have to make with the faculty is the same one we had to make in the last six-year contract. This is a contract that will be lived up to for its term until it expires on June 30, 2015. I am confident of that. They tend to be nonbelievers. They’re cynics.






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