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Public school teachers learn the hard way about hard times

By Cynthia Oi

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

In April 2001, Hawaii's public school teachers went on strike, taking to sidewalks and street corners with picket signs after turning down a 14 percent increase in pay and benefits the state had offered.

At the same time, University of Hawaii educators also walked off the job. The dual strikes made news around the country with media accounts astonished at how the most exotic of America's states, with its image of aloha and paradise, was the site of a disruption that brought learning institutions to a wrenching standstill.

Although the state was certainly not flush, the notion was that there was enough to pay teachers a salary sufficient to keep them in the islands where a shortage of educators was of great concern.

The strike lasted 20 days, during which public opinion generally seemed to support teachers. While they weren't golden, the status of teachers had been burnished by lawmakers, other politicians and business leaders through the muscular presence of their union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Teachers were the good guys; the governor, Ben Cayetano, was cast as the guy with the black hat who, however, was prudently seeking to rein in spending on government salaries to fund instead social programs he thought essential to the community's stability, and to tie pay increases to better job performance.

What a difference a decade makes.

Acute revenue shortages linked to a wounded economy have sharply changed public views toward its government and the people who earn a living delivering government services.

As private companies shed employees and slashed wages and benefits for those they kept on the line, resentment grew toward government workers whose labor contracts gave them some measure of protection. The attitude has spitefully become, since I'm not OK, you public workers better not be OK either.

Though there is need for government to shrink expenses, there are consequences for curtailing vital services and operations. As pressure increases to provide young people with solid, useful instruction and training so they can augment societal benefits, teachers are even more important.

Ten years ago, when agreement on a contract was reached, teachers received pay raises and bonuses of about 18 percent, short of the 22 percent they initially sought but far more than the 9 percent the state first offered.

Today, the state is telling teachers their pay and benefits will be cut 5 percent — take or leave it — and bypassing the union to impose its "last, best and final" contract proposal unilaterally.

Whether the action will withstand legal challenges isn't clear, but what is unmistakable is the state's flexing its own muscle, acquired through a weak economy and a public opinion reshaped by that weakness.

A footnote: In 2001, after the settlement of the teachers contract, the announcement was delayed in order to contact someone who had helped broker deals for the public schools as well as the university and whose presence was wanted for the news conference. That was then-Congressman Neil Abercrombie, whose stake as now-governor in the issue would seem as great.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at

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