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Teachers union vows to sue

HSTA chief Okabe says he hopes talks will resume, but will take the state to court

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 10:23 a.m. HST, Jul 2, 2011

The Hawaii teachers union went another day without a countermove to the state's decision to unilaterally impose a 5 percent wage reduction, saying it would file a legal challenge but not doing so by close of business Friday.

Pay cuts, furloughs and increased health insurance premiums for Hawaii's 12,700 public school teachers went into effect Friday.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe told the Star-Advertiser at midmorning the union would file some type of legal challenge after getting nowhere with attempts to restart negotiations.

Initially, Okabe said the filing would happen Friday.

But by late afternoon, Okabe said he wasn't sure when the legal challenge would be filed — or whether it would be filed with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board or with state Circuit Court.

"No additional details are available on when or where we will file," he said in an email.

<t-2>The decision to pursue a legal challenge came a week after the state announced it would unilaterally impose its "last, best and final" contract offer, after declaring it had reached an impasse in negotiations.

Okabe said the union held off on pursuing legal relief because officials still hoped negotiations would resume.

"We wanted to respect the collective bargaining that we have with the state," he said, adding that he is still interested in restarting negotiations. "Unfortunately, we have to take this course."

The governor and schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi have said the "last, best" offer is needed to achieve 5 percent labor cost savings, and pointed out that other public employees have approved similar deals.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie also noted Friday that the state's last contract offer was taken by union negotiators to the HSTA's board, which unanimously rejected it.

"But I assumed that the board was informed all along and that when it was taken back to them, that the HSTA negotiators had every expectation that it would be satisfactory," he said, repeating his call for the union to put the contract before the rank and file for a vote.

Okabe declined to discuss why board members rejected the contract offer.

The "last, best" offer implemented Friday includes a 1.5 percent pay cut and seven furlough days for 10-month teachers or nine furlough days for 12-month teachers. Teachers now also have to pay 50 percent of their health insurance premiums, up from 40 percent.

Okabe called the decision to unilaterally impose a contract offer unprecedented and said it "definitely has major implications for all public unions in the state."

The HSTA leader, in Chicago for the National Education Association's annual conference, also responded to criticism about his absence during a crisis for the union.

He said he has been monitoring the situation closely and can "fly back to Hawaii at any time" if he's needed. He added that HSTA's chief negotiator and executive director are both in Hawaii.

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