Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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Peace eludes governor and unions

Abercrombie's move to impose a contract on teachers dismays state labor leaders

By Derrick DePledge


Gov. Neil Abercrombie promised a more collaborative, less adversarial approach to public-sector labor unions, but the Democrat finds himself in a similar place as his predecessor, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, did two years ago.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has indicated it will file a legal challenge to Abercrombie's decision to unilaterally implement the state's final two-year contract offer, which includes a 5 percent pay cut and an equal split on health insurance premium costs for 12,700 teachers.

In July 2009 the HSTA, the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers went to Circuit Court to block Lingle from unilaterally imposing furloughs to help close the state's budget deficit.

Lingle and union leaders agreed to furloughs at the bargaining table — and the state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the unions should have first gone to the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, not to court — but the legal fight was a reflection of a soured relationship.

Many union leaders thought negotiations with Abercrombie, a labor ally for four decades, would be different.

But his unprecedented action could prompt a legal test over whether the state has the right to impose a "last, best and final" contract offer after negotiations reach an impasse, as private-sector businesses can under federal labor law.

"I'm very surprised that they took this course of action," said Roger Takaba­yashi, a retired teacher and former president of the teachers union.

The Abercrombie administration set a target of 5 percent labor savings in negotiations with public-sector unions. Most units of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state's largest private-sector union, agreed to a two-year contract in April with a 5 percent pay cut and an equal split in health insurance premium costs. An HGEA unit representing nurses rejected the contract and is in arbitration.

Abercrombie, in a statement after the HGEA ratification vote, took pride that a deal was reached "without accusations and confrontation," a reference to the labor strife under Lingle.

State lawmakers included the projection for 5 percent labor savings in the two-year budget they passed in May and Abercrombie signed into law in June.

The budget guidance — and a "most favored nation" clause in the HGEA's contract that allows the HGEA to match any gains won by the other unions — led the Abercrombie administration to seek similar deals with the teachers union and blue-collar workers.

"This is not a contest. We never looked at it as a contest or a confrontation or anything like that," Abercrombie told reporters at the state Capitol on Friday afternoon. "And I can say with authority and with certainty that this was always conducted on the basis of a collaborative effort, a genuine collective bargaining attitude.

"The phrase ‘collective bargaining' was followed to the letter, both in spirit and content and in form, during these negotiations. And I honestly believe that this is the best product that honest negotiators could come up with in the present context."

Abercrombie suggested, and several other sources familiar with the contract talks confirmed, that an understanding on the main contract terms had been reached with HSTA negotiators — "handshakes and everything" — and that the negotiators would take the offer to the union's board.

But the HSTA board rejected the offer and declined to put it before the rank and file for a ratification vote.

"I just regret that the board, at least to this point, hasn't seen fit to allow the membership to vote on it," Abercrombie said. "I think they would like to. I suspect they would. But that's an internal matter for the HSTA to determine."

Labor sources, speaking privately, said union leaders understood they would be expected to again make concessions to balance the budget but are disappointed by Abercrombie's tactics.

Regardless of whether it is Abercrombie or the teachers union that is being obstinate, labor sources say, the governor's decision to unilaterally impose a new contract could set a precedent that, if left unchallenged, might imperil the collective bargaining rights of other public-sector unions.

"We're all frustrated," one labor leader said.

Tony Gill, a labor attorney and the chairman of Oahu Democrats, said he believes previous governors have been tempted to unilaterally impose a labor contract, describing it is as the nature of the chief executive.

M.R.C. Greenwood, the president of the University of Hawaii, attempted to impose a final offer on the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly in January 2010, but the faculty challenged the move in court — arguing, among other things, that an "evergreen clause" kept the provisions of the existing contract intact during negotiations — and the two sides quickly reached an agreement on a new contract.

Gill said a teachers union challenge to Abercrombie would be the "purest possible test" of the state's collective-bargaining law because there is no dispute that the teachers' contract has expired.

"This is the largest and most important doctrinal innovation in Hawaii labor relations law in a generation. Period," Gill said. "It's been talked about off and on in hushed tones since the early 1980s, but nobody has ever laid down the gauntlet, so to speak."

State House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai) and other Republicans have been critical of the influence labor unions have over Hawaii politics. Several Republicans complained that Abercrombie's deal with the HGEA did not achieve enough labor savings given the state's budget deficit.

But Ward thinks the governor has overreached with the teachers' contract. "People think Republicans are anti-union? Look at Abercrombie," he said. "He's not even honoring the collective bargaining process. It's Wisconsin-esque."

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who is running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, said Thursday night at a Young Democrats of Hawaii forum that she has concerns about Abercrombie unilaterally implementing the teachers' contract.

"It's never happened in the state before," she said. "And while we recognize that the state is in a really tight financial situation, I think that it is really a tough thing for teachers to be told, ‘We appreciate what you do. We know we should pay you more. But this is the last and best offer and, pretty much, you've got to take it or leave it.'"

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