Friday, November 27, 2015         

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HSTA mounts legal challenge

A complaint over an imposed contract alleges threats by a state negotiator

By Mary Vorsino


The Hawaii State Teachers Association was threatened with 800 teacher layoffs and "nasty" changes to working conditions if it did not accept wage reductions, the union alleges in a "prohibited practice" complaint filed against the state Friday.

The legal challenge, before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, comes a week after the state imposed its "last, best and final" contract offer for teachers to meet needed labor savings.

HSTA President Wil Okabe said the Department of Education violated the state Constitution, which guarantees the right to engage in collective bargaining, when it unilaterally implemented the contract offer.

"We're talking about respect," Okabe said. "The Constitution is not negotiable."

In an emailed statement, schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi did not address the allegations in the filing, but said the state is "committed to our promise to students, families and teachers across the state: no reduction in student instructional days."

She added, "Our singular focus continues to be preparing for the upcoming school year."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Neil Abercrombie would not comment.

The complaint, filed shortly before close of business Friday, alleges that the state did not bargain in good faith, violated members' rights and improperly reached out directly to teachers in outlining its plan to impose pay cuts and furloughs.

With the filing, HSTA is seeking "injunctive relief" from the imposed offer, which would restore the conditions of the contract that expired June 30. It also is asking the board to compel the state to return to negotiations and seeks civil penalties against the state in excess of $10,000.

The state has 10 days from the time it is served the complaint to respond.

The Department of Education unilaterally implemented pay cuts, furloughs and increased health insurance premiums for Hawaii's 12,500 public school teachers July 1, in what local labor experts have called an unprecedented move in public-sector union talks in Hawaii.

HSTA's complaint details eight months of tense negotiations, during which state chief negotiator Neil Dietz allegedly said in April that unless HSTA agreed to a 5 percent wage reduction, "lots of ‘nasty things can happen to your working conditions.'"

The same month, Dietz responded to an HSTA negotiating team member who asked for more time to consider the 5 percent wage reductions by cursing and hitting the table with his notebook, the filing alleges.

"He got up to leave and said if you don't accept this, it will be 10 percent by the Legislature," the complaint said.

The filing also said that in June, Matayoshi told Okabe that "if HSTA did not accept the 5 percent cuts, the Department of Education would need to cut 800 jobs, including probationary teachers."

Okabe called an emergency meeting of HSTA's board shortly after speaking to Matayoshi, and on June 20 the members unanimously rejected the state's "last, best" contract offer.

Three days later the DOE announced its plans to implement the proposal unilaterally.

In a letter to teachers explaining the state's decision to impose the "last, best" offer, Matayoshi said "substantial work at the bargaining table has been collaborative and professional. However, we have been unable to reach an agreement."

Matayoshi and Gov. Neil Abercrombie have said the wage reductions and increased health insurance premiums for teachers were needed to achieve 5 percent labor savings, and point out most public-sector workers have agreed to similar concessions.

The legal challenge comes as the Department of Education is pushing forward a host of reforms that will require sign-on from the teachers union, including overhauled teacher evaluation and tenure systems.

Observers said the HSTA filing was expected and will likely push the state back to the bargaining table.

"The HSTA is overdue in responding," said Michael Nauyokas, local labor attorney. "I think the state should go back to the table with the HSTA immediately and resolve this."

Joan Husted, who retired as HSTA executive director and chief negotiator in 2007, said she believes the labor board should rule on whether the state has the authority to implement its "last, best" offer.

"I personally think the only legitimate answer to this question is no, the state can't do this," she said. "I would also encourage the parties to get back to get the contract resolved."

Okabe said the state's decision to put the contract into effect, before the current agreement had expired, was shocking — and unexpected.

"We've been bargaining for over 40 years … and to walk away from the negotiation table 10 days before the expiration day (of a contract)? Unprecedented," Okabe said.

The state's "last, best and final" offer implemented July 1 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.

Beyond those details, however, teachers remain largely in the dark over the full terms of the contract, which neither the DOE nor HSTA has released publicly. The department said Friday it was still finalizing the document but would make it public as early as next week.

The contract wrangling comes as teachers prepare for the start of school.

Multitrack students at four Oahu schools will return Monday, but most students kick off the school year Aug. 1.

Under the new contract, multitrack teachers had furlough days on Thursday and Friday, when they would normally have been preparing their classrooms for the return of students. (Teachers at schools with regular schedules will also be furloughed on the Thursday and Friday before the start of school.)

Multitrack schools have unusual schedules to cope with overcrowding and have at least one "track," or group of students, on vacation at any given time.

Mililani Middle Principal Elynne Chung said teachers aren't allowed to come on campus before 3 p.m. on the furlough days. Many have opted to come in after that for free to prepare, and Chung said she expects a good portion will also come in over the weekend.

"If I know teachers, they'll come in on their own time," Chung said.

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