Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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HECO union ignored public risk

Ewa Beach residents and others have every reason to be infuriated by the electrical union’s strike against Hawaiian Electric Co. in the midst of a storm-caused emergency. The workers may have gained the upper hand in contract talks but the insensitivity of the union and its leaders is reprehensible. Public safety was at stake. The contract talks may have now ended but civil ground rules are needed to avoid future medical emergencies.

The contract of Local 1260 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers with HECO expired last October. HECO had been aware since then of the potential of a strike by 1,300 union members and hired contractors locally and from the mainland in anticipation of such a walkout.

Stanford Ito, the IBEW strike captain, claimed that calling the strike last Friday afternoon, after an early-morning storm had toppled about 20 utility poles along Fort Weaver and Old Fort Weaver roads, was "just circumstance." He added, "It wasn’t like a strategic plan to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to strike now because the power lines are down.’"

This is disingenuous; it is difficult to conclude otherwise. The two sides had been negotiating since September, and Ito said the union called the strike following Friday’s negotiating session because HECO President and CEO Richard Rosenblulm did not show up for it. At HECO’s instigation, the two sides, including Rosenblum, met with a federal mediator on Sunday, and they reached tentative agreement on a contract yesterday.

Meanwhile, more than 6,000 Oahu residents, including those who rely on medical equipment or refrigerated medicine, coped with being without electricity through most of Friday, and 2,000 went without power a second straight night. A few residents were taken to the hospital for medical treatment.

While HECO’s IBEW unit is not a public union, HECO’s stature as Oahu’s power monopoly gives it the impact of one. With that clout comes the weighty responsibility to balance the public’s welfare against the personal agenda. The union’s right to strike is not the issue here, but the timing of it.

When the Ewa power poles went down Friday morning, a threat to talk or walk within hours should first have been issued to fire up negotiations. Springing the surprise walkout during time of crisis, leaving thousands in the lurch, did not win public support.

Public officials crossed party lines in outrage of the union’s conduct.

Republican state Rep. Kimberly Pine, who represents Ewa Beach, called the union "completely unacceptable and selfish to walk off during a crisis in my community. There is a time and place to negotiate salary, and now is not the time." Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the timing of the strike "unacceptable and avoidable." He said during the strike that the two sides should "set aside their respective positions during the emergency situation until the public’s safety is taken care of."

Most perceptive was retired sugar worker Gabe Silva, 80, who recalled that when he was an ILWU member, both the union and company made sure families were not hurt too severely during a strike.

"Our main concern was taking care of the people while we were on strike," Silva told the Star-Advertiser. "There was a verbal agreement with the company."

Those values need to be restored before the electrical workers and the electric company next sit down at a bargaining table. With luck, this will not be for a while, given yesterday’s tentative deal. Then again, HECO’s IBEW members last month refused to ratify an earlier-brokered deal between its leaders and management.

The bad weather has subsided; let’s hope this union storm, too, is past.

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