Labor union members cheered and chanted yesterday at the Hawaii Capitol against cuts in government that would come out of their pockets.
Several hundred supporters gathered in Honolulu as part of nationwide demonstrations to support workers’ rights on the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Fifth-grade teacher Suzie Wood of Kailua said public employees have done their share already when they took furloughs, and the state’s budget shouldn’t be balanced by taking away union rights and benefits.
"We work so hard and don’t get paid much," Wood said. "Gas prices are going up, but my pay is going down."
Union leaders said they want Hawaii’s government to continue providing services without making working families pay for it.
"We are here to make sure that as very difficult decisions get made, that everybody shares in the pain," said Randy Perreira, executive director for the Hawaii Government Employees Association. "We are here to deliver the message that the budget cannot be balanced on the backs of workers, the elderly and the underprivileged."
The state government is short a projected $1.3 billion over the next two years, and that amount can only be plugged by raising taxes, cutting spending or reducing labor costs, which account for 70 percent of the state’s operating budget.
Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie has said he wants 5 percent labor savings from public unions during contract negotiations, and several other proposals would reduce public employee benefits for new hires.
"Labor union rights are being taken away. We’re not rich. We’re living day to day," said Wade Nakayama, a wastewater treatment worker from Molokai. "We’re here to support the union movement."
Many demonstrators said they were worried that the labor fight in Wisconsin and several other mainland states could reach Hawaii’s islands, reducing their rights and benefits.
They carried signs saying, "Taxpayers strike back. Hawaii workers stand with Wisconsin" and "Hawaii’s needs, not Wall Street greed."
"This is a blatant attack on all of us, the working class," said Eric Gill of Unite Here Local 5, speaking of the fights against unions. "Tax the rich instead."
The rallies were coordinated across the country by labor leaders defending collective bargaining rights after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican leaders fought to reduce or strip those benefits.
Hawaii had the third-highest union membership rate in the nation last year, at 22 percent, behind only New York and Alaska, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.