There’s been a lot of shouting about the new labor agreement between Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the Hawaii Government Employees Association, but the view from here is that it’s a fair contribution by HGEA’s 28,000 white-collar workers toward balancing state and county budgets.
If members ratify the contract this week and Abercrombie strikes similar deals with other unions, the unpopular Furlough Fridays that close state and county offices twice a month would end.
Instead of furloughs, which equate to pay cuts of 8 percent to 10 percent, employees would take straight 5 percent pay cuts and receive nine personal days off a year. Workers would also pay 10 percent more of their health care premiums.
Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle and others have complained that the pay cuts aren’t deep enough and that more time off is unwarranted for public employees who already have abundant vacation time, holidays and sick leave.
The additional time off isn’t ideal, but labor negotiations are compromises and the precedent set by the Lingle administration of compensating pay cuts with days off is difficult to undo.
Personal days off are less disruptive to public services than furloughs that close the government, and needn’t be a cost item as long as they can’t be cashed out or carried over and are managed to avoid overtime.
It’s a net gain for the state and counties to give back less than half of the pay reductions from the last contract to recover more than half of the days off and reopen government offices.
As for arguments that the HGEA pay cuts aren’t deep enough, 5 percent is the same cut that legislators gave themselves and state administrators — and in the case of legislators, the 5 percent cut came after they took 36 percent pay raises.
It’s unfair to expect rank-and-file workers to give up more than their bosses did or to belittle their sacrifice.
A 5 percent cut from their base pay of two years ago, along with the higher medical premiums, make a significant dent in their paychecks when they’re facing higher taxes, fees and fuel costs just like the rest of us.
One remaining wrinkle is the "most favored nation" clause in the HGEA contract that promises its members equity if blue-collar workers, teachers and other unions yet to settle get a better deal.
That puts pressure on Abercrombie to reach similar terms with the others. It could be a challenge with the teachers, who never seem to negotiate a contract without a lot of drama beforehand and arm wrestling afterward over what was agreed to.
Any heat the governor is taking now for the HGEA deal is nothing compared with the burn he’ll feel if he has to give back some of the concessions.