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Editorial | Island Voices

Hawaii was trailblazer in quest for public worker rights

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I turn on the TV and watch the governor of Wisconsin railing against those who are trying to destroy our economy and our society.

Who are these enemies of the state?

Apparently they are teachers, firefighters, police and paramedics — dedicated public servants who work hard for relatively little pay, often placing their lives at risk to help others.

In these moments, I am reassured by memories from another place and time.

The place was Hawaii.

The time was the late 1950s. Hawaii was not yet a state.

My Uncle Henry and his family lived on Oahu. After completing two years of college, at 19, I accepted his long-standing invitation to visit, travelling from upstate New York to live with him, my aunt, and cousins in Aina Haina.

I was hired to drive a tractor in the Dole pineapple cannery, took a course in sociology at the University of Hawaii, surfed at Waikiki, and took a lovely young woman to listen to jazz/Polynesian music over mai tais.

I was sorting through what I wanted to do as an adult.

I also was inspired by my uncle’s unwavering commitment to his principles.

Henry grew up in Harlem with my mother and her sisters, and served in the Pacific during World War II. A lifelong progressive, he started a union in Hawaii after the war.

The founder and state director of the United Public Workers, he was dedicated to securing decent salaries and benefits for public employees, from nurses to garbage collectors.

I saw him work quietly, tirelessly and idealistically, regularly traveling to the other islands, always guided by humanitarian values.

He led the United Public Workers for 30 years, and when that work was completed, countless lives had been improved, an astonishing legacy. Today the UPW building in Honolulu is named the Henry B. Epstein building.

Many of the rights of American public workers were won first in Hawaii, notably the right to strike.

When Henry Epstein died, an editorial in The Honolulu Advertiser observed: "His strength was his deep moral conviction that the everyday blue-collar worker deserved a fair share of the economic growth of a booming new state."

Henry understood that nurses, firefighters, police and teachers are the backbone of our society.

Consider teachers.

Recently I wrote a book about how to reform math and science education in the United States. In a comprehensive review of achievement data, rigorous studies and common sense lessons from success stories, I identified eight proven strategies for change.

Paramount among these is recruiting, educating, supporting, and respecting math and science teachers.

In many other countries, including those whose students outperform American students, teachers are paid more, and respected more.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam chronicled how the economic surge of Japan in the past 50 years began with a focus on teachers.

Long ago, Henry understood that the success of young people required terrific teachers. Contemporary research data show that teachers are the critical factor in educational achievement.

We should be paying them more, not less.

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