comscore Hawaii well poised to offer an alternative to the Wisconsin model of dealing with public sector unions | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Editorial | Island Voices

Hawaii well poised to offer an alternative to the Wisconsin model of dealing with public sector unions

    More than 50 people from a variety of unions and other groups demonstrated in front of the M&I Bank in downtown Racine, Wis., in mid-March, to protest campaign contributions by some of its officers to their nemesis, Gov. Scott Walker.

Hawaii may be moving to center stage in the nation as the governor, Legislature and public sector unions work to address the state’s fiscal challenges in a positive way through negotiations and collaborative public service reforms.

Taking this approach would put Hawaii in sharp contrast to the Wisconsin approach where their governor seeks to force change by breaking public sector unions, eliminating collective bargaining, dramatically cutting education budgets and unilaterally selling off public utilities.

Which of these two approaches proves to be more effective will shape not only the future of public sector employment relations and the quality of public sector services. It also will signal to the country whether we can solve our critical economic and social problems through dialogue, negotiation and collaboration — or are destined to devolve into a race to the bottom in which needed public services continue to erode and more and more public and private sector workers are underpaid, insecure and without adequate health or retirement benefits.

America is hungry for an alternative to Wisconsin. National polls and polls of Wisconsin citizens show a majority disapprove of attacking public sector workers and taking away their collective bargaining rights. Numerous other surveys show that Americans value the functions that government performs and generally give high marks to the services public agencies provide. Also, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, careful comparisons of public and private sector worker wages make clear that, even taking into account fringe benefits, public employees are paid less than their counterparts in the private sector. This tells us that public institutions are important to us, and that we need to focus on the challenges of the real issues and not unfounded claims or ideology.

Why Hawaii as a model for the nation?

First, Hawaii has a proud history of inclusion and a lower degree of inequality, and we have used our public institutions in progressive ways (such as ensuring that all our beaches are public, moving toward a system in which everyone has health care and making lower and higher education widely accessible). Moreover, we have elected a governor committed to finding long-term solutions who is willing to ask for concessions for some of his party’s primary supporters, as long as needed changes are carefully balanced against fairness.

Second, there appears to be the will to go in this direction by all the key stakeholders. Earlier this spring we met with legislators, the governor and administration, union representatives and private sector leaders to discuss where we might go and to put our situation in national context. We discussed the transformative moment between state governments and public sector unions and painted the consequences of the two approaches.

These stakeholders not only agreed in principle that a negotiated, collaborative approach would better serve all parties, they acted on this belief.

The governor and the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest public service union, took the first step in this direction by reaching a negotiated agreement that addresses the immediate fiscal challenges and lays a foundation for working together over the longer run. Lee Catterall’s piece on the legislative session (“Reining in Hawaii’s labor costs,” Star-Advertiser, May 15) underscores agreements that were forged from a willingness to talk, listen and problem-solve.

What do we have to do to build on this opportunity to address our long-term issues and be a positive model for others? Public service unions and managers will need to work together to change those systems that we know are not working well, but to do so in a way that is fair to public workers and the citizens they serve. This means ensuring that innovation does not lead to layoffs, although it may require in some cases downsizing by attrition, changing the way work is organized, and putting some limits on “bumping” practices to avoid displacing more qualified but less senior employees. It will mean greater investments in modern information technologies and the skills employees need to make good use of them. It will mean investing in training that creates the capacity for employees to be problem solvers. It may mean aligning incentives for continuous improvements by sharing some of the cost savings with the employees who help achieve them.

There will need to be discussion of other issues, some of which have already started.  These include ways to retain but reform the defined-benefit pension system, perhaps by using five- rather than three-year averaging, health care cost sharing and taxing upper pensions.

Following up in these ways will require leadership from the governor and his administration, the Legislature and public sector unions. And it will require that the public hold leaders accountable for achieving concrete savings and improved public services while at the same time giving them the political space to work out real solutions.

The payoffs from success will be enormous. Public employees will operate in environments that respect their contributions, the public will get better, more cost-effective services and our state will demonstrate to our nation and our president that this really is a special place.

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