The fault lines have moved beneath the feet of public-sector labor organizations across the country. In some places, such as Wisconsin, government executives have stepped too far over the line by reining in collective-bargaining rights going forward rather than simply striking a deal driven by current budget deficits.
While nothing like the Wisconsin scenario is likely in Hawaii — public-worker collective bargaining is enshrined in the state Constitution — the impasse between the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Abercrombie administration signals a potential shift in the power balance that could reshape contract negotiations into the future.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Public union leaders need to know that they are free to drive a hard bargain but that the people on the other side of the table could pull the plug and walk away if they feel they have no choice.
Andunion leaderships need to take a reading from their membership more frequently than they’ve done up to this point. HSTA leaders should rethink their current position and give the rank-and-file a vote on the state’s "last, best and final offer" that it intends to implement when the current contract expires at midnight tonight.
They can make a clearer case to members than they’ve made to the taxpayers on why the "B-" offer is being rejected, despite public acknowledgement by union President Wil Okabe that the state’s offer has improved significantly.
If the union intends to mount a legal challenge, that will incur expense and the members deserve a voice in whether that is a worthwhile course of action.
For his part, Gov. Neil Abercrombie surely must feel his back is against the wall here, even as he plays hardball. A lot of painful and politically unpopular choices had to be made to close the budget gap in the last legislative session, and some of the pieces still haven’t fallen into place. Department heads are looking for $50 million more they can carve, collectively, from each of the 2012 and 2013 budgets, and they’re likely to zero out entire programs to do it.
Unless Abercrombie can stick to his pledge of achieving 5 percent labor savings in each union contract, the deficit will widen further, which means more pain.
Specifically: If HSTA gets a better deal than the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the HGEA could invoke its "favored nation" clause and reopen its contract, causing further deterioration in the spending plan.
The leaders of other public employee unions are watching what happens very carefully, as they should. J.N. Musto, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, rightly observed that all public-sector negotiations would be affected if the state prevails in what is an unprecedented gambit.
Abercrombie is taking a chance that the teachers could strike rather than accept the deal unchallenged — which would be disastrous for the state.
Union leaders should take the longer view, that by helping the governor meet his budgetary goals they can buy some goodwill that could pay off when fiscal fortunes improve. It’s only a two-year contract, after all.
Perhaps both sides could allow for a little face-saving as the clock ticks down, returning to the bargaining table to make some superficial improvement in the HSTA pact that won’t cause the whole public-employee accord to unravel.
But in essence, the unions have enjoyed the upper hand for decades, and if any good can come from a calamitous economic downturn, we can hope that a more balanced collective-bargaining dynamic in this state will be one example.