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Labor’s ally becomes its potent adversary

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Where are the bull horns? I miss the public labor honchos and their bellowing bull horns.

For the last eight years, public labor would rally at the state Capitol to hurl invectives at former Gov. Linda Lingle, Hawaii’s first GOP governor since Kennedy was president.

Now Barack Obama is president, Neil Abercrombie is governor and if we don’t have labor peace, it is something approaching a good case of labor befuddlement.

Back in April during a labor rally at the Capitol, United Public Workers state Director Dayton Nakanelua said with Abercrombie at the helm, "We are not faced with the level of hostility and malice that existed for the last two years."

Indeed, instead of jeering the governor, Nakanelua introduced him at the rally as a friend of labor. Shortly after that, Abercrombie shook hands with the Hawaii Government Employees Association leaders on a new deal that cuts pay 5 percent, gives state workers more time off and splits medical costs evenly between workers and employers.

In tough times it was a good deal for state workers.

With some 42,000 members, HGEA is always the whale in the caucus room and sets the tone for all other public labor deals — although it should be noted that public nurses with the HGEA did not agree on the deal and are in arbitration.

So what’s up with the state’s public school teachers? The state’s deal with HSTA has become something of a Zen koan, sort of a "what is the sound of one hand shaking?"

Abercrombie insists he had a deal with the HSTA for a smaller pay cut, time off without pay and the 50-50 medical split that roughly equaled what HGEA got. But HSTA took it to its board, which rejected it, while Abercrombie said teachers should get a chance to vote on it.

Rank-and-file teachers fumed that they were not allowed to vote on what Abercrombie termed the state’s "last, best and final offer." Such a strategy usually doesn’t work in state collective bargaining.

State law (HRS 89-10) requires that "Any collective bargaining agreement reached between the employer and the exclusive representative shall be subject to ratification by the employees concerned …The agreement shall be reduced to writing and executed by both parties."

Today the HSTA says it didn’t sign anything, while the state says, "Sorry, your options are take it, or leave it."

Hawaii is one of only a handful of states, according to Hawaii constitutional scholar Anne Feder Lee, that has put the right of workers to collectively bargain in the state Constitution. So it is a guaranteed right, not a law that can be changed, amended or dropped.

Public workers, however, have a special section saying that public workers have the right to organize for collective bargaining "as provided by law." The follow-up state law allowed for public worker unions to legally strike.

Now the state and the HSTA have gone where no union or governor has gone before. As labor lawyer Tony Gill told the Star-Advertiser’s Derrick DePledge, "This is the largest and most important doctrinal innovation in Hawaii labor relations law in a generation."

If — after all the HSTA legal challenges and court cases are finished — it winds up that once a contract expires, management can dictate the terms of a new labor agreement with or without member approval, then Hawaii’s biggest labor friend will have rendered public unions impotent.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at

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