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Teachers union complaint shows need for clarity

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The complaint before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board filed in the dispute over the Hawaii State Teachers Association contract is certain to leave a lasting imprint on the way government comes to terms with its workforce. The hope in the end is for a legal interpretation that still leaves the employer with a reasonable share of the bargaining power and that doesn’t go to the lengths the HSTA seeks.

The board is expected to take up the "prohibited practice complaint" in the coming weeks but, regardless of the outcome, the decision is likely to land in court.

The teachers union is waging a landmark battle for its collective bargaining rights, guaranteed to be a protracted one.

The 33-page document raises issues that are as numerous as they are complex.

The crisis was precipitated by two unprecedented events:

» Hawaii, like other states, is grappling with the after-effects of a deep recession: a grave budget deficit that pressed the state’s historically labor-friendly Democratic majority government to seek major concessions from public employee unions.

» Second, its new governor — again, a long-time supporter of organized labor — for the first time unilaterally implemented the state’s "last, best and final offer."

Both sides of the table agree that this is uncharted territory.

There is nothing in the Hawaii Public Employment Relations Act (Hawaii Revised Statute Chapter 89) that explicitly bans this action, and Gov. Neil Abercrombie made a reasoned decision in taking this route.

The law gives both parties after 50 days of impasse, the right to pursue "such other remedies that are not prohibited by any agreement pending between them, other provisions of this chapter, or any other law."

The labor board should uphold this as a last-ditch option for the government, as it exists in other states. But in California, for example, there is a specific law that spells out how a last, best and final offer is to be implemented unilaterally and its limitations. Even if the option is upheld through the current dispute, Hawaii needs to adopt clear legal language of its own.

This is not the only matter the labor board needs to settle. Among many other issues, HSTA asserts:

» That the parties were not at impasse when Abercrombie exercised this option.

» That the union was deprived of its bargaining rights through various lawmaking actions (such as calculating a 5 percent labor savings into the budget and extending minimum instructional hours without teachers’ agreement).

» That the administration’s "take it or leave it" approach in negotiations amounted to bad-faith bargaining.

» That the state Department of Education and the governor improperly communicated directly with the teachers through letters announcing the final offer.

The hearings on this complaint should shed light on precisely what happened over the course of union talks. But even if all the union’s assertions are upheld, the relief being sought seems extreme. In addition to rescinding the new wage reductions, HSTA wants an order invalidating legislation that impinges on collective bargaining over core subjects.

It’s hard to know how the governor and Legislature could have avoided setting limits on labor costs in advance of talks. Given the urgency of achieving the budget cuts for this biennium, they had a job to do. The state Constitution gives unions collective-bargaining rights, but it also requires the governor to balance the state budget.

In a national landscape littered with labor disputes and hemorrhaging state budgets, rebalancing employer-employee powers seemed an inevitable step for this state to take. And if the HSTA complaint ultimately places harsh constraints on elected leaders who manage the public purse, the long-term prospects for fiscal sanity in this state may be bleak.

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