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Editorial | On Politics

HSTA turns a negotiation into a long, painful opera


Say you decide you need some socks. You can go to Macy’s. When a clerk says, "Can I help you?" you say "Yes" and then pick out what you want and pay for it. Or, you can go into 12 stores, badger the help without ever buying anything, and then complain that no one will sell you socks.

Welcome to the Hawaii State Teachers Association’s forever negotiations — their inability to close a deal and to repeatedly reopen presumed closed deals. Why does the HSTA turn its negotiations with the state into a four-opera Wagnerian Ring Cycle? Can it ever just negotiate from the viewpoint of reaching an agreement?

The HSTA and the state were firmly lectured by the Hawaii Labor Relations Board before the teacher’s union went on strike in 2001.

"Both sides act somewhat as though they have our schools hostage and are prepared to begin sacrificing hostages unless they achieve their objectives," the board wrote just before the teachers walked out.

The 21-day strike ended with more quibbling and another round of protests to the labor board.

"It comes as no particular surprise that even after ostensibly reaching an agreement which concluded a regrettable 21-day statewide teachers strike, the parties are without an executed collective bargaining agreement and once again making accusations of bad-faith bargaining," the board wrote.

Today it is much the same. Back in 2001 the state and the union could not agree on what they agreed to do to end the strike and had to go back to the labor board.

The school year starts tomorrow and they are in the classroom without a signed contract after Gov. Neil Abercrombie imposed a "last, best and final offer" that roughly matches the pay cuts taken by the state’s largest public employee union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

Without that contract, but with the teachers in the school, Abercrombie and the Department of Education are free to move ahead with implementing teacher evaluations and other portions of the agreement to collect the Race to the Top funds, without agreement from the HSTA.

While the HGEA may look like the adult in the room, the HSTA packs a political punch. Public school teachers are valued campaign workers for the same reasons they are appreciated as a community resource: They are organized, dedicated and are not prima donnas. But if you don’t win their support, your political world won’t end.

The HSTA is now trying to pressure the Legislature to get Abercrombie back to the bargaining table. But it doesn’t appear to be the sort of argument to sway the governor. Star-Advertiser education writer Mary Vorsino reported that Abercrombie said he is holding firm.

"HSTA has not offered any new proposals for discussion," the Democratic governor said, adding that the state has already held 16 formal bargaining sessions, plus three personal meetings with him.

Democrats report that HSTA operatives are attacking Abercrombie at meetings, saying he walked away from the table, but Abercrombie insists that discussions ended with the HSTA leaders agreeing to the settlement.

That was the same thing that happened in 2001, when then-U.S. Rep. Abercrombie helped broker the deal that ended the HSTA strike.

The union, however, is marginalizing itself, limiting its own political power and damaging its credibility by being unable to complete bargaining for a contract.

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

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