Last week, Gov. David Ige proposed 20% pay cuts for Hawaii public school teachers and other state employees as one measure to cope with the gigantic hole the pandemic is putting in the state budget.
The thing was, he proposed it as the first measure.
There is no doubt that state government is hurting from the loss of revenue from the tourism industry and the closure of many businesses. Just keeping government going will necessitate some uncomfortable, if not downright ugly, budget cuts.
However, starting the conversation with pay cuts to state workers including the teachers (as well as a proposed 10% pay cut for first-responders such as Hawaii State Hospital workers and sheriffs) is either a “go in hard” negotiating strategy, an opportunity Ige is magnanimously providing to other politicians so they can look like heroes for opposing him, or more of Ige’s ham-handed, empathy-challenged style. Time will tell.
It does bring up a crucial question, though: How’s that endorsement feeling now?
All those teachers sharing angry posts about Ige last week on social media were a major reason he became governor in the first place.
Ige was first elected governor over incumbent Neil Abercrombie, a fellow Democrat, in large part because the Hawaii State Teachers Association was ticked off at Abercrombie and felt they had a friend in public-school-grad David Ige and his public-school-teacher spouse. In 2011, Abercrombie put forth a “last, best and final offer” contract to teachers that included a 5% pay cut. The HSTA had backed Abercrombie, too, but by the time he was up for reelection in 2014, teachers were so furious at him that they not only endorsed Ige but their union spent close to $150,000 to run ads against Abercrombie.
Ige all but gloated, saying, “This endorsement recognizes my continuous commitment to education and the thousands of public school teachers who are tirelessly dedicated to this great state’s children, and as governor, I will work collaboratively with educators to ensure the best future for our students, and prepare a strong workforce for Hawaii.”
Ige won the election, promised to cool the schools, messed around with DOE leadership, and won the union’s support again in 2018 in a primary challenge by Democrat Colleen Hanabusa. The teachers union support was more than the words of an endorsement. Union members waved signs and canvassed neighborhoods for Ige.
For that, they got an election-night shout-out from the stage: “I’ve said it over and over again. Teachers touch the future each and every day. And our goals of the state are so aligned with the teachers. They sacrifice so much for our students and our children. That’s what it’s all about,” Ige said.
What are big endorsements from labor unions supposed to accomplish but put a friendly, heavy hand on the shoulder of a politician and remind them that, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, they owe a debt to the members.
Maybe it is supposed to work this way. Maybe unions shouldn’t count on favorable treatment in exchange for a political endorsement. Starting state budget triage with salary cuts of 20% seems particularly unfavorable, though.