Hawaii Teachers Union Pulls Out of Mediation, Debates Strike

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has put an end to negotiations led by a federal mediator, escalating an ongoing conflict over the terms of the next employment contract. Many of the 13,000 members of the union, which represents teachers from Hawaii's statewide school district, anticipate that the current stalemate will only be resolved by a strike.

The contract issues go back to the inauguration of the current Democratic governor Neil Abercrombie, who has been unwilling to negotiate with the union, leaving Hawaii's teachers working without a contract since 2011. Although Hawaii is considered friendly to collective bargaining rights, Abercrombie imposed the contract terms unilaterally — terms that included an across the board 5% pay cut and an increase in health insurance premiums.

Other public employee unions signed off on the new terms, but HSTA balked.

The union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state's Labor Relations Board, and that complaint has been pending for more than a year. In September, the teachers filed a petition asking the Hawaii Supreme Court to force the board to rule on the complaint. State law prohibits them from striking before the labor board has issued a decision.

While the decision to strike has yet to be made, both sides seem content to take shots at each other in the meantime. After announcing the breakdown of mediation, Abercrombie criticized the union for walking away from the negotiating table and accused union leaders of bad faith. The exchange of barbs between the two sides is in contrast to a formerly close relationship strengthened during Abercrombie's 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

The hurt feelings on both sides run deep. In backing Abercrombie for governor, the teachers relied in part on his promise to end "furlough Fridays," a cost-cutting measure taken under former Governor Linda Lingle that kept students out of school for 17 Fridays during the school year and cut teachers' pay by 8 percent. But in the contract that was imposed in July 2011, Abercrombie included 7 days of "directed leave without pay" that the union says are just furloughs by a different name. He also added a 1.5 percent salary reduction. The net result for teachers was a 5 percent salary cut, in addition to an increase in required employee health care contributions.

Abercrombie maintains that it is because of the actions of union leaders that contract terms had to be unilaterally imposed. State officials and union negotiators had reached a tentative agreement on a contract at one point during the negotiations, yet it was later voted down by the union leadership and didn't progress to a membership vote. Abercrombie added that to have waited any longer would have caused hardship for the students scheduled to return to class for the fall term.

The fight between the teachers union and the Governor is being watched closely by other public unions in the state, and not everyone views the actions of the HSTA with a friendly eye. J.N. Musto, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, a union that represents college and university faculty in the state, says that continued recalcitrance by the teachers could so sour Hawaii's citizens on collective bargaining that the Legislature might move to curtail collective bargaining rights in the state altogether.

Although Musto doesn't believe that a movement to change the state Constitution will succeed in the end, he resents the fact that unions would need to divert limited resources to fight it.

10 17, 2012
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