How The Unions Got Their Raises

Larry Price
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Wednesday - May 04, 2005
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Last week I mentioned that Russell Okata pulled off a couple of miracles for the public employee unions by first getting absolute control of the Legislature with a Republican wipeout in the general election. Then, by getting interest arbitration through the Legislature, getting the governor to veto the bill and having the legislators override the governor’s veto, he set the stage for the unions to enjoy their most successful negotiations in years.

There are those who say Gov. Lingle forced the HGEA into the Impasse Arbitration Proceedings. That is a myth for a several good reasons.

First, the government’s win-loss in interest arbitration is abysmal, because the government negotiators are rookies at proving their point. The findings of the issues submitted to the three-member panel for arbitration are so onesided in favor of the union’s argument it is almost sad.

If any reasonable person had the opportunity to read the procedural and statutory context of the panel’s decision, they too would feel sorry for the lame performance of the government’s witnesses. The proceedings are only 21 pages long and could be used as a Broadway comedy script at Manoa Valley Theatre.

It’s not that the government’s case was not well-presented. It was extremely well-researched and presented with a great deal of passion. But it was as if the panel never heard a word they said. The proceedings are governed by the terms of Section 89 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes, and especially 10 criteria that the panel had to address in the course of resolving the impasse and articulating a rationale for its findings.

Example: At the heart of the employer’s argument are the contentions that the words “in Hawaii” modify the comparative process or pay of other persons performing similar services.

The panel saw no reason to limit the question of wages to Hawaii. It was beginning of one rejection after another.

The main issue was wage increases and step movements for the various units, and the state’s ability to pay. Again, the state got clobbered because the union negotiators convinced the panel the state is in a strong economic position, and conducted an evidentiary and analytical argument by both parties. The state’s argument was rejected again, because the panel found the union argument more persuasive, and that the state’s testimony was fueled more by passion than evidence.

The panel was reminded that in February the state’s General Fund balance increased by some 50 percent more than projected, and rejected another ability-to-pay excuse.

As we predicted, the other public unions settled quickly after reading the arbitration panel’s award. This was the plan — and it was a plan that unfolded a long time ago when David Trask picked Russell Okata to be his successor.

I first met Okata on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus in the fall of 1968. A whole bunch of UH employees were standing around waiting for a union meeting to take place at Kennedy Theatre. The union leader of the Hawaii Government Employee’s Association (HGEA) was Hawaii’s most influential union advocate, Trask — a nononsense executive with a low, gruff voice and an impressive entourage of big fellows and a couple of well-dressed union lawyers.

We had been mandated to be present at Kennedy Theatre to hear about our new status and benefits as members of the HGEA. I was an assistant football coach at the time and knew absolutely nothing about unions.

One of the smallest people in the union leader’s entourage was an Asian chap wearing Levis, an HGEA T-shirt and a sneaky moustache. I found out later he was from Hilo and had just moved to Honolulu to learn the ropes from Trask. He surely did not look like a union leader.

The meeting started with Trask laying down the law about proper union member conduct. The deal had been struck and we were all in the HGEA and expected to either conform or look for a new job. Of course, all of the coaches swore they would rather quit than take orders from an overbearing union leader. In a year’s time they kept their word and were gone. I stayed — I wanted the sabbatical leave I qualified for. I thought it was a good deal. It was surely better than anything else offered by the university at the time.

Later on I got to know Trask. He loved being a union leader and was very good at it. He also loved sports and never missed a UH sports event. One day I asked him who the little fellow was following him around. He said: “He’s the future of the HGEA. He has the kind of style that our union will rely on in the years to come.”

It was hard to imagine. All the union leaders of the day were tough hombres. As it turns out, Trask was right on the money with Okata. I’m sure time will prove the point.

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