Lingle, Unions And The Red Circle

Larry Price
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Wednesday - June 24, 2009
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Last week three labor unions made good on their threats and filed complaints against Gov. Linda Lingle’s plan for furloughs of state employees. The Hawaii Government Employees Association, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the United Public Worker’s Union all say that furloughs should be the subject of collective bargaining negotiations between unions and the state.

HGEA contends the governor doesn’t have the authority to order the furloughs and circumvent the bargaining process. The governor suggests state workers should expect massive layoffs as early as July 1 if they don’t accept the furloughs.

To the governor’s credit, she did ask a federal mediator to help head off any layoffs. If you know anything about union politics, you know the unions are not going to be overly impressed with whatever a federal mediator has to offer.


In Hawaii, as elsewhere, negotiators generally resent a take-it-or-leave-it approach: An offer that may have been accepted had it emerged as a result of concessions-making may be rejected outright when it is put on the table and presented as a fait accompli. This approach is nothing new - it even has a name, Boulwarism. This circumstance occurs when management leaders objectively analyze what they can afford to give in their upcoming contract talks and make their initial offer at the point they intend for the agreement. They insist there are no concessions to be made because the initial offer was fair and reasonable. Unions always fight this position.

But that is not what is happening today. The law is clear: come July 1, the state will have to have a balanced budget. It’s by law the governor’s responsibility to do that, no matter how distasteful it is, or who it affects. The governor has had many meetings with union leaders, county mayors and federal negotiators about the potential layoffs, but make no mistake, it is a complex problem. Ask yourself why the three public unions filed in Circuit Court, especially when the Circuit Court has still not ruled on HSTA’s refusal to honor a ratified collective bargaining agreement to allow random drug testing in the public school system. How long will it take them to sort out the question of furloughs?

In the meantime, the public employees are left dangling in the political wind. It’s not the right way to do things. Fire them, OK. Furlough them, OK. Dangle them in the wind, dead wrong.

Just how complex is the problem? Well, imagine arranging furloughs for 46,000 employees and still cover all the public’s needs for services. And what about adhering to all the provisions of the last collective bargaining agreement, which includes something most taxpayers have never heard of, the red circle? The negotiators who write these kind of provisions in collective bargaining agreements are the same type of people who write technical manuals for complex video equipment. They are smart as can be, but don’t expect anyone to really read the instructions. They just assume the players will.

Simply put, the red circle is just one small part of the massive collective bargaining agreement the public unions have with the state. It means if you have a red circle around your name, you can be bumped down. First in, last out is the battle cry of the union platform. The catch is when you receive the red circle, you can bump downward if you have qualifications and/or certification to assume the position, but you take your pay with you. Sounds a little weird, but you can bet state negotiators will try to remove that from the new collective bargaining agreement. If you are making $80,000 a year and get bumped down to a position that only pays $30,000, that department would have to pay the $80,000 to the employee being bumped.

Might be a good time for negotiators on both sides to be careful of what they wish for. Hopefully, it won’t come to bumping because the last time they found it necessary, it got real messy.

Maybe when the dust clears, the negotiators on both sides will learn that they are not always capable of shaping the other’s behavior or causing the other to choose as he or she does.

Like it or not, the governor has the position and the legitimacy that goes with it to have the final say. The unions will probably win the battle in court, but may lose the war in the process.

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