Mufi’s Deal With Unions Is Smart

Larry Price
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Wednesday - November 25, 2009
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Negotiations break down and stall for many reasons. In Hawaii, a relatively small state, we have seen negotiations become especially difficult, often to the point of impasse, stalemate or even breakdown. Parties become angry over minor issues and become entrenched in their positions. Perceptions become distorted, and judgments made by our leadership appeared to be biased.

The worst outcome in these situations is when people stop communicating effectively. It’s hard to believe, but Hawaiian Airlines pilots have been deadlocked for almost three years and are currently under the watchful eye of a federal mediator.

It is not uncommon for negotiations, especially distributive ones, to become contentious to the point of breakdown. In extreme cases, relations can become strained to the breaking point or get just plain nasty. This is true in just about all difficult negotiations.


These types of negotiations lead to what they call an impasse. The pilots wanted the mediator to declare an impasse in their negotiations and, if you recall, he ordered them to keep talking with the mediators until their Dec. 7 meeting was concluded. Impasse is not the end of the world for negotiations; they are not permanent and don’t have to be destructive. In many cases, an impasse can be tactical, where it is used as a way to gain leverage or put pressure on the other party to make concessions. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try in most situations.

So it is interesting to note that Mayor Mufi Hannemann signed an agreement with 12 local labor unions, who have agreed not to strike or delay the construction of the Oahu rail project. The agreement is intended to prevent labor disruptions for the duration of the project and protect union jobs.

Among those who signed the agreement were unions representing carpenters, heavy equipment operators, iron workers and roofers. This is a classic negotiation strategy of a professional. The mayor has made a very smart move - it could have developed into more than one impasse with more than one private union. Mind you, this is not a public union negotiating with a state or county government. These are 12 very powerful private unions negotiating with a county government, using monies from public taxpayers. A private union contracted to construct a private building with private funds is an entirely different set of circumstances.

That’s what makes Hannemann’s deal so significant. It preempts any kind of labor dispute that would disrupt the construction of his pet project, the Oahu Rail Transit System, on which he expects to begin construction next year. The project is slated for completion in 2019. The city will have to release a final environmental impact statement on the project by the end of year before any construction can begin next year. That is the wisdom of the agreement, because he has the construction unions on board to guarantee the work will get done as planned, and that’s important to federal transportation officials.


This also gives the project the guaranteed continuity it needs to assure the public the rail project is not going to be marred by labor strife. Similar projects throughout the country have had some bad experiences with labor. There is one concern not mentioned, although it deserves attention: There is the possibility that Hannemann may not be sitting in the county driver’s seat when the rail system is under construction. No one can predict who will be mayor or governor in the midstream of construction. Remember the construction of H-2, and especially H-3.

As we have seen more often than not, changing the leadership during large public works projects can alter the eventual outcome of those projects.

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