Some Friendly Advice For HSTA

Larry Price
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Wednesday - December 24, 2008
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The reality of human decision-making is really not all bad news. The reason is the human mind is an amazing synthesizer of information. We are genetically programmed to behave in ways that maintain our species.

Most negotiators, in both the public and private sectors, are expected to be wary of decision traps set by management on both sides of the aisle who wish for quick and partial solutions.

In Hawaii, the public sector is advancing toward a management trap. The Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) is expected to begin talks this week for a new contract. This, after a deadline requiring random drug testing of all public school teachers passed almost six months ago, with no teachers being tested. Last year teachers ratified a two-year contract, which included generous pay raises and a random drug testing requirement that should have been implemented by June of this year. Their current contract expired in June, and the state paid the teachers most of their 11-percent raise. But HSTA continues to oppose drug testing, citing privacy concerns.

In July, the state filed a complaint with the state Labor Relations Board to force the teachers to abide by the contract, but the board has yet to rule on the issue.

The governor said that contract talks will not likely be productive unless the drug-testing issue is resolved.

If a case study is ever done on decision traps on the public sector, this would be a perfect example of management springing their trap. I would be the first to admit that the members of the HSTA get along perfectly without any advice from anyone, but there is room for improvement.

The first step in the trap is allowing the union to anchor its thinking to a first impression. In this case, it is a suggestion that it will not budge on the issue of random drug testing citing privacy concerns. If HSTA had not ratified its contract and not accepted its generous pay raises, it might have been in a position to preach the status quo. The pay raise received by the HSTA represents a sunk-cost for the state.

In retrospect, the state made a bad choice. This leads to where we find the taxpayers on the cliff of the confirming-evidence part of the trap. Which means both sides are seeing what they want to see. The other side will speak, but no one on the other side will hear. Said another way, don’t let the facts get in the way of what we believe. The obvious fact is that in collective bargaining, a ratified contract has the power of a law - you break the bargaining agreement, you are breaking the law.

This leads to the framing trap, where one of the parties goes all out to solve the wrong problem. What one side is framing as a “gain” the other side is framing as a “loss.” Even though both parties have no use for prescriptive advice, they might do a quick study of biases and traps and always rethink their first response. Why? because most negotiators do what they always have done or what comes naturally. What I’m suggesting here is to consider doing the opposite.

Now that the management trap has been set, the governor can go to phase two and then to the end game. Management can present a budget plan to the Legislature that balances the state budget, but doesn’t call for any layoffs, then in the final phase of the trap call on the HSTA and other public unions to delay renegotiating a new contract for one year. If they do what they have in the past, they would probably call for a strike or binding arbitration.

In the end game of this trap, the arbitrators award them their raises, negate random drug testing and the die is cast.

In the checkmate stage of the endgame, management’s only recourse to balance the budget is massive layoffs and cutbacks, which by law they must do.

This may be a good lesson for other public unions to observe from a distance so they can exploit others’ mistakes.

Consider this: The state has a shortfall of $1.2 billion - that’s roughly half of the Department of Education’s annual budget. This might not be a good time to focus on one objective and fail to investigate tradeoffs among others, like taking care of the youngsters first.

Also, how will such a move affect other public employee unions?

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