The Miracle Man Of The HGEA

Larry Price
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Wednesday - April 28, 2005
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In the still of the night and during the time for challenging, one local public union leader has quietly taken over the No. 1 leadership role: Mr. Russell Okata, executive director of the Hawaii Employees Government Association (HGEA).

Russell Okata

In just a very short time he has worked several political miracles. First on the list of HGEA tasks was to get the Legislature to pass a bill guaranteeing arbitration if an impasse occurs in future negotiations. The bill passed, the governor vetoed it and the Legislature issued an override, thereby setting the stage for future negotiations with the administration’s cohorts. The bill also had a provision that mandates the negotiations take place every two years and must be submitted during the legislative session so any adjustments in pay and benefits can be acted on and be sent to the governor for her executive action. Under the circumstances, any resistance by the governor, like a veto, will be overridden by the Legislature almost automatically.

The second miracle was almost singled-handedly adding to the Democrats’ majority in the state House of Representatives, making the Legislature, in his words, veto-proof.

Lastly, he drove this year’s negotiations to a predictable impasse and sent the proceedings into arbitration. The administration was helpless and left without a lot of options.

It will happen again the next time around with the only difference being two years from now, Gov. Lingle will have already run for election and, win or lose, the results won’t affect the outcome of their mandated negotiations.

To get a feel for the brilliance of Okata’s strategy over the years, the record shows that in the last 10 years, the state’s General Fund Revenue has risen $1 billion. That is very impressive when you consider how poor our economic picture was before that. During that 10-year period, Mr. Okata’s HGEA negotiators and the rest of the public unions raked in $1.1 billion in raises!

The strategy in getting the arbitration has set a precedent in negotiating with the government. Everyone waits for the HGEA to begin negotiations, knowing they are going into an impasse and will be sent to arbitration. As soon as the arbitrators make their award, all the other public unions know what they are going to receive.

This year, the cost of 5 percent for two years for the state is an estimated $250 million! The Hawaii State Teachers Association has asked for 15 percent, but if the strategy works again, they will receive their 5 percent. It’s all very predictable. The powerful United Public Workers (UPW) only has to wait and receive its 5 percent increase. For the public unions, thanks to Okata’s leadership, negotiations with the state have become a cakewalk.

Some will point to the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (UHPA), which received a longer contract. The reason it doesn’t count in the strategy is because they have different needs and some of their raises and benefits will come from an increase in tuition in the latter part of the contract.

What will happen if the current strategy goes unchallenged? Simply put, there will not be any money left over for other public needs. How will a challenge surface? If the administration can get support from the Democrat-controlled Legislature, its best bet is to submit a bill that would put a cap on public union settlements and mandate that any increases in revenues will be shared by all parties.

The public unions’situation has turned around from 20 years ago when they had little luck negotiating with any administration. The HSTA executive director at the time, John Radcliffe, suggested that all the public unions unite into one big public union. The idea drew a lot of interest; however, in the end there was not enough commonality between the needs of custodians in the UPW and professors in the UHPA.

It’s a real interesting time to observe the surge in the leverage that public unions enjoy. Three of them already have arbitration rights (firefighters, police and HGEA). The other three don’t want arbitration for various reasons. Like it or not, the HGEA has become the clear-cut leader of the public workers for the foreseeable future.

It may be uncomfortable for some, but there is a real possibility that the HGEA and its leader, Russell Okata, have taken over the Democratic Party. Let’s face it, the Legislature takes orders from the HGEA and their political platforms are identical.

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