Where’s Urgency In Union Talks?

Larry Price
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Wednesday - September 23, 2009
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There was an air of depression in the sky last week, with no sign of clearing up. It began when furlough days for 900 non-union state employees went into effect.

The governor ordered the three-days-per-month furloughs to help deal with the state’s budget deficit. She had planned to furlough union employees as well, but the state and its labor unions - HGEA, UPW, UHPA and HSTA - have not yet reached new contract deals. There was one glimmer of hope as the HSTA board had accepted their negotiating team’s latest proposal, which included furloughs for HSTA members. If the governor accepts, relief is a employee ratification vote away. (On Friday a deal was reached as MidWeek went to press.)

Like a weary, punch-drunk prize fighter, the public immediately wondered collectively if the other public unions would follow their lead. The answer, as we explained before, is no, because of the way the law is written. The administration is negotiating with a moving target and each union has its own criteria before acceptance can be achieved.


It’s important to note that the state’s collective bargaining law is written so that it makes it easier for the state to deal with the HSTA and UHPA for two reasons. First, neither has binding arbitration, so they have more of an incentive to settle. Second, both the HGEA and UPW’s Unit have binding arbitration which is a dis-incentive to not settle.

So why is the UPW’s Unit deal so difficult to get resolved?

This is another difference between HSTA/UHPA and HGEA/UPW. In order for any governor to even submit an “employer” offer to the UPW or HGEA, they must get one of the mayors to go along with the settlement. The mayor’s vote is not needed for an HSTA/UHPA deal. In their case, the governor can make a deal by having either the UH president or DOE superintendent or the Board of Regents or the Board of Education agree and it’s a done deal.

So you can see the problem for the state negotiators. If you have mayors who are all running for office themselves and need union support to get elected, as they all do, and their budgets are already balanced for the Fiscal 2010, they have no incentive to be part of a tough offer to unions.

The one group that is making out in this whole process is the arbitrators. They are going to get paid, from both sides, no matter how they rule or how long it takes. Imagine this: highly qualified state witnesses spent the better part of four days explaining why the state had no revenue for any increases in wages and benefits. It would be a good bet that just about any ordinary taxpayer could give a clear and convincing presentation why the state is sporting such a huge deficit - without ever talking about the national economic situation.

One of the arbitrators had to take a leave of absence from the hearings to attend to other business and won’t be back until Oct. 1. There is simply no urgency except for the people who have just began negotiating their furloughs with their immediate supervisors and employees who are about to begin the REF (Reduction in Force) process, which leads to “bumping,” and more heartache and anxiety for government workers.

There is also little question that Hawaii collective bargaining laws need to be upgraded in the next legislative session.

In the meantime, would-n’t it be nice if all parties chose to pick up the pace of the negotiations?

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