Why No Urgency In Union Talks?

Larry Price
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Wednesday - August 12, 2009
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Last week must have been very stressful for public workers. The state delivered 1,100 written layoff notices to state employees, who were previously notified their positions could be eliminated as of Nov. 13 because of the budget deficit. The notices included information on seniority protection that allows senior workers to bump their junior staff members to keep their jobs, called, in negotiation language, the “Red Circle.”

In the same breath, the governor instructed her cabinet to begin identifying additional state employees who may be subject to a second round of layoffs because of the union’s seniority protections.

Last week a judge ruled that the furlough plans were illegal and had to be included in any collective bargaining agreement. It was a shock to the Lingle administration, because judges in California and New Jersey had ruled earlier in the year that governors had a right to furlough state employees if the budget shortfall warranted the action.

Imagine how confused some 900 union members must have felt when they learned they had been furloughed for three days per month, effective Sept. 1. The reason is they are considered “excluded” employees, which means generally that they are excluded from the collective bargaining contract because of their position. But, and this is the catch, “excluded” union members receive similar rights and benefits as their “included” counterparts through law, rules, policies and procedures.

It’s more confusing for the taxpayer. With all of these layoff notices floating around along with furlough notices, you would think there would be a great sense of urgency to seek a negotiated settlement as soon as possible.

But just the opposite is true. The governor is off to the national governor’s conference in Idaho followed by a short vacation.

Meanwhile, here in Hawaii, union negotiators have not met with state negotiators for two weeks, and no formal meetings were scheduled prior to the governor’s departure.

In the meantime, the HGEA and the UPW, which have arbitration rights, have scheduled arbitration hearings for early next month.

The obvious question would be, how can they be going to arbitration if they are not negotiating? According to Hawaii’s labor law, if a contract is not settled prior to Feb. 4 of the current year, then an impasse is automatically called. The reason is so that all contracts are negotiated while the Legislature is in session, and that way they don’t have to call a special session to fund a collective-bargaining agreement.

While all of this was going on, the Department of Taxation announced its latest actual dollars collected from taxes, and it was down - again. Where are we headed financially? Probably looking at an $800 million shortfall after the Council on Revenues announces its latest projection in a couple of weeks.

There is a lot of conflicting information, and none of it is designed to make the public workers feel any relief from the lack of urgency being demonstrated by both sides. To help add concern for the taxpayers, there is growing sentiment that if the powers-that-be can figure out a way to finish out this year, just maybe the economy will experience a revitalization and the revenue will start of flow again.

The idea of “hanging on” took a hit last week, as some legislators were suggesting they raid the Hurricane Fund of its $180 million, and the Rainy Day fund of its $70 million to stall the inevitable. Combined that would raise $250 million - still far short of the $780 million the government needs to cover the shortfall.

Why the lack of urgency? Part of the reason is the HGEA and UPW (unit 10) have binding arbitration in their agreements. They can wait as long as they want, hoping that the panel of arbitrations will side with their demands, and the governor, by law, has to submit it to the Legislature for funding - a risky gamble.That’s the main problem with binding arbitration: It doesn’t encourage either side to negotiate in good faith. Just leave it to the arbitrators, hoping they will split the difference.

What to expect? Look for someone in shining armor, probably one of the gubernatorial candidates, to ride in on a white horse to save the public employees.

It may sound comical, but it’s not. They are probably saddling the horse as you read this column. As soon as the public unions decide who they want for what elective office, the “White Horse” will gallop onto the scene.

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