BY EDDIE KIM – Negotiations between Hawaii’s teachers union and the state reached a new level of tension on Wednesday as legal counsel for both sides battled in front of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association has been bargaining with the state for several months, with negotiations made difficult by Hawaii’s dire budget concerns. In response to what the state defined as an “impasse” in collective bargaining, the government unilaterally imposed its “last, best and final”contract offer on the union.
The “last, best and final” contract most notably involved a 5 percent pay cut and a 50-50 split of healthcare costs between employees and employers – a ratio higher than before for workers.
HSTA opposed this decision, which it claims was a breach of “good faith” negotiation and unconstitutional by state law. The union soon filed a motion against the state to the Labor Relations Board on July 18, with the hopes of getting relief from the effects of implementation.
Herbert Takahashi, the legal representative of the HSTA, told Labor Relation board members that one of the most serious problems was the “integrity of the collective bargaining process”.
“The state had a predetermined position about what it wanted and acted on it,” Takahashi said. “That’s not collective bargaining. That’s coerced acceptance.”
Takahashi claimed the state made subtle “threats” in the negotiation process, with greater cuts to pay and benefits mentioned to union representatives.
“The HSTA was told ‘if you do not accept the 5% pay cut, 10% could be next,” he said.
Takahashi continued, stating that “[Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent] Kathryn Matayoshi told union negotiators that ‘if the [5% pay cut] and 50-50 healthcare benefit split is not accepted, over 800 employees could be laid off’.”
The HSTA also claims that collective bargaining was not, as the state says, at a true impasse and that the Abercrombie administration simply used it as a basis of implementing their bargaining goals.
Not surprising, the state disagrees.
Jim Halvorson represented the state at the Labor Relations hearing and told board members that the state was in an “unprecedented situation” with time ticking away.
“There is no money,” Halvorson said. “And that’s what it’s about. This is an issue of economic self-help. Apparently, Mr. Takahashi believes that you have to negotiate in a vacuum, without any consideration to the budget and time reality.”
According to Halvorson, bargaining tensions came to a head when all tentative agreements and plans were rejected by the HSTA’s board members.
“Everything has been rejected. All these months, all of the tentative agreements, all got thrown out. What is a better definition of an impasse?” he asked.
“It’s all about the money,” Halvorson reiterated. “We don’t have it. We have to find a way to make labor savings. Keeping the status quo would only exacerbate the [economic] situation.”
The decision of the hearing will depend on three primary factors, which will determine whether or not the HSTA receives relief from the state’s implementation of the “last, best and final” offer. First, the Labor Relations board must determine that the state’s actions have caused irreparable harm to the employees in some form. Second, the HSTA’s stance must have a “likelihood of prevailing”, or being justified and correct in the long term. Third, it must serve the public interest in some form.
It is uncertain when the HLRB will announce its decision.