Hawaii’s Public and Private Unions: The 4th Branch of Government?

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    Hawaii Democratic lawmakers, who hold all but 8 of 76 legislative seats, easily passed their bills this session calling for higher taxes, more business mandates and less freedom for individuals. They also overrode all of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle vetoes that she issued before the session ended April 29.

    But it wasn’t just Democrats who were victorious this year – public and private unions, which play major roles in getting the Democrats elected, also won huge victories for their leaders.


    In a speech last week, Senator Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, one of just two Republicans in the 25-member Hawaii State Senate, detailed the impact of the union power saying the unions “ran the session from day 1.”

    Historically, Hawaii has been a pro-Democrat, pro-Union state, but Slom says this Legislative session was the “worst year” for taxpayers, families with children in public school and small business owners, he says.

    “One of the most outrageous bills they passed was Senate Bill 2840, mandating that at least 80% of workers must be “local”. They introduced the bill in a large part because of an outcry from the Aloha Stadium contract, which a mainland company won. What the union forgot to mention was that the local union was not properly certified for the job,” Slom says.

    The “local jobs for local people” bill, as it has been dubbed, brings up constitutionality issues as to whether or not government contracts can be allocated strictly to certain types of workers, in this case, “local” workers. Critics say the wording of the bill also poses potential problems, as defining who exactly a “local resident” is could prove difficult. Jon Van Dyke, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law, defends the Constitutionality of the bill in testimony. “Laws giving preference to local residents for work funded by state taxpayers have been found to be constitutional… if they are substantially related to the important governmental role of reducing unemployment.”

    Other legal experts say the bill could potentially be disputed on 14th Amendment grounds as it mandates that a state may not hinder a person’s rights as a U.S. citizen. Concern among city officials and the General Contractors Association of Hawaii is heightened by fear the bill will increase project costs and cause delays in the system due to the administrative and legal issues it is sure to erect.

    Calls to Isaac Fiesta with the ILWU and the AFL-CIO were not returned.

    Slom, who spoke and voted against the 80 percent jobs bill by a vote of 23-2 on the Senate floor, questioned the real motives behind the bill. “If we are talking about jobs, it doesn’t take a task force to figure out why we are destroying jobs, look at taxes, fees, all the things which add costs to projects, public or private. All the costs have escalated. This is why we don’t have enough jobs for our local workers.”

    What About Hawaii’s Public School Children?

    In the House, there are just 6 Republicans of 51 members, including Rep. Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai). He also knows first hand about the powers of the unions- especially when it comes to public education. The Hawaii public schools are run by a combination of the Department of Education, the Board of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association union. But there are other public worker unions who work on campus. These unions band together to either get all the money they want to run the schools – or they shut them down as they did for 17 days recently for “Furlough Fridays” or no school days.

    Referring to the fact that the Hawaii State Teacher’s Association refused to cut back on costs, and work with the governor during tough economic times, Ward says: “This session shed light on the role of union in governments, which has never before been fully realized. Even though education was claimed to be a priority, our role as legislators to keep children in schools was abdicated to the will of the unions.”

    “The whole idea of Furlough Fridays was more money, not the keiki (children). The unions wanted more money, to the tune of $6 million a day. The governor decided the days were worth $5 million each, but worthy of note is that the Department of Education already gets $2.7 billion dollars a year for the least number of instructional days per year,” Slom says.

    The majority of lawmakers voted to raid $67 million from the Hurricane Relief Special Fund to restore the 17 Furlough Friday days already scheduled for next year, but that won’t solve the problem, says Linda Smith, the governor’s senior policy advisor who has been in negotiations with the other three parties.

    She says: “The opportunity to eliminate Furlough Fridays in the next school year has been made possible through the Legislature’s willingness to make available $67 million from the Hurricane Relief Fund for this purpose. These funds however do not address the elimination of the three remaining furlough days this school year. The opportunity to do so rests entirely with the Board of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Unfortunately the chairman of the Board of Education and the leaders of the teachers’ union are not willing to take even the first step that will allow children back into the classroom for the remainder of this school year and the next.”

    Governor Lingle, responding to teachers and principals who have expressed interest in ending furlough Fridays, said the DOE could consider returning to schools for the last three furlough days of this school year on a volunteer basis as “a welcome and significant gesture to heal our community.”

    Smith says: “We know however, that decisions can be made at each school to return on certain furlough days. Late last year parents, teachers and school administrators at 184 of the 256 public schools decided to eliminate one or more furlough days by giving up non-instructional days. We also know that 17 public charter schools voted against taking furloughs. These actions are commendable and demonstrate that teachers and school staff members are able to make decisions in the best interests of the children. Volunteering to provide three days of service on behalf of the children and tax payers of our state can make it possible to recover what will otherwise be lost educational days in the remaining time of this year. Rather than deride the Governor’s recommendation and continue their opposition toward reasonable, responsible and fiscally prudent solutions, the HSTA and BOE continue to fight the financial reality facing this state.”

    Union Power Play Impacts Services for the Needy

    Another bill that passed in favor of the unions blocks the Department of Human Services from laying off 228 union employees and installing call centers in their place. The purpose of the bill was to streamline the information process and make the welfare system more efficient.

    While the public unions cheered the defeat of this plan, Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Lillian Koller says the State Legislature has effectively blocked an innovative and cost-saving initiative to modernize the processing of applications and renewals for Medicaid, welfare, nutrition benefits and other forms of public assistance and save the state $8 million.

    Koller explained that by overriding Lingle’s veto of a bill to stop DHS from implementing the statewide Eligibility Processing Operations Division (EPOD), the Legislature has guaranteed that the current backlog of applications will grow substantially in the coming months.

    Koller says that the Hawaii Government Employees Association staunchly opposed any layoffs of union workers and joined with Representative John Mizuno and other legislators in conducting a statewide push to discredit the EPOD proposal.

    “Their misinformation campaign made an impact – they even managed to convince some people that applying for benefits over the phone is scary. That’s outrageous,” Koller said. “State government should have acted boldly to address the mounting demand for health care, food and other vital public assistance. Unfortunately, the Legislature put the interests of union workers above the needs of Hawaii’s most vulnerable children and adults. That is directly contrary to our mission at DHS.”

    Reach Frances Nuar, capitol reporter for Hawaii Reporter, at mailto:frances.nuar@gmail.com